Friday, July 25, 2014

Tax Exemption!

One of the biggest steps for a nonprofit is applying to the IRS for tax exempt status. While not paying income tax is important, more important is the status of being an exempt organization. It is a symbol to potential donors that you are recognized by the IRS, and it brings legitimacy to your cause as a charity. The 1023 application for recognition as a tax exempt organization is extremely difficult. It took me hundreds of hours, because in order to answer the questions on the form you have to have made hundreds of policy decisions. What type of charity will you be? (We are a 509(a)(2), which is a service-based organization.) What type of charitable activities do you do, will do, might do, could possible consider doing while having a dream one night? What kind of fundraising and how often will you do it? Who are your board members? How much do you pay your officers?

It's a nightmare.

Once it was done, we heard from a friend who had recently gotten her determination letter (approval from the IRS) that it had taken 18 months.

So we assumed it would be awhile. We got our letter only 6 months after we applied. We are tax exempt!

We are officially a recognized 501(c)(3) charity, and it is retroactive to our date of incorporation. Microsoft and Adobe are giving us free software under their charitable giving programs, and our website host is also now covering our website. Other organizations are now helping market our services.

A single piece of paper, and the weight on my shoulders has been significantly reduced. Before our letter came, we were pretty sure that we would be approved and everything would be fine. But of course, we worried. Other states asking us for help building their own similar organizations were told repeatedly, "we are not approved yet, we are not experts, it's an experiment" because we were not 100% sure we had done everything correctly. Who were we to tell people how to do this?

Apparently we did things right, and now we can tell everyone about our experience and the revolution can continue to grow!

Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Other Public Defender

We are struggling at Open Legal Services to get the word out about our criminal defense services. It's frustrating because that is what I want to do. I do not enjoy family law and I know that a lot of people cannot afford private criminal attorneys so I want to help. Since we charge based on income most of my criminal cases are usually only a few hundred dollars.

So how to get the word out?

In Salt Lake County, the public defender association is large and very good at what they do. But when a defendant doesn't qualify, the courts really can't refer them to specific private attorneys, and the defendant ends up finding someone they cannot afford on Google.

We consider ourselves the other public defenders. Since as we are a nonprofit the courts are in fact allowed to refer to us. It has become about educating judges, which is tricky. Many have enthusiastically begun referring family law litigants to us, but not criminal.

We had lunch with a friend the other day whose partner is on the city council (or used to be, I'm not sure since I am a bad citizen who doesn't follow local politics much). He suggested we get the municipal courts to refer by getting mayors and city councils to approve us officially. He is going to help us get some meetings.

We are on our way, but it's frustrating. I was sitting in court just the other day when a judge was telling a defendant his income was too high to qualify for a public defender. Ethical rules prohibited me from approaching him. It was so frustrating and heartbreaking.

How can we change the thinking from public defender and pricey private attorney being the only options (other than defending yourself)?

We have tried to help educate defendants on their options, by creating and doing some radio spots, but we need more.


Friday, April 18, 2014

Growth and Growing Pains

This little company of ours is starting to take off. We are nearly at capacity for clients, with about 40 active cases each. That is a whole mess of cases. Most are family law though, so the work comes in bursts with nothing happening for large gaps of time. We hired a paralegal part time, and that is helping a lot. We are looking at hiring a third attorney. Our intern is very concerned with growth, and growing too fast.

We are getting noticed by the ABA, the Washington State Bar, the Colorado Supreme Court, and local firms who want to help us grow. How fast is too fast? We worry about opening the floodgates and having to turn people away. We worry about accepting more than we can handle and failing to provide competent representation. It's a tricky balance, but it's not a bad problem to have.

The entire mission of our nonprofit is to help those who have nowhere else to go. The fact that other nonprofits are starting to form in other states and we are being contacted for advice on how to build a model like ours is, well, flattering and not at all upsetting. We didn't do this to be innovative for innovation's sake. We did it to help the "doughnut hole" population that can't pay for a private attorney and doesn't qualify for pro bono. If other firms start up and do what we are doing, so much the better. If I went out of business because everyone could find an attorney they can afford, I would be absolutely thrilled.

Work/life balance is starting to present some challenges for me. In the beginning, my husband was so supportive and basically raised our daughter while I worked insane hours. He is still doing that, and is so selfless about it. The issue is me. I want to keep working. I want to stay at the office. I like what I am doing and I am such a control freak that I want to be the one who does everything. Learning to delegate to our paralegal is KILLING me. I should get a book on how to have an assistant. My partner needs her way more than I do, so that helps a bit. I delegate important tasks but manage my own calendar. Dan's clients call frequently, because they are family law and many of them have very dramatic cases. So they need to talk more, and it's great that Heather is there to get their calls and screen them to determine if they really need to speak to their attorney or if it's something she can handle.

My clients almost never call. They know that I will call them if I need them, and that I am on top of things. With criminal cases, you just do so much in court that you don't need to talk a lot. It's a waste of time and money, when you are waiting for pre-sentence reports or rulings on motions, to call your lawyer to just chat. It doesn't do any good, and I make sure my clients know that. I am of course always there if they need me, but I try to reinforce boundaries. I am not a social worker, and my personality is such that while I am compassionate I am also sort of nuts and bolts.

My partner, however, is so caring and kind. His clients will call him to talk about anxiety over their case and he talks them through it. He is glad to do it. I think that makes him an excellent family law attorney. Myself, I do not enjoy family law. Criminal law is largely about math. The evidence weighed against the defense's theory of the case. The odds of success. Statistics for recidivism. I love it. It's heartless and emotional at the same time, which is very odd. And for some reason, I fit right in there.

So I am trying to remember I have a family at home that needs me, but it is hard when I have this six month old baby (the company) that needs my constant attention. Most nights I get home about 6:30, and I don't go in until 9am. It's not so bad, but I am working weekends a lot and working remotely in the middle of the night when I have a filing due. It's challenging to keep myself emotionally at home with Brian and Abby when I am stressing over tasks to be done at the office.

In the next few weeks, we will be doing some things with the media and are working on publishing an article in the bar journal. We have a board meeting coming up in June, and right now we know that they are going to be very happy with what they see. We just have to keep the growth to a gradual, manageable rate and I think we will be fine.

As for me, I am going to put "Play Barbies" on my calendar more often.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Starting a Revolution Part II

Being an employer is hard. Really hard. I had no idea when I started my nonprofit that you have to do things like pay payroll taxes. Pay for worker's compensation insurance. Pay for...well everything. I am surprised someone as thoughtful (right? I CAN be thoughtful) as me didn't realize how much my former employers shelled out so I could make a living. It's a LOT.

Last weekend our little project had a huge boost. We attended the state bar convention, where I spoke on a panel. I talked about my experience graduating and not finding a job. I talked about the low bono movement (AKA "The Revolution"). I talked about making my own path and blowing off On Campus Interviews or "OCI" in favor of more practical training like avoiding Law School Pizza or "LSP".

As I ranted about unattainable overhead costs, inflated legal fees, and the modest means/aka low bono market, I saw people physically lean forward to listen to me. I even raised my fist in triumph, causing the audience to erupt in laughter. My partner and best friend sat in the front row and took photos. He was very proud and supportive. What happened next was even better.

The keynote speaker, someone who I believe to be downright prescient in his predictions about the legal market and highly in tune, asked me for MY card. It was swell. Then the bar president chatted me up for a while. The co-chair of the bar committee which deals with the low bono market asked me to have a drink and talk about my future plans. A big firm lawyer started talking about how others he mentors will do what I did (only as a solo and not a nonprofit) and then get offers from firms once they have had 3-5 years experience and because of the disappearing partner track he is advising them to TURN IT DOWN.

Many many people at the convention wanted to set up referrals and get brochures and have us speak on more panels and perhaps teach a CLE. There is momentum going on.

Viva la revolucion!

That said, being a boss sucks. We have to pay quarterly taxes in April and I would so much be doing a suppression hearing than dealing with that. With any luck, we will have someone else handling all that nonsense next year. We are growing, and things are going well, and that is what matters. Plus I am very grateful to myself for being a good boss and paying for things like worker's comp!

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Prisoner's Dilemma

A couple of years ago I got involved in a high profile murder trial. The murder happened in a city where economic disparity, racism, and religious tension run high. The prosecutor had been through a political firestorm due to several other high profile cases that had been horribly investigated and claims of corruption rang throughout the trials. The news in this city is awful, with a murder on nearly every night. When my client's loved one was killed, similar crimes had been occurring in the area. There was no physical evidence tying my client to the crime, and the "motive" the officers attributed to the defendant was thin at best. I spent a year prepping for the trial, helping catalog over 30,000 pages of discovery. I went out there for the trial, but had to come back for my law school graduation. I watched the verdict via a live feed.

It was a hung jury. I was devastated but it was better than a conviction. You see, my client is innocent. I feel it in every fiber of my being. I see the facts. I see the evidence (or lack thereof), and I see the tricks and manipulations of those involved in both the investigation and the prosecution. They immediately committed to re-try the case. Now, it's been a year, and the second trial is due to start.

Everyone is tired, including my client, who has been in custody since 2010. Waiting. Hearing the voice of a child, who barely remembers the time when the family was whole, growing up on the other side of the country with grandparents who try to keep hope alive.

The last hung jury case in the jurisdiction (also totally based on circumstantial evidence) ended in a conviction the second time around. The judge in our first trial let in horrifically tainted evidence. He refused to grant a mistrial despite a Brady violation so prejudicial and so game-changing, that the entire theory of the case changed overnight. While there is a new judge this time around, I have been up nights wondering if this new trial will be any less corrupt. I am not optimistic.

If you haven't heard the term, the prisoner's dilemma is related to an innocent person being forced to make the choice of whether to admit to something he or she did not do, in order to get out of prison. Parolees are required to own up to their crimes, show they've been rehabilitated while incarcerated, and commit to being better people on the outside. How can an innocent person do this? If they admit to the crime, they lose their innocence forever and the world will always consider them guilty. If they don't, they are not eligible for parole in almost all cases. For sex-related crimes, required treatment programs can never be completed because if you don't admit you have a problem, and you are denied participation.

How can you choose to save your life by admitting to a crime you did not commit in order to get out (or avoid the death penalty)? What can you do then to save your soul?

So the prisoner's dilemma is waiting, hoping that someone will come along with the proof you need to be exonerated. Many wait forever, or die waiting. Many are executed and then later proved innocent.

With the new trial starting next week, I am certain that my client is considering these same options, facing this same dilemma. It might not be too late to put the family back together. To teach the child to drive a car. To see the child graduate high school. Get married. Have grandchildren.

If you look only at the math, it seems like an easy choice. Get home. Get safe. But what will the cost of this choice be? Forever labeled a felon. A killer. And no one will ever look for the person who actually tore the family apart in the first place. Case closed.

I may never sleep again.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Starting a Revolution Part I

I hope it isn't too boring, but if I am going to start blogging regularly again I need to talk about my company. As I love to say, throwing my fist triumphantly into the air, "I am starting a revolution!" Not long ago, I was a poor kid growing up in predominantly Mormon Utah. This led to awkward exchanges with friends and classmates, for all sorts of reasons. I didn't have the nice clothes kids around me had. I didn't go to church. I smelled vaguely (if not strongly at times) of my parents' cigarette smoke. We drove crappy cars and couldn't afford a hot school lunch most of the time. I noted longingly that other kids either had money for these things, or had something called a "waiver" so they could get school lunches for free.

I never seemed to qualify for these free lunches, or if I did it would last only one year and then the next I'd be back to pressed ham slab sandwiches. I still hate cold ham to this day, thanks a lot, Sam's Club. Or macaroni and cheese. Or boiled hot dogs. Or Spam. We were broke, and kids were cruel about it at times. Orem, Utah is a fairly affluent little town, with McMansions on the hillside and everything. My parents were construction workers who built those houses. To earn pocket money growing up, I would go and collect bits of drywall as they were measured and cut and tossed onto the floor, or sweep up the endless white powder of drywall dust. While I worked, I dreamed of living in houses like that.

There are days I look around this tiny 900 square foot apartment and wonder when that day might come. But most days I think to myself how lucky I am, because others in my family have not been as lucky as me. Part of being poor is being tangled up in the law, and drugs, and alcohol, and dropping out of school. I decided a long, long time ago that it wouldn't be that way for me. My decision to forgo smoking weed and blowing off school cost me friendships that meant a lot to me. I didn't care enough to give in to peer pressure, though it did hurt to be excluded and even sometimes taunted about being a goody two shoes. Those decisions are why I got to go to college, law school, and why I do not bear the burden of a criminal record like so many of those I once knew.

When I was dealing with all of this as a child and then young adult, I kept thinking to myself how if we just had a little more money our life would be so different. The rich kids were certainly into some illegal activity, and they blew off school all the time, yet I didn't see them getting pulled over every week by the cops. I didn't see their parties being busted up and parents called. No one stopped the kid in the Letterman's jacket for walking down the street after curfew as far as I could see. Yet me and my friends on the west side of town were endlessly harassed. I was on the honor roll, but I still couldn't drive from South Orem to North Orem without being tailed by police. Perhaps it was my rusty 1980 Crown Victoria. Perhaps it was my blinker that blinked right when you indicated left, and vice versa.

I said that someday I would find a way to make a difference for people like me, and I think I finally have. After I got admitted to the bar in October, my friend and classmate and I decided to start a new kind of law firm. Something that has only been created in a couple places in the country. It's a nonprofit, and it's a law firm. A strange hybrid of the legal aid types of organizations and small private firms. We do not do pro bono work. We do low bono, offering legal services based on income. We cover 125% to 400% of poverty. We have a sliding scale that ranges from $50 an hour up to $135. We keep our overhead very very low, which means we keep client's fees as cheap as possible. We are 100% funded by our clients who pay us about 10 billable hours up front when they hire us. We do everything in our power to keep billables down for clients, by offering limited representation and ghost writing for clients who cannot replenish their trust accounts.

I am starting a revolution. Other attorneys are taking note. I am speaking at the spring bar convention with the deans of both Utah law schools (Utah and BYU). I am talking at panels and writing bar journal articles. Big firms are referring people to us, and so are the other nonprofits like Utah Legal Services and Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake. Attorneys who have heard forever about "modest means" and "low bono" and the "disappearing middle class" are seeing us actually DO something about legal services being priced out of most people's means to pay.

Most grant resources go to about 10% of the population, those who are indigent and need pro bono representation. Our nonprofit covers 53% of Utah families. Before November, they had nowhere to go, because they do not qualify for free help but can't pay the (on average) $225 an hour most divorce attorneys charge. Many criminal defendants had no choice if they did not qualify for a public defender, because private attorneys mostly charge flat fees up front. It's between $1500 and $4000 for a misdemeanor. I could not afford this if I needed an attorney, and almost all of my friends are attorneys. That is saying something.

Attorneys have built their companies just like those before them. High overhead, high student loans, high expectations. This means you must charge high hourly rates. You have to charge the client in order to have a receptionist, a paralegal, a file clerk, a window washer, a shoe polisher. For years, no one thought there was any other way to practice law. A guy in Minnesota started a similar thing years ago, and he has been kicking ass doing it. He was kind enough to give us some advice. The first thing he said was "you won't need to advertise." So far, he has been right. There is a HUGE need, but until the Old Guard stops doing things the Old Way, no one will be able to do what we are doing.

I am starting a revolution. Who wants to join me?