Lawyers for the working poor

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Virginia Robinson is passionate about empowering the working poor. So passionate, in fact, that she’s set up an unusual not-for-profit law firm to serve them. But she needs help.

Yes, nonprofit law, and no, this isn’t Legal Aid. Contrary to popular belief, the state’s nonprofit Legal Aid program can only serve a narrow set of indigent clients; many low-income people with pressing legal problems don’t qualify. Nor does Attorneys Northwest wish to compete with Legal Aid for grants.

Most people who can’t afford average hourly attorney fees — which often top $200 per hour — don’t qualify for Legal Aid. That leaves a big gap of working “poor.” A 2013 University of Idaho study found more than 775,000 Idahoans who face civil legal difficulties can’t afford an attorney. In 2012, 58 percent of Idaho civil cases included a pro se (self-represented) litigant.

Robinson says this means a lot of average-income folks who can’t afford legal help effectively don’t have equal access to justice.

“These are people supporting a family on $15 an hour,” said Robinson. “Particularly in Idaho, we have more minimum wage workers than in any state except Tennessee. When they have a legal problem, what happens to them?”

That’s where Attorneys Northwest comes in. Robinson is a second-career attorney who entered law school at 46, after working in accounting and publishing. Her daughter, Kate Olivier, is a trained paralegal whose degree emphasizes nonprofit organizations. Both were increasingly concerned about what they saw as a deprivation of basic rights to a large group of Americans.

So two years ago, they started this firm offering income-based, graduated fees, recently achieving nonprofit tax status. A similar private, nonprofit firm, but with a more limited range of practice areas, exists in Utah. Robinson has found only three more in the entire country.

Many, if not most, Idaho lawyers occasionally take pro bono or reduced-fee cases. But with law office overhead, staff expense, malpractice insurance (now required by the Idaho Bar Association), plus school loans commonly costing around $500 a month, they can’t come close to covering community needs.

This firm hires lawyers with experience in a variety of practice areas. They do charge professional fees, but at a reduced rate, based on three income tiers as a percentage of the federal poverty rate. In short, they want clients who can’t afford other lawyers.

Robinson said the working poor have the same legal needs as everyone else.

“It just seemed unfair that if you lack the funds to hire experienced counsel, you can lose your kids, your business, your property, your life’s work. You can lose everything. Our fees may still sting, but your legal problems shouldn’t bankrupt you.”

She cited the example of a couple desperate to protect their children, who were removed from an abusive mother. The same mother has now sued in civil court for custody, and has funds to hire an expert lawyer. This couple has only $600 in savings; she works three part-time jobs; he works full-time for $15 an hour. Legal Aid (for whom Attorneys Northwest also does some contract work) is unable to help.

“How do we turn our backs on them because of inability to pay?” asks Robinson. “But then how do I pay my staff who are also supporting families? Many, many of our cases are like this. Without funding, we cannot meet these needs.”

Another example is an elderly lady living on Social Security who has a trailer she rents for extra income. The tenant does drugs or refuses to pay rent, and won’t leave. Who will take that case? How can she afford it?

Their four attorneys cover almost everything, from small businesses, nonprofit law, and civil litigation, to guardianships, probate, criminal, and family law. Attorneys Northwest has no shortage of such limited-fund clients, but they are having trouble meeting the demand.

“I funded this for the first year; I covered the payroll. My daughter and I didn’t get a paycheck. We really wanted to make this work.”

That self-funding couldn’t last forever, and without an infusion of donors to support their growing working-poor clientele, the firm may not either. Beyond needing to pay staff, the firm’s family law attorney suddenly died, so they have an immediate need for expert help in a very important area of law.

“This nonprofit business model is sustainable, but now we need funding to make it work,” she said.

Why don’t the fees they charge cover it?

“I can’t hire experienced counsel — who still work for less than they would elsewhere — and cover the overhead,” replied Robinson, “In the end, many of our clients can’t pay all the fees we earn.”

“Our future goal is to be able to charge $75 an hour, but I don’t want Attorneys Northwest to operate only as a clinic for training new attorneys on the job. The working poor are entitled to adequate representation, otherwise their rights are prejudiced.”

Raising funds for this cause is a challenge. Robinson says people don’t want to give money to a law firm because they erroneously assume all lawyers have a lot of money, or that civil legal assistance for the working poor is readily available.

“This is a serious need,” she said. “It’s about equal access to justice in a democracy, and the disparity between haves and have-nots is growing, especially in this area.”

To help with a tax-deductible donation, or for more information, contact Virginia Robinson at Attorneysnw.com.

•••

Sholeh Patrick, J.D. is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Contact her at Sholeh@cdapress.com.

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