Legal aid for the rest of us

I have a friend, Laurie, from Long Beach, California, who is having tax issues with the IRS. Getting the problem resolved isn't something she can do on her own, she definitely needs legal help. However, instead of hiring a tax attorney at $400 an hour, Laurie went to Legal Grind, a coffeehouse in nearby Santa Monica offering a-la-carte tax services. There, she sat down over cappucinos with a tax lawyer and got a 20-minute legal consult for $45.

"That's the priciest coffee talk I've ever had, but it got the tax man off my back," she told me. She''ll go back this Saturday, the day when Legal Grind's lawyers focus on personal finance issues, so she can get advice about handling her debt load.

The Los Angeles Times did a profile recently on Legal Grind and other lawyers coming to the aid of the middle class. They're trying to put the word out that free or low-cost legal help is available for many people hurting from the recession.
Besides longtime web sites like and, there are more legal self-help centers (both online and offline) and more lawyers offering their services at group rates. The American Bar Association reported that personal bankruptcies increased by 30% last year, prompting it to spearhead nationwide efforts to promote a mix of DIY legal software and inexpensive guidebooks with just the right degree of paid legal help. Its Consumer's Guide to Legal Help has links for finding lawyers and legal help in each state, and now it offers national and state information for help with foreclosures.

If you're facing both serious problems and a serious cash crunch, the federal government's Legal Aid program is a good place to start. Legal Aid lawyers represent low-income Americans in a variety of situations, including foreclosure and consumer credit, but many offices nationwide offer some services that have no income requirements, so they're worth checking out.

One step up is discounted legal plans from attorneys who have lowered their fees and offer a-la-carte services instead of a bundled by-the-hour plan. Legal Care Direct has a cadre of attorneys in each state that, for a $144 annual fee, will write and update your living will, represent you in small-claims court and put no time limit on face-to-face or phone conversations for each new legal matter you're faced with. After that comes the a-la-carte prices, ranging from $89 for traffic-ticket defense to $750 for handling personal bankruptcy.

If you'd rather save the money and delve into legal matters on your own to start with, Nolo publishes legal books, forms and software that explain legal issues from real estate to elder care in plain English. It also offers its own lawyer directory.

Regardless of what avenue you take for legal matters, be it pricey tax attorney or coffeehouse lawyer, ask about discounts and a-la-carte services instead of bundled service charged by the hour. Chances are likely that lawyers are now more willing to negotiate, with the results being in your favor.

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