The client (we’ll call her “Jo”) came legally to the US with her family—a husband and two young children—to escape ethnic and religious persecution in her home country. While Oregon offered a respite from some of their troubles, for Jo it was far from the end of her worries.
The tight-knit immigrant community Jo found in Portland meant her family could finally practice their religion freely. One aspect of their conservative beliefs, however, dictated that the husband serves as the indisputable center of the household. Unfortunately, Jo’s husband became abusive, kicked her out of their house, and refused to let her see the children (including one still breastfeeding). Yet no one from the community risked ostracism by stepping forward to help.
For Jo to understand, much less enforce her legal rights was an uphill climb. As is commonplace for women in her home country, Jo never learned to read or write, and her command of English was rudimentary. She eventually sought help from The Gateway Center for Domestic Violence, which provided her with shelter and provided other necessities. But they could do little to help Jo see her kids.
The Gateway Center found Jo help from a legal aid program to seek a restraining order protecting her from further abuse, but neither that nor other aid programs had the capacity to help reunite her with her children. While the Gateway Center had funding available to help pay for legal work, it wasn’t enough to afford a market-rate attorney.
Fortunately, The Gateway Center had recently formed an alliance with The Commons Law Center, a two-year-old nonprofit law firm providing sliding scale legal services to people of modest means—those making between 125% and 400% of the federal poverty level. There, Jo connected with Executive Director and Staff Attorney Amanda Caffall, who stepped in to help.
The Commons is the brainchild of Kate Kilberg and Kimberly Pray, founding partners of Catalyst Law, LLC in Portland, Oregon. While their own practice focuses on estate and business planning for people with a philanthropic bent, they recognized that, like most law firms, their services were financially out of reach of most Oregonians.
“There is a giant gap in civil legal services available to everyday people,” says Pray, who serves as board president of The Commons. “The Commons serves individuals, businesses, and nonprofit organizations that do not qualify for legal aid, but for whom market-rate legal services aren’s affordable.”
The numbers back her up. According to the Oregon State Bar, the median hourly rate for attorneys in the Portland metro area hit $300 for the first time in 2017. At the same time, 47% of Americans can’t come up with $400 cash to cover an emergency.
Rather than just donate their time on a pro bono basis, Kilberg and Pray wanted to try something different. “Pro bono work is great, but it doesn’t scale,” says Kilberg. “Most lawyers can volunteer to help a very small number of clients on a one-to-one basis in a given year, but the need for legal services is so vast that finding free legal help is like winning the lottery for most people.”
The Commons Law Center is their attempt to scale the expertise of lawyer volunteers to help them provide a one-to-many impact for clients in need. According to Caffall, The Commons’ programs consist of a “three-legged stool.”
First, the firm provides sliding-scale and fixed-fee legal services to income-qualified clients: those people who make too much to qualify for free legal services, but not enough to afford a market-rate lawyer. Next, it provides practical training to new lawyers and law students, leveraging their efforts to expand access to legal services. Finally, the team partners with community organizations serving marginalized groups to develop culturally specific educational and outreach programs and teach underserved individuals how to use preventive legal services to avoid expensive problems.
All of these programs hinge on putting pro bono partners to their “highest and best use,” as Caffall is fond of saying. These experienced lawyers volunteer as advisors on cases, help train and mentor new lawyers, and develop content for outreach programs.
“We seek help from our pro bono partners when we are onboarding new clients to help scope their matters,” Caffall said. “Our team of attorneys and law clerks then shoulder the bulk of the work, but we rely on the pro bono partner when we have questions or need experienced eyes to looks things over. They also advise as we set up workflows or take on a new type of matter, to help us design our workflow and understand the framework for doing that type of work.
“We try to document our processes as we work through client matters so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel the next time a similar issue arises. With pro bono partners as a feedback loop, we’re constantly getting better at recognizing opportunities and avoiding repeating mistakes.”
The Commons manages its legal work using a Kanban-based matter management system, combining elements of Agile project management and Lean process improvement to ensure that work flows smoothly. It makes appropriate use of technology, including a chatbot from LawDroid that helps screen and onboard potential clients, and a beautiful new website donated by Austin design firm The Label Collective.
Another innovation for The Commons is how it approaches philanthropic requests. Many legal nonprofits or clinics rely on charitable giving to fund or at least subsidize, the legal services they deliver to clients, but The Commons has taken a page from the world of entrepreneurship.
“We see donations as seed capital,” according to Pray. “Our goal is to stand-up specific legal offerings using that capital to build an initial runway, but each of our practice areas needs to become financially self-sustaining.”
Adds Caffall, “We’re trying to prove that serving modest means clients isn’t just a charity case. We want to show our new lawyer fellows—and other attorneys—that there are profitable business models for delivering legal services in new ways. Maybe the margins aren’t as high as straight hourly work, but demand for these services is so high that if we can keep getting more efficient and drive more volume, we can make up for lower margins with scale.”
So far it is working. The Commons’ family law and nonprofit formation programs are self-sustaining and have put the organization in a position to start hiring more staff. The organization is also exploring other areas of law, with the LawDroid system and emerging community partnerships helping inform its next moves.
“We have data from Law Droid and other sources that there is substantial demand from people with landlord-tenant issues,” says Caffall. “So we’re working on a recruiting pro bono partners in that area and making specific philanthropic asks to help create a seed fund to launch tenant-oriented resources.”
As for Jo, Caffall recently helped her regain custody of her children, file for divorce from her husband, and obtain child support. While her legal battle isn’t over, she has stable housing and has regained her role as the mother of her children. She is just one of scores of Oregonians who have accessed The Commons’ programs in the first part of 2018, with many more to come.
Says Caffall, “If we succeed, we’ll serve as guardrails for a huge segment of the population. We can help ensure that people don’t fall into even deeper legal, financial, or emotional trouble just because they couldn’t get help from a lawyer when they first needed one.”
About the Author
John E. Grant is an attorney and founder of the Agile Attorney Network, which helps law firms and legal teams build more profitable, scalable, and sustainable practices. He is a board member of The Commons. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JEGrant3.