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LEGAL CENTS: A niche practice with heart

Jane Pribek is a former family law attorney and Wisconsin Law Journal’s editor-at-large. She can be reached at jpribek@bellsouth.net.

If you’re looking for a niche practice, my sincere hope is you’ll consider the one taken on by Minneapolis attorney Emily Cooper.

Cooper’s niche is low-income: She bills every client on a sliding, income-based scale. I repeat: She does this for every client.

There are many reasons to reach out to this demographic.

For starters, there’s a huge unmet need. Cooper, a former legal services attorney, explained that even the majority of people who meet the indigent standards are not offered full representation. Strained to their financial limits, legal services can offer many clients only unbundled advice.

And then there are those who make just a little too much money, such as the single parent earning $20,000 annually while supporting three children.

Additionally, per Cooper, a family lawyer, the stakes in her cases are high. And income levels shouldn’t have any bearing on the availability of justice.

“I just don’t think it’s acceptable,” she said, “that we as a legal community should say, ‘Just because you don’t make a lot of money, your kids aren’t as important to you as someone who makes $1 million per year.’”

Madison lawyer Lauri Roman of Haus, Roman and Banks LLP offers a sliding scale for mediation, because she’s passionate about alternative dispute resolution. She noted that some collaborative family law practitioners are looking at this, or already offer a variation of it, because they believe so strongly in it, as well.

Chippewa Falls attorney Thomas Burton of the Law Office of Thomas B. Burton also offers sliding-scale fees to his eligible estate-planning clients. He sees it as his contribution toward realizing a civil Gideon.

And Minneapolis lawyer Mark Carter said a sliding scale is just a natural extension of fulfilling the ethical obligation of pro bono publico. Carter has been on his state bar’s Volunteer Lawyer Network board for more than 30 years, so he takes it pretty seriously.

Offering a sliding scale means you’ll be busy. Burton, for example, said advertising that on his website has definitely increased traffic to that particular page.

“I have to work harder than probably most other attorneys to make ends meet,” Cooper said. “It’s more stressful than for attorneys who work for higher-paying clients; for every two hours they work, I’m working eight.”

Yet, it’s possible to offer a sliding scale while meeting overhead and buying groceries, agreed those who do.

For Burton, working virtually makes it possible. He also limits the sliding scale work to discrete projects; he’s not a litigator. Plus, he requires an upfront payment of half the anticipated total fee, so he would never get stiffed entirely.

“You should assume that any client is going to stiff you,” Cooper said. “As an attorney, it’s your responsibility to take the steps necessary to make sure you’re not going to get stiffed, and to value yourself in such a manner that you’re not going to accept that kind of behavior from your clients.”

She added that her experience makes the sliding scale workable. By the time she hung her shingle, she already knew how to practice law so clients don’t pay her to learn how to draft a motion or try a case.

And, of course, an attorney offering a sliding scale should expect a few people to ask for it who can afford the market rate.

Carter said he simply explains to them that paying for an attorney will mean sacrificing other things. If the prospective client argues, that’s a red flag that this is a client he doesn’t want anyway.

“I like to think the ones who pay the full rate still can feel good that their lawyer is able to help others,” Burton said, “instead of feeling like, ‘Why am I paying more?’”

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