The vast middle class is a neglected market for legal services.
It isn't that middle-income people don't have legal problems. They have them, all right, it's just that it's often impossible to find an affordable lawyer to help solve them. But hiring a lawyer isn't the only answer.
You can try to resolve your dispute by using a community-based dispute-resolution center.
You can read self-help law books that help guide you through the legal maze of court rules and administrative regulations.
You can join a prepaid legal assistance program and get unlimited telephone consultation with a lawyer.
You can retain an independent paralegal to help you fill out court forms.
You can try to convince a lawyer to review a legal form you've filled out, so you'll be charged just for his or her advice, rather than the preparation of the documents. (Good luck. It will be hard to find such a lawyer.)
Greasing the Wheels
You can call on government agencies or your local elected official to intervene and "grease the wheels" of an unresponsive bureaucracy.
You can call Tel-Law and hear recorded summaries of legal issues. (The Orange County and Pasadena Bar associations offer some Tel-Law tapes, but the San Bernardino-Riverside County Bar Assn. is the center of Tel-Law activity. Call (714) 824-2300. There is no charge for the service, but you must pay for any long-distance charge.)
Finally, the legal establishment is beginning to realize the importance of making these and more traditional legal services available to the middle class. In fact, many of these options are discussed in a new report by the State Bar of California on "Access to Legal Services for Middle Income People." The report urges lawyers to develop new ways to approach middle class clients, and calls for more legal education focused on mediation and dispute-resolution methods.
In announcing the release of the report, Jack W. Londen, a San Francisco attorney and chair-elect of the Bar's Legal Services Section, explained the problem:
"People in the middle-income bracket face a difficult situation. On the one hand, they are not eligible for government-subsidized or other free legal services. On the other hand, they are unable to pay the going rate for lawyers to handle serious legal problems."
The report, which is based on two conferences sponsored by the State Bar, is part of an effort to help educate consumers about their options. The State Bar is releasing this report and other educational material about affordable legal resources, including:
--A brochure on group, prepaid and insured legal plans. Available free.
--A manual about how to organize a successful lawyer referral service. Free to bar associations or groups of attorneys interested in starting one.
--The report itself, which summarizes the problem and discusses ways in which lawyers can expand services to the middle class. Free, but supply is limited.
--A directory of dispute-resolution programs and resources in California. $10.
(Send requests for any of these materials to Program Development Staff, Office of Legal Services, State Bar of California, 555 Franklin St., San Francisco, Calif. 94102.)
As State Bar President Terry Anderlini told one of the conferences earlier this year: "Far too many people are just afraid of lawyers. They think that what we're going to charge them is worse than the illness they're suffering from. They believe that the illness is less severe than the remedy."
And lawyers face a difficult task in overcoming that perception. Making this sort of consumer-oriented information available is a step in the right direction.
Attorney Jeffrey S. Klein cannot answer mail personally but will respond in this column to questions of general interest about the law. Do not telephone. Write to Jeffrey S. Klein, Legal View, The Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.