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?


  1. How exciting! It must feel great to serve people who need you so desperately. I feel like I have been in that middle range (or lower, actually) for so much of my life. It is so frustrating, and I am glad people in your area now have an option for help.

    Very nice of Mr. Minnesota to share his experience/knowledge with you, too.

    Keep up the good work and glad to see you back here!

    Kate @ BJJ, Law, and Living

  2. oh my dear Shan I know how hard it was for you, and our family as great as it is doesn't have a great track record for success not for lack of trying. I am so thrilled for everything you have done. I remember the countless summers in your parents yard because we couldn't afford to do anything. And the countless walks to the bus stop. I'm proud of you for rising up above all the challenges, and I knew you would. Keep up the good work I love you!