A single mother with sole custody of her four-year-old contacted the Santa Barbara Lawyer Referral Service. The Service is a non-profit, State Bar certified program designed to match callers to qualified, private attorneys. In this case, the caller couldn’t afford to pay attorney fees, yet she needed help battling a visitation agreement that would significantly impact precious time spent with her child. She had been a self-represented litigant in court when she reached an impasse. Her full-time job prevented her from taking advantage of pro bono programs. Where could she turn?
It was at that time that the Lawyer Referral launched its Modest Means - Family Law program to match members of the community to attorneys who offered legal representation at reduced fees. The objective was to assist those working people who didn’t have much left once bills were paid.
“The Bar Association has been keenly aware of the gap in reduced fee legal services, particularly in the family law arena. We wanted to respond to the need,” says program director Lida Sideris.
This was the impetus for the Modest Means Referral program which assists people with modest incomes and assets to obtain legal help at discounted rates. For a family of four to qualify, gross annual income should not exceed $77,000. If the required income guidelines are met, a Modest Means client should expect to pay a $750 retainer, with the hourly fees capped at $150 per hour (in comparison, average hourly rates for private attorneys hover around $350/hour with typical retainers starting at $2500). This is still a stretch for some callers, but many have been assisted by these rates.
After two months of operation, the first attorney to join the program found she was unable to handle the influx of new clients. A second attorney was added. Like the Lawyer Referral Service, lawyers in the Modest Means program are vetted to insure they meet specific qualifications. Attorneys participating include those seeking a way to give back.
“My modest means clients have been some of the most appreciative individuals I have worked with in my six years of practice,” says attorney Michelle Roberson.
The Lawyer Referral Service advertises the Modest Means program in its literature, and the program is offered as a possibility when people call the Service.
“When litigants are represented by counsel, their rights are better protected and courts operate more efficiently,” according to Ms. Sideris.