Lawyers for Equal Justice Provides Affordable Representation to the Underserved
Q&A with Executive Director Stephanie Everett (J.D. ’02)
Lawyers for Equal Justice (L4EJ), an incubator program for newer solo attorneys, is dedicated to increasing access to justice for the underserved population in Georgia.
Why was establishing L4EJ important?
First, we are providing much-needed support and training to new lawyers who are launching a practice — picking up where law school leaves off. Second, there are over 1.69 million Georgia households who earn too much income to qualify for free legal services yet cannot afford market rate for most attorneys. It’s estimated that 90 percent of Georgians in this group do not obtain legal help for issues where representation could significantly change the outcome.
Why is affordable representation important for this segment?
These folks often are hitting our legal system at a critical time in their lives. They are facing real problems — losing their home, losing custody of a child, becoming victims of domestic violence or predatory lending. They struggle navigating the legal system on their own. One L4EJ client said every lawyer he called wanted a $3,000 retainer — it may as well have been a million dollars. If you are living paycheck to paycheck, you may be able to come up with a small retainer or follow a payment plan, but you’ll need an attorney who is willing to work with you.
What is L4EJ is doing differently?
L4EJ provides a laboratory where lawyers can experiment with practicing in a new way — trying new delivery models and pricing and learning what is effective. For example, the attorneys are providing limited-scope representation. An attorney may offer a 30-minute consultation for $25. In many cases, all a client needs is someone to point them in the right direction or explain what their options are. For some, that $25 assessment arms them with the information they need, and then they can move on from there. Another option is to draft pleadings for the client or only handle one aspect of a case.
In one case, the client needed to modify the terms of his parole. The L4EJ attorney drafted the applicable pleadings. The client was then able to go to court by himself, and the judge awarded his modification.
What is one area where you see a huge need for low-bono lawyers?
Landlord-tenant disputes. Not many attorneys represent tenants in eviction defense because it is not usually economical to do so. But representation often leads to a significantly better result for the client, whether it’s more time to find another place to live, a reduced amount in the back rent owed or improved living conditions. An attorney may keep the client from becoming homeless. Housing matters are a gateway issue. If we can keep a person from having to sleep on the streets, then that may also help prevent other issues that arise from homelessness.
Taking calls from potential clients has opened my eyes to the problem we have in Georgia with substandard housing and landlords who refuse to repair premises. People describe the horrible conditions they are living in, but moving expenses are an insurmountable cost for those who have limited means … as is hiring an attorney.
Do you think this model will be adopted by other practitioners in the future?
I think many lawyers are just learning about this model, but there are firms that offer unbundled legal services, and the Atlanta Bar has a modest-means referral program that will connect potential clients with practitioners who offer low bono.
I would love to teach attorneys throughout Georgia how to offer lower costs services and remain profitable. Then we truly can offer all Georgians affordable legal representation.