Earning their fees directly, meanwhile, frees OLS from a lot of bureaucracy and unpredictability. McNeill recalls volunteering with Utah Legal Services, a local legal aid firm subject to onerous reporting obligations because it took money from the federal Legal Services Corporation. (The nation’s 134 LSC-funded legal aid programs are likewise congressionally required to turn down many clients, including people in prison and some immigrants, both documented and undocumented.) “The Innocence Project here in Salt Lake just lost their only staff attorney because their grant was not renewed!” Argyle notes. “And that organization does so much good in trying to get innocent people out of prison…We just did not want that for our people or for our clients.”
Charging everyone also ensures that all clients have skin in the game. Legal aid firms, McNeill argues, sometimes have issues with people “drain[ing] out a bunch of time and staff” on less-than-pressing problems. Charging fees, in turn, “keeps everybody accountable: It keeps us accountable to the client because they’re paying us—and it keeps them accountable because they’re paying us.”
Argyle and Spencer have made the model work by keeping costs low—including their own salaries, which just recently eclipsed $40,000 per year. Argyle does most of the firm’s billing, Spencer built and maintains the client database, and McNeill currently volunteers his time. Their office is downtown, McNeill notes, but in the basement of a hundred-year-old building. They get surplus computers and printers from the University of Utah and desks from a local thrift store.
They’re also able to give some work back to clients, declining the billable hours that profit-seeking firms often seize. In many family law cases, Spencer notes, clients need to file a supplemental affidavit offering their version of events. Many attorneys, he explains, “basically take the facts of the case, carefully wordsmith something that reads like a lawyer wrote it, and then have the client sign off on it.” OLS has the client draft the affidavit—“they’ll come back to us with a beautifully written and very passionate draft,” says Spencer—and then provides minor edits. “That’s one way that we can take something that many attorneys will spend an hour-plus on and reduce that down to just a five- to 10-minute edit job.”
The OLS team only knows of one firm that uses the same business model—Access Justice in Minnesota—and I'm aware of only a handful of others. Given its merits, why is OLS’s sliding-scale model so rare? Part of the reason is that it doesn't maximize profits—you can’t get rich running it. You also can’t help the people with the most urgent needs: those below the poverty line who are failed in criminal matters by the woefully underfunded public defender system, who are turned away from LSC-funded programs about half the time because of similar funding constraints, and who have no chance of affording even OLS’s rates, where total billings per case average roughly $300. Those rates are tiny relative to the industry standard, but they can even be daunting for members of the middle class, squeezed as they are.
One former legal aid executive director from New Hampshire, John Tobin, told me that his firm had toyed with initiating a sliding scale, but then he saw a statewide cost-of-living study and concluded that most of the potential clients “couldn’t afford to pay even a little bit.”
So far, however, OLS has not had problems with demand. The firm is currently managing 120 cases and adding about 10 new clients per week. (It helps that Utah’s cost of living is relatively low.) They just hired their fourth attorney, as well as a full-time paralegal/secretary. As they scale up, they believe they’ll be able to pay new associates more than $50,000 per year with benefits—a competitive salary—assuming each bills at least 25 hours per week, which is a fraction of what many corporate lawyers have to bill.
Meanwhile, they’re leveling a playing field that has been notoriously uneven for years, serving a constituency—the modest-means middle class—that often feels itself forgotten between attempts to cater to the rich and aid the poor. In family law, Spencer points out, “A large part of what we provide is leverage for a client who has extremely modest means, but may be going up against a spouse or a former spouse…who has a much higher income, and can afford to pay one of these big firms.”
Argyle, who previously dreamed of working as a public defender, notes that the leverage OLS offers is powerful in criminal law, too. “As a public defender, I never would have seen the kind of results that I’ve been getting on my criminal cases, and part of that is the bandwidth that we have,” she says. Reflecting on Vicky’s case in particular, she adds, “Public defenders will not go and interview co-defendants who are in jail. They don’t negotiate with prosecutors over email. They don’t have the resources.”
Others working on access-to-justice issues have started to take notice. The OLS team says they've received calls from the American Bar Association’s president-elect, the Colorado State Supreme Court, and the Montana and Washington State Bars.
They’re eager to see their model catch on. “We want the new attorneys coming out who can’t find jobs to recognize that you don’t need…the giant desk in the corner office. You don’t need the Bentley with your diploma that we were all promised," Argyle says.
McNeill takes a more analytical, but nonetheless similar, view: “This is a huge untapped market on the one hand, and we have an overproduction of lawyers on the other. So we’ve got the supply of lawyers, we’ve got the demand of work. We just need an entity that could bring the cost down to connect the two. And I think this is it.”