A common misconception about the law is that it’s pretty simple. People think that when they have disputes, courts are there to hand down the fair and right answer. Unfortunately, that is far from the truth. Achieving a fair resolution in a legal battle is a lot more complicated than that. The reason brings me to the difference between procedure and substance.

All lawyers learn in law school the difference between procedural law and substantive law. Put simply, substantive law is about the substance of your case: the facts, the dispute, the “why” you believe you deserve to win. When most non-lawyers think about a legal case, they only think about the substance.

Procedural law, on the other hand, is what non-lawyers often call “technicalities”. Procedural law is the millions of rules that govern how a case can be presented to a court. Some of these rules are very important and make a lot of sense, others not so much. For example, one very important procedural rule is based on the 4th Amendment of the United States Constitution. That rule says that if evidence against you was gathered illegally by the police, then that evidence cannot be used at trial to prove your guilt. When you hear in the newspaper that a “criminal” got off on a “technicality”, very often that technicality is the most important legal document in the United States.

On the other end of the scale, there are procedural rules that seem patently unfair and counterintuitive. For example, if you are injured by the action of a government entity, in most cases, you must file a document called a Notice of Claim with that entity within 120 days of the date of your injury. If you don’t make that deadline, and if your Notice of Claim document itself doesn’t comply with the myriad of additional rules governing those claims, you lose your right to sue entirely. All too often, people are injured by the negligence of a government agency, but don’t realize that they have a very short amount of time in which to file their claim. Imagine if you were seriously injured due to government negligence and were hospitalized. You could easily spend weeks and months recuperating, healing, dealing with work loss, figuring out how to manage your life while incapacitated, and so on. Thinking about suing the government is not the top priority on your list. By the time you do think about it, you have probably missed your chance. That’s an example of a procedural rule that seems to serve no real purpose other than to cheat you, a citizen, out of your right to sue the people who make the rules.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of procedural rules which can result in your case being thrown out, no matter how good the substance of your case actually is. Successfully winning a court case is kind of like trying to walk across a balance beam with American Gladiators swinging at you to knock you off. It really doesn’t matter how good your case is if you get slapped down by a procedural rule. Dealing with procedure is an important reason why a lot of people decide to hire a lawyer. So if you do decide to go it alone, be very careful about making sure you understand all of the rules that you have to follow to get your case to a successful conclusion.

Chris

The exception that ate the rule.

Suing the government ain’t easy. Since they are the government, they get to make the rules about who you can sue and under that circumstances. It should be no surprise that the rules favor the government. One example is governmental immunity. Even if a government agency or employee does something clearly negligent and causes you harm, it’s very likely that they will never pay a dime because they are immune from the lawsuit.

What is interesting is that the law says that immunity should be the exception and liability is the rule. In other words, if you are suing a municipality, like a city or a county, or an employee of a municipality, it shouldn’t be that hard, because the rule is that if they have done wrong, they should pay. Immunity is supposed to be an exception. For years though, government lawyers have been fighting for more and more immunity for local governments. Now, the rule is that any injury that is the result of an “exercise of discretion” is immune. So, if your injury arises out of a government worker making a decision, most likely you can’t sue them. Gee, when does so one do something that isn’t a decision?

Let me give you an example from a real case. A Wisconsin municipality needed to install a sewer drain. Someone at the municipality thought it would be a good idea to install the sewer drain pipe over top of a creek in a fairly populated area. As you might guess, almost immediately children started using the round pipe as a bridge across the creek. As you might also guess, round pipes are slippery and not safe to use as bridges. The municipality was warned about this danger (although one might argue that the warning was unnecessary since the danger was evident), and in response, the city put up a small fence to block the pipe. Almost immediately, vandals, again probably children, tore down the fence so that they could continue to walk across the sewer pipe. Rather than fixing the fence, or installing a fence that was harder to tear down, the municipality “decided” to do nothing. Eventually, someone fell and died.

This is a classic case of gross negligence. Rest assured, if you did something on your own property which attracted children to come and play on an inherently dangerous object and did almost nothing to stop it, you would be sued, and you would pay, when someone got hurt. But not if you’re a city. Because the city in this case “decided” to install the drainpipe over the creek, and because they “decided” not to fix the fence, they were immune from the lawsuit, because government entities are immune if they have caused harm as a result of making a decision, no matter how obviously bad the decision was.

It is difficult to imagine a scenario in which a government agency or its employ would not be found to be immune. After all, anything that a government does is based on a decision to do that thing, and anything that the government doesn’t do, is based on a decision not to do that thing. There is a decision involved in every action and inaction, so it is the rare case indeed where a government agency cannot claim immunity for its decision.

So where does that leave the law that says immunity is the exception? To me, that important legal principal seems to be just lip service these days to the idea that government should compensate the people it harms. Perhaps the government would like us to believe it follows that principle, but the truth is that government lawyers have worked very hard to keep the government from ever paying anyone a dime, no matter how negligently the city employees act.

Chris

Okay, so that’s a common question, and a tough one to answer. If you ask a lawyer at the beginning of a case how much it will cost, he will hem and haw and talk and theorize, but usually he won’t answer the question directly. People sometimes think lawyers are being evasive, but the truth is they just don’t know the answer. Trying to put a price tag on a legal case is like trying to predict the weather. You can guesstimate, but you just can’t predict everything the other side in a case is going to do, and when the other side fights more, it costs more.

Putting a price tag on a legal case is like asking “How much does a car cost?” Well, it depends. What kind of car? New or Used? Basic transportation or status symbol? Environmentally friendly or sporty? Utility or family? And on and on.

The reality is you can spend $500 on a car, and you can spend $500,000 on a car. How much car you get depends on what you want and what you need and what you can afford. You know that you get what you pay for, so you spend more even though that $500 clunker turns over. And, you’re financially responsible, so you don’t go out and buy a Beemer when a Ford or a Honda will do just fine.

It is the same with legal services. How much it costs depends on the case, depends on what you want to accomplish, and depends on how extravagantly you want it done. You don’t want to hire a bargain basement lawyer anymore than you want to buy a too-cheap car. It’s just gonna let you down. And you don’t need to hire a high end lawyer who will spend a ton of your money to accomplish the same thing as a good, reasonably priced lawyer can. What you have to do is first find a good lawyer who you feel will get the job done for you, and then work out a price. It may be that you accidentally walked into a BMW dealership when you were looking for a Toyota, or stumbled onto a used car lot when you really want new. You may not find the right lawyer at the right price on the first try. And you may find that you still can’t get a straight answer on what the case will cost. Lawyers don’t like guesswork, and some of them just refuse to try.

At BadgerLawyer, we believe in giving a customer a price tag up front. Once we evaluate your case and your goals, we will be glad to give you a quote on a one time, discounted up front payment that will carry you through the whole case. That gives you the peace of mind knowing that the business end of the arrangement is taken care of, so all you have to do is sit back and let us take care of the law for you.

Chris

And no, trial skills isn’t number one.

Let’s start with what a trial lawyer is. A trial lawyer is an attorney whose bread and butter it is to walk into a courtroom and effectively argue for the results his client seeks. It sounds simple, but there are a lot of skills that go into being a good courtroom lawyer, and what might surprise you is that most of those skills are more useful outside the courtroom. Here are what I consider to be the five most important skill areas for a good trial lawyer.

Issue spotting. The mark of a good trial lawyer is a person who can take the facts of a case and dissect them, identify every strength and reveal every weakness. Issue spotting is a creative process where a lawyer looks at the case from a number of different angles and discovers all the possible ways that he could put up a fight. When you are interviewing a lawyer about taking your case, watch his or her reaction to the story you tell. Does he start immediately throwing off ideas about how the case could be fought? Or does he immediately jump to why you are going to have to settle for a result you don’t like? The lawyer with ideas is the better issue spotter, and that lawyer will probably make a better trial lawyer.

Legal writing ability. Legal writing is an art form. Not one that many people find too enjoyable to read, but nonetheless, it requires skill, clarity, and a gift for being persuasive in writing. While any lawyer can throw facts on a page and cite cases they believe to be important, that’s a far cry from the ability to craft a persuasive document that is convincing to a judge who has probably heard it all before.

Negotiating. Most court cases that are ever filed end up in some kind of settlement. Civil cases end up with cash settlements. Criminal cases end up with plea bargains. Only a fraction of cases actually go to trial. That means it is extraordinarily important for your lawyer to have good negotiating skills. How much money you get, or how much time you serve, is going to depend more than anything on how persuasive your lawyer is at negotiating with the opposing attorney. A good negotiator is not just a lawyer who can see what is good about your case, he’s the guy who can see the weaknesses in the other side’s case and won’t hesitate to point those out to the opposing lawyer. This is often a very subtle process. “Trash talking” is only going to get the other side’s ego involved. Negotiation is like seduction. You have to learn to make the other side want to give you what you haven’t asked for.

Trial skills. Just like a police officer carries a gun that he doesn’t often have to use, a good trial lawyer has to have skill and confidence to take a case all the way through trial if you don’t get what you want through negotiation. A trial is a kind of theater, a sort of ritualized improv. Your lawyer needs to be able to act, think on his feet, speak well, assert dominance, and maintain focus. He has to know all the rules of the game, all the rules of evidence, all the facts of the case, all the rules of law, but never lose sight of the one single theme of his case. He has to keep track of a thousand things, while seeming calm and relaxed. Trial is not easy, and a lot of lawyers who do it for a living are not very good at it. Choose carefully. A lawyer with a big ego and a lot of charisma is probably your best bet.

Interpersonal skills. A good trial lawyer has to have good people skills, and I mean something more than just being a “people person”. A good trial lawyer needs to be able to effectively read the emotional tone of any situation and respond appropriately. In every day life, most people try to be “nice”. While a good trial lawyer should be a congenial person most of the time as well, there are times in legal matters that call for a tougher, harsher, aggressive, or confrontational approach. A good trial lawyer knows when to be tough and when to be kind, and is effective at both.

No doubt other lawyers would want to include other items on the above list. Good legal research skills, an ability to organize large amounts of information, strong investigative instincts, computer literacy, and so forth. While I would agree that the above list isn’t all of the skills necessary for a good trial lawyer, I believe that they are the most important. If you find a lawyer who is confident, friendly, and good at spotting issues, persuasive in speech and writing, and expresses an enthusiasm for fighting cases all the way through to trial, chances are you found a pretty decent lawyer for your case. If the lawyer you are talking to seems to be lacking in any of these major areas, it might not be a bad idea to consider looking somewhere else.

Let me know what you think. What skills do you think a good trial lawyer needs to have?

Here is a reprint from my recent article in La Crosse Magazine.

One thing I’ve noticed in recent years is that the law has undergone an enormous, but unnoticed, change. When I was a kid, a lawyer was somebody you hoped you’d never need, and you probably wouldn’t. Lawyers lived in high rise offices and “handled” “situations” for rich clients. The only time we common folk might need to visit a lawyer would be to see the local guy about a will.
My how that has changed. The skyrocketing rise in divorce rates has driven more than half of everyone who gets married into a long-term, expensive relationship with a litigation attorney. Decades of “toughness” on crime has lead to the criminalization of conduct that used to be legal, and now hardly a family hasn’t had a brush with the law. The growth in home-based and small businesses has led to literally millions of Mom & Pop LLCs that have a need for legal counsel, whether it’s just to make sure the papers are in order, or to defend the lawsuit if they aren’t.

Being a lawyer nowadays is a lot more like being a doctor or a dentist. Pretty much everybody is going to need a lawyer in a significant and ongoing way some time, probably several times, in his or her life. Given this fundamental shift in who needs legal services, you might think that law firms have drastically switched their approaches to how legal services are provided.

You’d be wrong.

If there’s one thing the law is, it’s traditional. To give you an idea, community property law – the law that divides assets in divorce – was invented by the Visigoths. For those who missed that history lesson, they’re the ones who brought Ancient Rome to its knees. So, change happens slowly.

Why? Lot’s of reasons. Lawyer regulations discourage change – we couldn’t take credit cards for most services two years ago. Lawyers by nature are a conservative lot – we’re afraid you won’t come to us if we don’t have expensive, traditional offices. Lawyers aren’t risk takers – it’s our job to worry about what would happen if everything went wrong, and that gets to you after awhile. Lawyers just don’t do change – our whole system is based on the law of stare decisis, legalese for “if it ain’t broke.”

But, the world is changing, and somebody has to be the first to jump. There ought to be ways to offer legal services with fee structures more friendly to the everyday person. If you, the prospective client, can accept a non-traditional (read: cheaper) office, the savings can be passed along. If lawyers could find a way to do what doctors already do – charge for specific services (e.g., an x-ray, a strep test) – instead of signing on for the whole case or not at all, you could buy only the legal services you needed.

In fairness, law is different from medicine or other professions. The law can ruin lives, like illness, but the law will let you represent yourself – try asking a surgeon to pass the scalpel. The law rarely offers a clear answer – “gray area” is our favorite word. It makes sense to have a lawyer for the whole case, most of the time, but it also makes sense, to me at least, to have a lawyer for just part of your case if that’s all you can afford. Isn’t some better than none? I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I think we should start the discussion. Please join me and weigh in with your thoughts.

Until recently, when a home seller lied about or failed to disclose something critically wrong with the home you were buying, the go-to law suit was for misrepresentation. In a common sense way, that just seems right. After all, how else would you describe the seller except to say that he misrepresented the condition of the home? I mean, without making the kids cover their ears.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court recently ruled that something called the economic loss doctrine prevents lawsuits for misrepresentation in real estate sales. It’s not exciting stuff, but let me see if I can sum it up the court’s ruling. Basically the ELD (that’s the economic loss doctrine) says that where there’s a deal based on contract, tort-based lawsuits are not permitted for recovery of purely monetary loss. Torts are your standard personal injury type suits. Misrepresentation is a tort.

In the world of lawsuits, tort-based suits and contract-based suits are the two big players, rivals in some ways. The ELD protects contract law’s turf by saying look, if there’s a contract and one side doesn’t deal fairly, you should use contract law to solve the problem, instead of trying to use tort law to sneak around some of the limitations of contract law (no punitive damage, for example). Since real estate transactions are contractual, misrepresentation should be barred by the ELD. So held the court.

So are you out of luck if you’ve been lied to? Well, not entirely. Misrepresentation was popular because it tended to fit the facts in most cases, was easier to prove, and generally was the right tool for the job. But, as anybody who has ever driven a nail with a wrench knows, just because you lose your hammer doesn’t mean you can’t get the job done.

Until the legislature passes a law allowing misrepresentation – it’s in the works – here’s the tools you can use to pound the misrepresenting seller:

  • Breach of contract: You know all of those forms you sign when you buy a home? Those are contracts, and if the seller makes any promises in them that turn out not to be true, you can sue for breach of contract. A suit for breach only entitles you to recover what you actually lost due to the breach. Notably, breach is not a very strong suit to bring if no promise was made (i.e., they just failed to mention the demonic possession), because it is hard to breach a promise you never made. Sure, those contracts require you to disclose major defects, but then you get into an argument about what is major, and so on.
  • False advertising. If the seller makes misrepresentations about the very thing that is wrong, you may be able to pursue false advertising.
  • Theft by Fraud. You were lied to. The lie made you buy. The seller took your money. Now you are spending more money to fix what you were lied to about. Sounds a lot like a misrepresentation case, but it’s called theft by fraud. The trouble here is you actually have to prove the crime of theft to get to a recovery. Usually the facts are a little less egregious than that.

The upshot is you still have ways of getting a remedy if your seller has lied to you or failed to disclose a material defect. The best remedy, however, remains caution. Make sure you have a thorough inspection done. Read the contract carefully. Ask the seller questions. Consult a lawyer. Uncovering a defect before you close is a far better outcome than suing after the fact.

Read More: Home buying after Below: Navigating the Economic Loss Maze

Chris

It’s no secret. Lawyers tend to be a little behind the times. The whole legal culture encourages us to look to the past for guidance on how the future should be. Much of the law we rely on was new over a hundred years ago. You might catch a lawyer referring to such law as “current.”

So, it will come as no surprise that these uber-modern inventions of the last century, computers, are the cause of controversy in the legal profession. Lawyers in the 90′s were still debating whether computers even belonged in a law office, and it’s not hard to still find lawyers who refuse to use them. I recently found myself engaged in a debate among lawyers about whether having two monitors was a good thing. Not where to get a good second one cheap, but ‘what’s the point?’ Even though computers have now “caught on” in the legal profession, the level of ignorance and lack of understanding among lawyers of technical matters is far greater than the general population.

Until fairly recently, this trait among lawyers could be written off as cute. A technophobe attorney could stumble through dictation and fumble with case law books, but still turn out a good brief. And his staff could tease him about it.

But computers in the law is no laughing matter anymore, and that is getting truer every day. A few years ago, I had a client facing 150+ years in prison in another state, because of charges of possession of 8 alleged child pornography photos on his computer in a zip file. If I had approached the case as a technologically ignorant lawyer, I could have none nothing more than shrug and help him into the handcuffs. Instead, I defended the case by making the legal argument that one zip file — a contiguous row of 1′s and 0′s — should result in only one charge, not 8. That reduced the mandatory prison to 19 years. Then, I dissected the Windows Temporary data, comparing the date the files were downloaded to the login information. Turns out the user was “Guest” at the time. Sure, my client could have logged in as “Guest” on his own laptop, but that was the first clue my client didn’t do it. Next, I considered the access and modification attributes on the zip file, and used those dates to establish alibis — times when my client was doing something else and couldn’t have been using his computer. That clinched it. A clear case of SODDI -Some Other Dude Did It.

Technology is now a part of everyone’s life in an amazing number of ways. We have ported our lives onto the internet to such an extent that people spend their time tapping into their phones how they are feeling 140 characters at a time. Businesses keep critical financial records online. Business employees send emails to one another that become an uncensored record of exactly what — and exactly when — people were thinking and feeling. If there’s ever a lawsuit, those emails can be demanded by the opposing side. My divorce investigator has software that a suspicious wife can install on the family computer to see who her husband is chatting with, and he can drop a tiny GPS tracker on his car too.

People live online. Computers record a lot of background data that can be very incriminating — or absolving. It is a rare legal matter today that isn’t impacted in some way by technology, and a lawyer who avoids technology, doesn’t speak that language, isn’t going to be able to represent his clients fully. Make sure to ask your lawyer about how your computer activities fit into your case.

Here’s a news story about what the rich firms are doing, now that their clients can’t pay anymore. Surprise — it’s what the Badger has been doing all along. We’ve been providing cost effective legal services and lawyer-prepared client documents since before the Crash. Check out our Estate Planning site, WillNation. com.

Smaller Firms Think Outside the Box on Billing
Sheri Qualters
The National Law Journal
April 01, 2009
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When it comes to billing, it’s time to get creative.

Midsize and small firms, as well as solo practitioners in a wide range of practice areas, including patent law, animal law, business law and bankruptcy, are responding to the tanking economy by doing everything from adopting flat rates and packaging legal services to bartering their work in limited situations.

Some firms are also charging clients less for e-mail advice than telephone advice, or teaming with software companies to develop programs that generate low-cost pro se documents tailored to the client’s situation.

This year, Thav, Gross, Steinway & Bennett, a Bingham Farms, Mich., business law and litigation and consumer bankruptcy firm, is basing fees for bankruptcy and related work on what the customer can afford, said shareholder David Einstandig.

“A reasonable fee is a fluid concept that depends upon the reality of a client’s situation,” Einstandig said.

“If we sit here and do nothing, then our business will decrease and our business will fail,” Einstandig said. “We believe that there’s a vast majority of potential clients out there that need assistance and that have a reasonable ability to compensate the legal community.”

Instead of only charging the firm’s hourly rates, which range from $225 to $325, the 12-attorney Thav Gross has recently been creating financial crisis plans for individuals and small-business owners for a flat fee of $500 to $5,000 depending on the legal issues and the client’s resources, he said. The rates take into account whether an individual has been laid off, for example, or a small-business owner’s company is scraping by, he said.

Executing the client’s financial plan, which could include loan modification, negotiating with creditors and tax authorities and possibly bankruptcy, involves other fees, but Thav Gross realizes that signing up clients is “no longer a take it or leave it situation” for the client, Einstandig said.

Animal Law Attorneys in Tampa, Fla., took a similar view when it cut hourly billing rates from $150 to $120 nine months ago, after multiple clients expressed concerns about affording the estimated fees for their case, said of counsel and firm founder Jennifer Dietz. Around the same time, the two-attorney firm began taking contingency cases for the first time and cut its retainer from the $3,000 to $4,000 range to $750 to $1,000, Dietz said.

“We knew it needed to be done because people were unable to pay the retainer, and they were saying right up-front, ‘we’ll never be able to pay our bill,’” Dietz said.

Solo patent attorney Tracy P. Jong of Rochester, N.Y., said she’s offering select discounts to long-term general practice clients and newer patent clients.

She also agreed when local business owners asked her to join an established Internet-based bartering network. The network lets participants convert their goods and services into “trading dollars” that work like cash at other member businesses.

With one client, Jong exchanged some legal work for professional photographs. “I’m doing this because I’m hoping it’s a long-term relationship,” she said.

Dustin Cole, a business coach for lawyers whose clients range from solo practitioners to law firms with up to 80 attorneys, said small-firm lawyers need to offer billing flexibility and watch their own receivables “vastly more closely” to proactively determine if they need to offer alternative billing arrangements, including discounts.

“It’s knowing where the client is and being willing in advance to provide them some special consideration rather than having to argue at the end [of a matter],” said Cole, who is also president of Longwood, Fla.-based Attorneys Master Class. Cole said he’s hearing that some law firms’ historically “great clients” are suddenly stretching out payments and disputing bills. “Many solid clients are no longer solid,” Cole said. “You have to check much closer into the relationship [with them], both the working and financial.”

While smaller firms are open to discounts, law firms slightly up the food chain are freezing rates. Last year and early this year, a wave of midsize and boutique firms in the 30- to 80-lawyer range announced 2009 billing rate freezes, including Denver-based Fairfield and Woods; New York’s Ingram Yuzek Gainen Carroll & Bertolotti; Chicago’s Levenfeld Pearlstein; and Hartford, Conn.-based Pepe & Hazard.

Business law firms across the country are also adjusting prices, from New York-based venture law boutique MasurLaw, to Las Vegas-based small business advisory firm Lubbers & Borg. Southern business law firms, including Greensboro, N.C.-based boutique Connors & Sinozich and Atlanta’s Gardner Groff Greenwald & Villanueva, an intellectual property firm, are also trimming rates.

FLAT RATES FOR STARTUPS

In February, six-lawyer MasurLaw, which specializes in helping technology and entertainment companies, rolled out a menu of discounted flat rates for early-stage companies, ranging from $500 for entity formation to $2,500 for corporate documents.

Startup companies need a definite budget and reasonable costs to get venture capital funding, said associate counsel David J. Mazur, who specializes in copyright, new media and corporate transactional law. “Hopefully the right companies that are using our service would be able to get things off the ground easier because of the way we’ve structured this,” Mazur said.

Across the country, the two-attorney Lubbers & Borg started packaging legal services because clients are cutting their budgets, said attorney Brooke Borg.

The firm is now offering $300 to review an existing business plan and $500 to create a new business plan, which works out to about 50 percent off hourly rates in each case, Borg said.

“One of the dangers is that a lot of clients are cutting their legal budgets,” Borg said. “We’ve tried to work with clients to say, ‘What can we do to help you?’”

Last summer, Connors & Sinozich started offering clients the choice between fixed rates, the traditional hourly rate or a blended rate. It’s also offering discounts to clients when it’s appropriate, said partner Paula A. Sinozich. Last fall, the company discounted its rates for a promising startup company, she said.

“When we looked at a business we were willing to bet on, we didn’t mind doing that,” Sinozich said. “We’re in the business to make money and we have families to feed, [but] there’s this level of ‘I have to be careful how I charge my clients so that when we get to the other side of the economic downturn I have clients to charge.’”

Gardner Groff’s Fortune 500 clients are at the other end of the business spectrum, but the 11-lawyer firm is feeling similar rate pressure. In January, the firm shaved a few hundred dollars from its $5,500 to $9,500 fee for writing patent applications and cut a range of flat fees for patent work by 10 to 12 percent, said founder and shareholder Art Gardner.

The firm’s shareholders agreed on the plan last fall because they believed that the deteriorating economy would curtail corporate legal budgets for 2009, Gardner said. “We thought, and we were right, that going into 2009 … our clients were going to be facing a time of smaller legal budgets, not larger,” Gardner said.

Firms are also experimenting with technology to retain profit levels amid rate cuts. Animal Law charges clients less for e-mail advice than telephone advice, Dietz said. The firm bills one-tenth of an hour, or six minutes, to answer a client e-mail of any length, Dietz said. In comparison, clients are billed for the actual amount of time telephone calls take, starting at one-fifth of an hour, or 12 minutes, even for shorter calls, she said. “We get so many calls, because we’re kind of a touchy-feely [practice area],” Dietz said.

At family law and education law boutique Rice Law in Wilmington, N.C., the average contested child custody case runs $8,000, but the firm realized last year that it needed another option for cash-strapped potential clients, said managing member Mark Spencer Williams.

Last month, the two-lawyer Rice Law began a low-cost service for pro se litigants it developed with a software firm, Williams said. The software allows the firm to unbundle document preparation from the rest of legal services and create tailored complaints and other court filings for clients based on their answers to a series of questions, Williams said.

The bottom line is that customers can now buy legal documents to run their pro se child custody case for considerably less than $1,000, Williams said.

The technology project was part of the firm’s long-range plan, but Rice Law accelerated it when the economy turned sour, Williams said. As the recession deepened, prospective clients began to say they would continue to live together “even though they couldn’t stand each other” because they couldn’t afford the legal fees for a divorce or child custody case, Williams said.

“It was a wake-up call to us that we needed to adapt our legal services to what our clients felt that could afford,” Williams said. “In the past, we only knew how to do anything one way, the Ritz-Carlton way.”