July 08, 2019 #LRIS2Know

San Diego County Bar's Lawyer Referral Service Sets Fees for Bankruptcy, Business Formation, Estate Planning, and Family Law Matters

By Michelle Chavez and Karen Korr

Our community—and likely most communities throughout the country—has a real need for lower cost legal services. Traditional law firm pricing can be exorbitant, making legal counsel inaccessible for many people who desperately need services and guidance. And while there are myriad "on demand" legal service providers popping up online, our experience in referring lawyers in our community for over 66 years has demonstrated that consumers want to know they are hiring someone they can trust. Part of our success as a Lawyer Referral Service is a result of the credibility and name recognition of the San Diego County Bar Association (SDCBA), and we were confident that creating a set fee program would provide a valuable and credible service.

In August 2017, after significant deliberation by our Lawyer Referral and Information Service (LRIS) Committee and our Board of Directors, we launched our first set fee program—personal bankruptcy, with the goal of making access to attorney services affordable. With our bankruptcy flat fee program, as well as the others that we have launched since, it was important to determine not only what the fee would be, but also what exactly clients could expect for the fee that they were paying—particularly the amount of time the attorneys would be spending with them. A highly experienced group of bankruptcy attorneys helped us to set the fee and determine the scope of services that would be provided. Our next step was to establish a "panel" of attorneys who wanted to take on such cases at this price point. We deemed this a particularly good opportunity for new lawyers, as a way to generate business and garner experience in this area of practice.

Our fee for Chapter 7 Bankruptcy is set at $1000.00 for individuals, and $1200.00 for a joint filing, which does not include filing fees. We prepared a quick reference document that outlined what is provided for that fee, and what is not provided. Our team was also trained to discuss all elements of the flat fee program with clients before they are referred to an attorney, and they also advise that any service that is not listed as a part of their flat fee representation necessitates a separate agreement. Through our program, all attorneys who agree to be a part of our flat fee panel agree to do the work outlined for that set fee—they cannot negotiate with clients regarding cost of scope of services on their own. The attorneys are also responsible for communicating with their clients about what is included in their representation, and what services, if any, will be additional. If there are further services needed, the attorney is also responsible for reporting back to the LRIS on any new retainer agreements.

We publicized the new flat fee service widely via a detailed press release which included information on pricing, targeted eblasts, social media outreach, and a subsequent series of online ads highlighting all of our flat fee programs. Following the launch of bankruptcy, we followed the same process to determine services, fees, and panels for incorporation and LLC formation; revocable trust and last will and estate planning; and for family law. All media announcements regarding our flat fee programs also included the exact fees.

While bankruptcy, estate planning, and business formation lend themselves a bit better to a flat fee arrangement, it was challenging to figure out how we could adequately provide a beneficial service at an affordable fee. We worked with a highly experienced group of family law attorneys to find what we believe to be the best solution to this dilemma—the attorneys who participate in the flat fee program do not represent the clients in court. Instead, the attorneys provide guidance and help the party prepare to represent himself or herself in a dissolution of marriage or legal separation and assist clients in drafting motions for support or custody.

Our program is still in its infancy, and so are efforts to recruit attorneys in each area of practice who want to participate. However, we are starting to see more and more clients come to us to explore these new programs, and we are targeting our marketing efforts to new audiences, as well as those who have used our LRIS service in the past. It is our goal to eventually further expand our flat fee programs and really "level the playing field" for legal services and access to justice in our community.