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How About a Lawyer With That Espresso?

April 21, 1996|IRENE LACHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At Jeffrey Hughes' new coffeehouse in Santa Monica, a spot of Sumatra goes for 85 cents.

Oh, yes. And a living trust costs $500.

The Legal Grind on Lincoln Boulevard may feature prosaic fare: the brew that wakes up millions as well as your daily bread--bagels, to be specific. But it doesn't have an everyday menu board. Hughes serves up legal information and prices for his services along with Mango Tango juice and four-grain bagels. And Hughes' eclectic carte du jour is his equivalent of General Motors' fair-value pricing--instead of dickering over dollars, he antes up the bottom line.

"Lawyers can be very evasive" about fees, says Hughes, 30. "You can't pin them down. You don't know how much you're going to be charged. The time is ticking and you're paying. Who isn't anxious when that happens?"

Some would-be clients get nervous at the thought of dropping $200 an hour to confront their legal woes with a professional. Some don't bother and hope for the best.

The Legal Grind is designed to ease their pain.

"The coffeehouse makes law more palatable," Hughes says.

While you're sipping, you can thumb through a law dictionary thoughtfully provided on one table. Or sift through how-to books for sale dealing with legal conundrums from child custody to green cards to fighting tickets.

Rory Marcus dropped by to thumb through books and chat with Hughes after finding a Legal Grind flier on her windshield.

"Legal services are very, very expensive," says the Santa Monica screenwriter. "So the more you know yourself, the more you can do yourself, and that empowers you."

But not all is dense and dour reading matter at the Legal Grind. One paperback, jauntily titled "29 Reasons Not to Go to Law School" (Nolo Press, 1982) illustrates what happens pre- and post-school.

"Before law school, a human being has compassion, intelligence, ego, love and mirth," Hughes reads. "After law school, most of those qualities have disappeared, and now the lawyer has ambition, ego, compulsive inclination and a competitive nature."

Yikes.

Hughes was never one to toe the corporate line. "I never saw myself working in a big law firm," he says. "Never. Never. That never felt comfortable to me."

He grew up in Orange County, studied communications and business at UCLA and trained to be a business banking officer for Wells Fargo--but the fit was bad. "I was working in the same building eight hours a day, just stuck in somebody else's building, and I was stifled there," he says.

Hughes decided to try law school and enrolled at Loyola University. His first year was grueling, and his law school friends were like-minded, reluctant to be pure, unadulterated attorneys--one is also a comedian, another a writer.

"We've all found our niches," Hughes says. "We're finding our individuality in the profession, which is hard to do, but if you look deep enough you can find it. I just don't like to study law eight hours a day and write, which is what lawyers do."

Making lattes, however, is something else. And the idea for the Legal Grind percolated after Hughes began working in construction with his brother, Michael. He had drifted through construction and freelance legal work after graduating in '92, tending to health problems and traveling in Europe.

"I love to help people, and I'm also an educator at heart. I finally realized that I could teach people about law and how to find access to the law. So all my passions have kind of come together. I do have an interest in the law. I just can't do it eight hours a day and that's OK. There's a lot of pressure on law students to practice law."

The Legal Grind is a way for Hughes, who has passed the state bar examinations in California and Colorado, to practice law--and avoid practicing law. He answers questions about estate planning, landlord / tenant problems, family law matters and small-fry criminal counts. Sometimes he does research for a fee, and sometimes he refers people if their problems can't be dealt with simply.

One thing he says he doesn't do is give advice--just information. To avoid his own legal problems, he says he doesn't serve up attorney-client privilege along with the French roast. "People would try to drag me into their affairs when things would sour."

The Legal Grind isn't certified by the State Bar of California to operate as a lawyer-referral service, but a bar representative says the group couldn't determine whether the Legal Grind needed to be certified without investigating.

*

Meanwhile, Hughes goes about the knotty business of making law seem, if not simple, at least compatible with English. Above the cappuccino machine, Hughes posted a blackboard where he defines such basic terms as "prenuptial agreement" and "consortium" under the heading "Legal-ease."

And he counsels customers, such as the one who skipped a court appearance for a speeding ticket because of a nervous breakdown. Hughes suggested she show paperwork documenting her health problems to the judge.

Another customer threw a stapler at an airline employee after she was bumped off a flight for the third time. The employee made a citizen's arrest. And Hughes, chastening her that "that's not acceptable behavior in our society," suggested she seek counseling and demonstrate her good-faith effort to the judge.

"It is my goal to have a Legal Grind in every city in the United States," he says. "Every city can use one."

Until then, Hughes will help out people like Bill Hannon, a construction contractor who knocked an inaccurate collection off his credit report after a trip to Legal Grind. Hannon says he's happy with his investment of time there. "It was no big deal, but if I had gone to my attorney," Hannon says, "it would have cost me about $150 to sit down and talk to him for a half an hour."

And this set you back how much?

"A cup of coffee."

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