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Another sign of tough times: legal aid for the middle class

Among the resources available to the newly cash-strapped are online services, self-help centers and lawyers who offer group rates.

March 10, 2009|Carol J. Williams

Richard Massey's suburban Anaheim home was valued at $700,000 two years ago when the bills for his cancer surgery came due and he had to tap the equity to pay them.

The cosmetics company executive had lost his job and health insurance just before getting ill -- the start of a run of bad luck that accelerated with the real estate meltdown and has left the 50-year-old and his disabled wife facing eviction from their foreclosed home.

Long comfortably ensconced in the proud community of the self-reliant, Massey was unaware that free or low-cost legal help is available for the mounting middle-class casualties of the recession.

Had he known about the online guidance, legal self-help centers or community lawyers offering their services at group rates, he might have avoided being scammed by a fraudulent foreclosure rescue business that took his last borrowed money.

As millions of Americans live through their own nightmare versions of "Trading Places," they are being confronted with legal problems compounding their fallen fortunes. An estimated 60% of Americans find themselves in the gap between those poor enough to qualify for publicly funded Legal Aid and those wealthy enough to afford an uptown lawyer.

Fortunately for the newly downgraded, the access-to-justice movement has advanced in recent years from Skid Row to Main Street.

At storefront law offices like Santa Monica's LegalGrind, a cafe-legal clearinghouse, those facing court dates to deal with divorce, custody matters, driving offenses and debt can find out for $45 how best to tackle their problems without plunking down a $5,000 retainer and $400 an hour for a lawyer.

Bar associations in California and a dozen other states, meanwhile, have whittled away at the ethics rules and industry mind-set that used to discourage attorneys from taking clients on a "limited scope" basis. This involves representing them on specific aspects without taking responsibility -- and charging fees -- for the client's full range of legal problems.

In every county of California, court documents and tutorials for completing them are available online. If citizens prepare their paperwork properly, overwhelmed judges can keep their daily crush of cases flowing more smoothly.

Efforts to marry do-it-yourself legal software and free or low-cost guidebooks with just the right degree of paid counsel are being spearheaded nationwide by the American Bar Assn. and fitted to local needs by lawyers and professional groups stepping up to meet the exploding demand.

"Most of the middle class is a paycheck away from going into the lower class. Nothing has highlighted that more than the current foreclosure crisis," said Luz Herrera, president of Community Lawyers Inc., a Compton start-up.

Civic-minded lawyers, many having worked for publicly funded Legal Aid services to the indigent, slash costs to the consumer by drawing together neighbors with common legal problems in group therapy-like sessions and sharing the lawyer's bill among them. The clinics give clients direction for $75, $100, maybe $200 a head.

The unmet legal needs of the middle class and the increasing numbers tumbling into poverty coincide with the worst funding crisis ever to confront Legal Services Corp., the federal entity that administers Legal Aid funds for the poor.

Still, Internet-based programs designed to spread the limited public funding across a wider range of the needy are now available to people of all income levels, said Crystal Sims, an attorney with Legal Aid Society of Orange County.

Massey didn't turn to Sims at first because he assumed he didn't qualify for help from a service set up for the indigent.

"There are so many people in this situation now, they're overwhelmed," he said of Legal Aid and his assumption that they couldn't have helped him.

Although the funds available for rescuing the distressed middle class are woefully short, the solution isn't necessarily more public money to pay more lawyers, says Deborah L. Rhode, head of Stanford Law School's new Center on the Legal Profession, who estimates that at least three-fifths of the population falls through the cracks of the legal establishment.

She suggests continued expansion of Internet delivery of legal guidance to the masses; incentives for new law school grads to work off their student loan debt in community practice; and a tax on legal services bought by those who can afford "big law" representation.

"Help should be available for those who can't realistically afford it and have more to lose," Rhode said of the recently unemployed, the underwater mortgage holders and the strapped families that have run up credit-card debts trying to make ends meet.

The dearth of affordable legal representation is the reason most parents fighting for custody of their children attempt to do it on their own, disproportionately losing their cases because of poor preparation or unfamiliarity with a court's workings, said Laura K. Abel of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.

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