In the past, Sophia Jones (not her real name), a former accounts manager in New York City, relied on attorneys to handle her divorce proceedings; help her file for bankruptcy; and, as a favor, write a letter to the neighborhood dry cleaner when it refused to replace a ruined linen suit. In 1999, she moved to Martinsburg, West Virginia, bought a new home, and the builder refused to fix the laundry list of unfinished work. Then, in 2002, her son got arrested on charges of burglary after following friends into an unlocked dorm room. Jones admits that she never imagined she would need so much legal assistance at one time in her life.
“You should retain and build a relationship with an attorney before you need one,” says Malcolm S. Robinson, co-founder and partner at the law firm of Robinson & Hoskins L.L.P. in Dallas and president of the National Bar Association, a 77-year-old organization comprised of African American lawyers and judges. “People often wait too late. They call for representation after…it [becomes] more difficult to protect their rights, so, consequentially, they’re looking at higher legal fees,” he adds.
According to a survey conducted by Leo J. Shapiro & Associates, a research firm in Chicago, for the American Bar Association, 71% of U.S. households report experiencing some event in a 12-month period that might have led them to hire a lawyer. The study also indicated that for consumers, legal services are among the most difficult services to buy because of trepidation in the beginning of the search. Most American adults have not used a lawyer more than once, even though the average person has several matters per year with which a lawyer’s help might be useful. But how do you go about choosing an attorney?
Jones joined more than 100 million other Americans and signed up for legal insurance. Pre-Paid Legal Services Inc. and U.S. Legal Services Inc. are two such plans, similar to health plans, which cover the member, spouse, and dependent children. The most basic plans provide free initial consultation from preselected lawyers in regular private practice and discounts on legal fees if further services are needed. Almost every legal service plan provides advice and consultation by telephone as a basic service. These plans may also include brief office consultations, review of simple legal documents, preparation of a simple will, and short letters written or phone calls made by a lawyer. More comprehensive plans cover trials, divorce, bankruptcy, and real estate issues and are designed to meet 80% to 90% of a client’s personal legal service needs.
In a prepaid legal service plan, the customer pays a fixed amount in advance each month, ranging from $9 to $25, to defray the cost of legal services furnished in the future. Some prepaid plans also offer fixed annual payments.
“You’re probably better [off] signing up with a legal services plan than you are going out and interviewing people yourself, unless you have an immediate need. It means having the person on retainer, being able