Gratitude to Work for a Legal Nonprofit

My name is Christina Alkire and I am a California attorney who founded and works for Sage Legal Services, a legal nonprofit.

I attended a CLE this past week.  A CLE is a “Continuing Legal Education” course.  The California State Bar and malpractice insurance companies require a certain number of CLE hours and types for a specific period of time.  

I was my typical early self and thought this was a good opportunity to let other family law attorneys know what I did.  After all, my clients cannot traditionally afford the fees of a family law attorney.  So, I started explaining to those other early  attorneys what I did for a living.  “I started a nonprofit that operates on a sliding-scale and specializes in family and landlord/tenant issues.”  This did not garner much of a response.  I’m not great at marketing, but I do know that this is a large part of running a business and therefore something I need to work on.  (On another note, I am going to another networking event later this afternoon.)  So, I decided to appeal to their years of experience.  I thought, “This is a good way to get them interested in what I’m doing.”  

I brought up a current client, explained the situation, and asked for advice (while maintaining confidentiality, of course).  I admit that I was proud of myself because my response to my client had been the response that these lawyers suggested.  But, it did not end there.  One of the attorneys proceeded to tell me that this is what happens when you offer legal services for free or on the cheap.  It makes people “litigation happy” and they are not willing to listen to reason; choosing instead to “waste the court’s time and their attorney’s time.”

My initial reaction was an internal “huh.”  I honestly do not think I’d heard this before.  In previous CLEs, the judges and commissioners stressed how attorneys need to take on these types of cases to give everyone, not just those with sufficient funds or assets, representation in family proceedings.  These types of cases are particularly emotional and people (myself included) don’t always make the best or most informed decisions when not thinking clearly.  Furthermore, these judges and commissioners stressed that this would help alleviate an overly burdened court and staff; a very good thing with the ever present and evident budget cuts.

Ok, enough of my tangent.  The thing is, I did not really know how to react to this comment without getting a bit defensive.  (I wanted to get a lot defensive, but knew this wasn’t the way to garner professional relationships.)  So, this is what I told that lawyer, and the other present lawyers listening:  

  • First, my services are not free.  They are set on a sliding scale that is based on California HUD guidelines.  I have zero say in the determination of whom HUD designates as “low income.” 
  • Second, if you qualify for my services, these fees are not “on the cheap.”  My lowest hourly rate, and the rate all of my current clients qualify for, is $75 an hour.  This may be “on the cheap” for someone in the upper-middle class.  However, $75 an hour for my client who makes less than $30,000 per year is not “on the cheap.”  
  • Third, I wanted to ask, but didn’t (surprisingly to anyone who knows my general inability to keep opinions to myself), what this attorney would have people do who could not afford the costs associated with traditional legal services?  Criminal defendants get a public defender (a noble profession full of talented and passionate attorneys who get a bad wrap), but parties going through family proceedings do not have this right.  Does that mean if you cannot afford an attorney you’re supposed to go without and try to navigate a legal system that takes lawyers an average of 3 years of law school, bar passage, and a lifetime of practice to navigate?

Thankfully, the CLE started and all talk of how my services only encourage litigation ended.  My irritation did not; hence this post.  I want everyone to know that I enjoy what I do and I am not the only one.  One only has to Google "legal nonprofits" to see this fact.

In the words of former Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, “Concepts of justice must have hands and feet to carry out justice in every case in the shortest possible time and at the lowest possible cost. This is the challenge to every lawyer and judge in America.”

I will never get rich.  I will be hard-pressed to pay off the six figures in law school student loans. But, giving a voice to those who may not be able to find theirs will mean more to me than the money I do not make and the things I cannot afford to buy.  For this, I am grateful.