Nov 18, 2002: City Business

Anyone who’s ever had to hire a lawyer knows it’s not inexpensive.  But today, folks have an option.

            Companies specializing in pre-paid legal services operate much like insurance plans where clients pay a monthly fee in exchange for legal assistance whenever they need it.  Proponents say it’s the wave of the future for the legal industry, but critics say the lack of personalized service and choice will eventually lead to disappointment with the plans.

            According to an American Bar Association titled “Public Perceptions of Lawyers,” nearly seven in 10 U.S. households had an occasion in the past year that might require an attorney.  However, more than half of the respondents indicated they would not hire one and 28% cited cost as the primary reason.  The same study also found that 69% of Americans believe lawyers are more interested in making money than serving their clients.

Participating firms are compensated directly by Pre-Paid Legal unless the client hires the firm at the discounted rate for services not covered.  Pre-Paid Legal has a firm covering each state or region.  In Louisiana, that firm is the Alexandria-based Provosty, Sadler, deLaunay, Fiorenza and Soble LLC, which handles about 20,000 Pre-Paid clients statewide.

            Catherine Brame, partner at Provosty Sadler, says the firm began working with Pre-Paid Legal in 1994.  Pre-Paid Legal has brought in revenue and given lawyers a way to help the community without taking financial losses.

            “It’s a different way of practicing law.  It’s certainly catching on and I think it’s going to be a big part of the future of legal practice,” Brame says.

            Unlike some of the firm’s regular clients, Brame says most of the Pre-Paid clients don’t have contact with a lawyer in their social group or family.  She says regular situations can be scary without such connections, especially when the individual can’t spare $150 to talk with a lawyer for an hour.

            Not everyone believes in pre-paid legal plans.  Jeff Mitchell, partner at Phillips & Mitchell L.L.C. in New Orleans, says some pre-paid plans target personal injury firms like his because of the highly competitive nature of those legal services.

            Mitchell says he and his partner decided to take a risk with Lawstar Inc., a Los Angeles-based company that promised to deliver up to 100 personal injury clients over the year for a fee of $800.  Lawstar claimed clients would come from member companies such as Citibank, Capital One and Choce Hotels, which offers the service as a benefit to employees.  One year later, Mitchell says, the firm has not received one call.             “If they come back to us there’s no way we’d ever do it again,” Mitchell says.

Brame says Pre-Paid clients may not always get the same lawyer every time they call for advice.  But she says each attorney takes thorough notes during phone calls, including advice given and any actions taken.  Those notes go in a client’s file to help lawyers who might field the next call.

            But what happens when lawyers disagree on how a case should be handled?  Mitchell says each lawyer, even those within the same firm, handles a given situation their own way.  If too many different people work on a case, he says the opinions are going to vary and could confuse and frustrate the client.

This means Americans feel lawyers are taking advantage of the profession by charging exorbitant hourly rates the average individual cannot afford, say the authors.

            That’s where companies like Pre-Paid Legal Services Inc. enter the picture.  The 28-year-old firm based in Ada, Okla., offers legal services aimed at making the legal system accessible to more Americans, says Chief Executive Harland Stonecipher.

            “What our plans do is give middle-class Americans the ability to prepay their legal needs so when a situation arises, the expense of hiring a lawyer doesn’t overwhelm them,” Shtonecipher says.

            Pre-Paid Legal offers several different plans ranging in price from $15 to $25 a month depending on the level of coverage a client wants.  For instance the $15 basic family plan will cover the purchaser and spouse or significant other and any dependent children.  The plan provides for legal advice over the telephone, brief office visits, phone calls and letters to adverse parties, review of documents less than 10 pages and will for the purchaser.

            If a lawsuit is filed against the client, the plan also provides for courtroom representation up to a certain number of hours.  Beyond that, the representative firm will offer services at a 25% discount, which applies to services not covered under the client’s plan.

David Harris, Lawstar sales and marketing director, says the company has recognized the problems with marketing its product solely through employers and has recently expanded its scope to include individual sales as well.

            “We can only create an opportunity for these firms to obtain business from our clients via the company,” he says. “If a firm is not getting very many cases then we certainly would not charge them the annual fee to stay with the service.”

            With most companies downsizing employee benefits these days, Mitchell says it’s not surprising his firm has not seen much business form the deal.

            “These kinds of services aren’t going to work in the long run,” he says.  “If I’m going to wonder exactly what kind of lawyer they’re sending me to.”

            Ralph Saatsakis, partner with law firm Fisher & Phillips LLP, says pre-paid legal services treat a personalized service like a commodity, selling it to those who don’t have knowledge of the difference between a good or bad lawyer.

            Saatsakis says people considering a pre-paid legal services plan should think about how much they use a lawyer.  He says most Americans just don’t use lawyers enough to justify the cost.

            Normally, if a client is unhappy with a lawyer, they take their case to another attorney, but Zatkis says like medical HMOs, legal services plans restrict the professionals the client can see. He says clients should find out ahead of time whether or not they can change their lawyer if they don’t agree with the individual’s handling of their case.

            Brame says shoddy service is not acceptable with her firm’s pre-paid work.  Complaints go directly to a file in Provosty’s computer system that’s checked several times a day and is also sent to Pre-Paid Legal.  That same day, Brame says, Provosty and Pre-Paid legal call the individual to fix the problem.

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