“As a family law practitioner, I found the vast majority of my clients couldn’t afford to pay a standard attorney rate,” recalls Billie Tarascio. “I found myself in conflict with my clients and unable to collect many past-due accounts. There had to be a better way to provide quality services that people could afford without the risk of not getting paid anything.” Here, she tells Law Practice about the leap she made in response.
My firm model focuses on the use of limited-scope legal services at reduced rates, which start as low as $99 per hour. We use a lean, pay-as-you-go model for limited-scope clients to respond to the overwhelming need for affordable legal services. For clients who wish to do some of the legal work themselves, or for those who cannot afford traditional advanced fee services, working with a lawyer on a limited-scope basis may be appropriate. We have attorneys who work with clients on family law matters, immigration, landlord-tenant, civil litigation and small business issues.
When did you decide to found a practice this unique? I started this model in under the name “Access Legal Services” in 2009. I found that by simplifying the system and reducing overhead expenses, I could break down a case and collect payment up front for each step I was hired to complete. Then in 2010, my husband was hired by First Solar in Tempe, Arizona. After moving to Arizona, a state that prohibits the use of trade names, I teamed up with Allyson Del Vecchio to launch the concept on a larger scale as Tarascio & Del Vecchio. We opened in February 2010.
What were the main hurdles? Our first year, we offered only limited-scope services and saw over 900 clients. However, our revenue wasn’t high enough and many clients became frustrated with the model because they wanted to hire their attorney to do more. So in February 2011, we changed the model to allow for a hybrid system. Now, clients have the option of limited-scope services or traditional advanced fee services. This has solved both of our problems, allowing us to serve our clients more fully and increase revenue while continuing to offer affordable services.
Also, prior to opening, I spent months studying ethics opinions and rules regarding limited scope-legal services. I met resistance from some attorneys, but it was clear to me that it was both ethical and made business sense to cut costs and rates. One thing I found in my research was that 80 percent of the population cannot afford a lawyer when they need one! That is astounding to me. So I took all the trainings I could find on ethically providing limited-scope services and developed procedures and protocols for my attorneys to ensure we were following the rules and serving our clients’ best interests.
What’s the biggest surprise you’ve encountered? I’ve been surprised by how much I enjoy the business aspect of running a firm. I have really focused on the business model, internal policies and procedures, public relations, client satisfaction and marketing, and managing employees and attorneys. Our attorneys are fabulous. We meet often to talk about what’s working, what isn’t and what changes can improve the quality of the work we do.
What can’t you live without? Technology. We use the latest tools to keep operating and advertising costs down.
What do you like best about being a small firm partner? Three highlights stick out. First, by the end of each day, we usually have at least one client tell us what a difference we’ve made in their lives. Second, our workplace is a supportive, happy and family-friendly place. I wouldn’t trade my staff or attorneys for anything. Finally, the control I have over my schedule might be the best perk of all. I have two young boys. Being a partner in a small firm means I can usually make a field trip or make time within the week to volunteer in the classroom.
Parting words? I encourage other attorney-entrepreneurs to think outside the traditional firm model. We have enjoyed offering a unique model of services and our clients are truly grateful to have increased options for services. I predict that our model of services is not done evolving, and it will be interesting to see where we are five years from now.