During the Great Recession many law schools saw their admissions decline sharply and many lawyers found themselves without employment. In some areas of the country these effects are still felt and present challenges for young attorneys looking to provide services for indigent or lower income clients. What options are there for under or unemployed lawyers who wish to help this demographic?
In this episode of The Florida Bar Podcast, host Adriana Linares speaks with Open Legal Services co-founders Shantelle Argyle and Daniel Spencer about starting their nonprofit law firm. Dan starts the interview by mentioning that Shantelle came up with the idea, and that similar concepts had been attempted in the past, but an exclusively client funded firm had never been done before. They both recall that the catalyst for the idea was their unhappiness at their jobs at the time and that they were not practicing law. Shantelle describes their realization that the middle class was not able to access needed legal services and that there was a large untapped client market. She then goes into detail about how they established the nonprofit, their marketing approach, how they set their fees, and how they created the scale with which they determine which clients to accept. Dan also explains that although the company has never been profit driven it is critical for any new firm to meticulously monitor their cash flow. They both end the interview with a discussion of the technology they use to help manage the firm, the Public Service Loan Forgiveness available for attorneys working in the nonprofit sector, and the grand opening of their third office location.
Shantelle Argyle is the co-founder and executive director of Open Legal Services. She received her bachelor of science from Utah Valley University and her juris doctorate from the University of Utah’s S.J. Quinney College of Law.
Daniel Spencer is the co-founder and supervising attorney of Open Legal Services. He received his juris doctorate from the University of Utah’s S.J. Quinney School of Law.
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The Florida Bar Podcast
Starting a Nonprofit Law Firm
Intro: Welcome to the official Florida Bar Podcast, where we cover Practice Management, Leadership, and what’s happening in Florida Law, brought to you by The Florida Bar Practice Resource Institute. You are listening to Legal Talk Network.
Adriana Linares: Hello, welcome to the official Florida Bar Podcast brought to you by the Practice Resource Institute on the Legal Talk Network. The Practice Resource Institute is the Florida’s Bar online center for practice, management information dedicated to Florida attorneys.
I am Adriana Linares and I will be your host for this episode. I am a legal technology consultant and trainer. I have been working for the Florida Bar as a consultant for a couple of years now. It’s a great opportunity to sort of stick my nose in the things that the Florida Bar is doing in helping our attorneys in the State deal with practice management and technology.
Part of that effort is of course having this podcast where we try to find very interesting and relevant guests to come and talk to lawyers about how they are doing their lawyering. I am pretty excited today to have Shantelle Argyle and Daniel Spencer from not Florida, they are actually from Utah, but they have created a national name for themselves as a nonprofit law firm that is also branded or maybe talked about, they can tell me what they do or they don’t like about how describing their law firm as a socially conscious law firm. So I am going to start by letting them introduce themselves to us. Hey.
Shantelle Argyle: Hey, thanks for having us.
Adriana Linares: I didn’t know who to let go first so I thought you guys could decide and I didn’t want to say, hey, Shantelle or hey Daniel. So why don’t you, why don’t the two of you introduce yourselves.
Shantelle Argyle: Sure. What you couldn’t see was the Rock-paper-scissors says was that we were doing, just like that.
Daniel Spencer: I always pick paper.
Adriana Linares: She must know that.
Shantelle Argyle: I do. So I am Shantelle Argyle; I am Executive Director and Co-founder of Open Legal Services. My specialty before law school was software QA and technical writing and technical support, which led me to be very entrepreneurial and brave, which is how I ended up forming Open Legal with Dan.
Adriana Linares: Dan.
Daniel Spencer: So I am Dan Spencer, I also started this place with Shantelle, against I suppose my better judgment, I’m kidding. Now, we started this place, I rented a law school, before I went to law school, I actually did quite a few things really, I did financial planning, I was in a number of different roles, I did some work in database management, things like that, and then we met in law school and the rest is history.
Adriana Linares: That’s pretty cool that both of you had — I mean you are both still pretty young so I don’t want to say you decided on law school later in life because it just sounds like you did some things maybe earlier than most or got a head start and then decided to go to law school and came out. So you all met in law school, decided you would make good business partners and then I guess — and then what happened, how did you decide that not just any law firm was going to be created and opened by the two of you together but a pretty special and is it unusual as I think it is and everyone thinks it is or what’s the deal.
Daniel Spencer: Well, the original idea to set up a firm was something that Shantelle originally came up with. She sent me a few mockups of business cards and tried to win me over and I was certainly open to that, early on I —
Adriana Linares: The allure of a business card.
Daniel Spencer: Oh yes.
Shantelle Argyle: It was a beautiful design too, it was great.
Daniel Spencer: It was, it was. I would love to put it up on our website at some point for legacy purposes, but yeah, so we originally were planning on doing something together. The idea was what exactly? And both of us were in jobs. We weren’t terribly thrilled about. We weren’t really practicing much. This was in that gap between passing the Bar and getting admitted. So there is that letdown after taking the Bar and realizing that you actually have free time you have to figure out what to do with for the first time in years.
And so we’re sitting in these jobs that we weren’t terribly thrilled about and had this idea, what if we did something little different, what if we tried in setting it up as a nonprofit? And it was kind of a different idea. We figured someone must have done it before, coming to find out that, well, there have been a few very similar attempts in the past to do something like this, but the whole idea of doing a fee based nonprofit where it’s exclusively funded by clients, that was something that’s never really been done before and for the most part, so let Shantelle talk a little bit about what she has learned in that regard as well.
Shantelle Argyle: So the thing that I’ve learned is that those who have come before us were extremely siloed, they were sheltered and prevented from sharing the knowledge that they had gained with the rest of the country and I think that they were just ahead of their time and so while there are certainly organizations like ours that are older than us, they haven’t gotten the credit or the recognition because the timing just wasn’t right.
This was a dialogue that was starting to become a whisper behind doors between deans and Bar presidents and this idea that the middle class were being priced out and were unable to get services, and by the time we came out of law school with lawyers out of work everywhere and admissions to law schools down in the tank, we realized that we were kind of hitting on something it’s just the right moment, and so we can’t take full credit and then say that we are the first, we were the first in Utah and there are two copy cats now but we certainly were one of the very earliest and definitely the loudest.
Adriana Linares: I definitely find that when it comes to legal, it’s all based on timing. Being able — and especially from a legal technology perspective, a lot of the forces that have changed the way lawyers practice law has really been timing and not even the technology coming at the right time but other forces that affect that type of timing. So for you, in talking about timing, what were some of those major factors? Was it cloud based services was becoming more accepted, was it technology was cheaper and easier, was it the Internet is more reliable, was it everyone has a cellphone even low-income citizens of the State, like what were those factors that you think made it possible for you to launch?
Shantelle Argyle: I think a big one is the public interest service that a lot of young lawyers have now. Everybody had portions of their law school class that were really interested in providing public service and getting loan forgiveness and working for non-profits and governmental entities, but when the recession hit, suddenly those promises of a summer associate position and the big salary and all of these things that we were all sort of told throughout the years that would be a thing if we went to law school, the realization that that was not how it was going to be and may never be again, people started to kind of shift the way that they were looking at making changes to their plans for post-law school work, and that on top of the amount of public interest desire that our class had the highest number of pro bono hours of any prior graduating class in a hundred years, things like that, I think that the timing of that, the recession, and the fact that we had lawyers who couldn’t get jobs at all in the legal field and relieving the legal field, suddenly they were willing to take a pay cut and earn less than they thought they were going to get before law school so they could do some good and get that loan forgiveness.
Adriana Linares: That’s really interesting.
Daniel Spencer: Yeah, I guess one of the factors that’s unique is it wasn’t driven exclusively by some kind of development on the client side necessarily. There’s always been a need for middle-class folks who are just working for a living, just middle-class and middle of the road kind of folks to be able to afford an attorney, that’s always been a struggle. For a long time the joke has been, you have attorneys and say, oh I couldn’t attorney and it’s true.
But I think one of the things that Shantelle hit on was the whole idea that it wasn’t just the client side, it was also the attorney side to. It was this whole idea that suddenly the market is ripe to introduce a new business model. We’ve got a lot of people just serving that, that upper 10% or so and all of a sudden that dries up. You’ve got people looking for clients, looking for work, and yeah, we’ve got this massive untapped client demographic there that under a traditional model they can’t get access to an attorney, they couldn’t afford it, you shouldn’t have to take out a second mortgage to be able to — to do a divorce.
Adriana Linares: It’s true.
Daniel Spencer: So that’s kind of where it comes down to, it is much on the attorney side as it is the client side.
Adriana Linares: I am curious, did your law school encourage this sort of idea, were there any classes or sessions or books or anything that you had to read where your law school was a factor in deciding to think about this model?
Shantelle Argyle: I think maybe there were, but we were so focused on doing what we thought we went to law school to do which was, Dan was going to be a prosecutor, I was going to be a public defender. We only took classes about that, we didn’t take other than some of the really scary Bar courses that we made sure to take so that we had a little extra prep. We weren’t looking for those classes, I know there’s a law practice management class where practitioners come in, it’s an early-morning class, and they come in and teach some of their practical skills and business model, things like that, we certainly weren’t looking for it and there wasn’t a clinic that really went with what we were doing because it was all pro bono-oriented.
So it certainly exists now having spoken at conferences and law schools all over the country. I am seeing the incubator programs and things popping up to really get people doing this and I’ve been working with my law school here through part of a volunteer board that I sit on through the Bar Commission to try and get similar programs started here and it’s finally starting to happen. I am really excited about the progress of the schools here I am making.
Adriana Linares: That’s amazing. Yeah, I am hearing a lot of buzz about it too, so that’s great. All right, so let’s go back a little bit. So you have all these fears and these doubts and nobody is really sure and maybe we are not going to get this big cushy job with the corner office making hundreds of thousand dollars a year. So you come up with this idea and how did you flush it out?
So first you had to convince Dan to hop on, and then you guys said, all right, well, let’s think about a nonprofit, so you probably had to figure out how to form a nonprofit and could you help a nonprofit law firm? And give me a little idea of just that initial planning and how you did it, in case there is a lawyer that’s listening and just needs a place to start studying or looking for how to do this right in Florida?
Daniel Spencer: One thing that we ran into very early on was that we wanted to see if someone had done this before. Our first question as diligent attorneys was, well, we should look at precedent and see what has existed in the past. We came up with nothing. Why that is, I don’t know; we touched on it a little bit earlier that predecessors have been somewhat siloed, but at the same time we could not find anything telling us why or why not a nonprofit law firm that relies on fees exclusively from clients would or wouldn’t work. It wasn’t there.
We took meetings with leaders in the legal community here. We talked to professors. We talked to the head of our legal aid organization locally here, and we got pretty much universally the same answer, a resounding –
Adriana Linares: It’s crazy.
Daniel Spencer: — I don’t know, but good luck.
Adriana Linares: And do you think — I wonder if that just has anything to do with just general professional, like a nonprofit law firm, we are all about profits, nobody could imagine a nonprofit law firm, and do you think it was maybe partially that, but also maybe not really understanding the capabilities that a nonprofit has?
Shantelle Argyle: Yeah, I mean, we are looking at a nonprofit model in the legal services industry, which has existed for years and years, decades, that was just pro bono, that was what there was, and if you don’t take money from legal services corporation in the form of grants, if you don’t hit up your legislature for a large check every year to serve the indigent population, what are you? It’s a new kind of animal that people hadn’t really seen before, and really, and this is subject to dispute, may or may not even be sanctioned by the IRS.
Our interpretation of the law is that it is sanctioned by the IRS under a couple of very specific conditions, which we do meet, but the understanding was, well, you can’t charge money for services because you are a nonprofit, that’s not a thing that’s allowed for lawyers. Lawyers are presumed to be a for-profit enterprise by the IRS, unless you meet those very rare conditions.
Adriana Linares: Very interesting.
Daniel Spencer: Now, girl scouts can charge for cookies; we just can’t charge for billing.
Shantelle Argyle: Even the IRS thinks lawyers are sleazy scumbags who take everybody’s money.
Daniel Spencer: Well, everyone has to look down on somebody; these are IRS agents that are —
Adriana Linares: We are here to say, that’s not true. Okay, so tell me a little bit more about how you manage to meet these conditions or how do you — again, like if somebody is thinking — if somebody finds that this is a brilliant idea, and I do think that the younger lawyers in the new generation, they are more socially conscious, they are definitely more interested in finding creative ways to use their law degrees. What would be a couple of those specific triggers that they would need to know about or think about or research?
Shantelle Argyle: So under IRS there is a revenue ruling that was done in the ’80s and it dictated that a legal entity — a legal services provider could charge fees for services on a couple of conditions. The first one is that the clients that they are serving are those who are either indigent or otherwise unable to afford an attorney. The second part of it is that the fees that are charged are nominal and based on the client’s ability to pay.
So those are specific to those who are providing legal services. We meet the first requirement because the clients that we serve are just above the poverty level, going up to 400% of poverty.
Adriana Linares: And how do you qualify them when they come in or seek your services, do you have a qualification process that you put them through, or is it the honor system?
Shantelle Argyle: Well, it’s a little bit of both and they do fill out a form and actually in a couple of places declare their income, and then the attorney reviews that income with the client when they come in.
The second part is that most of our cases are domestic, and in family law cases in Utah we have an extra additional discovery disclosure requirement, which is basically everything about their finances that we are required to turn over to the other side. So as part of any case we typically are getting all of their financials anyway.
So for us it’s the honor system until we get those documents and then there’s a clawback provision in our agreement, if we determine they have misrepresented intentionally in some way.
Adriana Linares: Excellent. Okay, so we have this idea, we are going nonprofit, we figured out some of the regulations and checkboxes, and then it probably comes time to figuring out how to set your fee schedule.
Daniel Spencer: Yeah, we took a little bit of a different approach, so while a lot of our colleagues who had recently graduated were hanging up shingles, were taking a look around saying, well, I have no idea what to charge, what should I charge, what’s a rate, what’s a reasonable hourly rate, right, which I mean, what’s the classical rule in economics, it’s whatever the market will bear.
Brand-new attorney right out of law school, I could probably get away with charging $150 an hour or $175 an hour. Your mileage may vary depending on your area and all that. So a lot of people are looking at it in that perspective. We sort of took the other approach, because we are looking at what is the lowest rate that we can possibly charge and still eat and clothe our children.
Adriana Linares: And feed children.
Daniel Spencer: Exactly, yeah. We took an approach of, let’s figure out what is our overhead and then based on that is a reasonable salary for us, what do we have to charge on top of that in order to make enough of a margin that we won’t have to shut our doors if one person doesn’t pay.
And what we came up with originally was little bit of a lowball, granted, we were basically a Grisham novel of that time, we were working at the back of an another law firm, in trade, for covering a couple of public defender dockets per week. At that point we looked at it and we came up with about $40 per hour, at which point if — as long as they paid, at $40 an hour, we could just meet our base salaries and our expenses.
Since then we have had to increase that as we have increased our capabilities and come to the realization that there are certain things you do need to have that add a little bit of margin on top of that. But bottomline is, we ended up with a base rate of $60 per hour, and we are just about profitable at $60 per hour.
Adriana Linares: And is that assuming that there’s two attorneys billing $60 an hour, 8 hours a day?
Shantelle Argyle: No, we actually billed it on a low billable requirement on purpose, because Dan and I both had small kids, and we wanted to go home and see them, so our billable requirement is only $13.52 per year, which is 26 hours a week.
Adriana Linares: Great.
Shantelle Argyle: So the goal there is, obviously it’s 5.2 hours a day for the attorney to bill, and our annual budget is based on the average hourly rate that we bill, which is closer to $70, so we start at $60, but our average is closer to $70, and that allows us to supplement those lower income individuals who qualify for the very bottom rate.
And as long as every attorney here hits their goal, we are able to meet our overhead with a little bit of margin. It’s not a huge margin, and we would like it to be more, but we also know that we are serving a really key demographic and we don’t want to market to the exclusivity of those higher demographic clients simply so that we can make a higher profit margin.
Daniel Spencer: We have never been profit-driven; we are a nonprofit, that would make sense. At the same time, we have a very careful line we have to tow, where we don’t want to be charging so much that we are pricing anyone out of services, since that’s part of our core mission. At the same time, we need to be able to provide enough money that our attorneys can eat.
Adriana Linares: Sure.
Daniel Spencer: We need competitive salaries, and we need to be able to cover certain things as they come up. So it’s definitely a challenge, but it’s one that we are constantly developing.
Adriana Linares: Well, and I know, I have seen a couple of your presentations; of course read a lot about both of you, and have met you in person. Actually Dan, I don’t know if you and I have met in person.
Daniel Spencer: I don’t think so, no.
Adriana Linares: I don’t think so, no. Well, we will soon, I am sure.
Daniel Spencer: I am sure.
Adriana Linares: I know that you all spent a lot of time with statistics and numbers and really keeping a very close eye on every penny in and every penny out. Do you want to talk a little bit about why that was so critical, because I definitely feel that when I help lawyers walk into law firms, that’s something that, they just think, no, I have got it in my head, I have figured out, I know exactly what it’s going to be. But that’s something that you impress upon your audience when you speak to them a lot, Shantelle.
Shantelle Argyle: Yeah, absolutely. And the fact that I am also the accountant here makes a big difference, because when you are writing those checks, I have seen so many lawyers who hire a bookkeeper or they hire an accountant; in fact, I just heard a story recently about a local attorney here, who for six months, the bookkeeper was forgetting to set up the auto pay, the recurring payments for credit cards. And by the time he caught this mistake, the cases were resolved, and these were flat fee cases, so the clients who have gotten their result don’t want to pay now. It wasn’t coming out automatically and it was like $70,000 in lawsuits for this attorney.
So when you have a bookkeeper, you have an accountant, and they come to you and they say, here are your bills for the month, sign these checks, I have filled them all out for you, you just don’t quite have a handle on what’s actually coming in and going out, and that’s where mistakes are made, that’s why lawyers get in trouble with accidentally bouncing expense checks out of IOLTA accounts, and they are finding themselves in trouble with the Bar.
You have to know your business, and too many of us attorneys just think, well, I am in court everyday, I am busting my hump, I am taking care of my clients, I am doing good business, but they don’t know how much their clients are costing to acquire, they don’t know how effective their advertising is, they don’t know how many hours they are spending on a flat fee case, so their flat fee amount they are charging might be competitive with the market, but it might not be competitive for the work effort that they are putting in, and it’s actually losing them money.
And so not looking at statistics, not being familiar enough with a profit and loss statement and what that means, I mean, these are things that cost so less to grow out a business all the time and to rack up debts that are unnecessary because they simply couldn’t put the effort in to learn a little bit more about the business side of things.
Adriana Linares: Yeah, that always disappoints me and it’s just so common, it’s crazy, so definitely encouraging attorneys, especially young lawyers to get education and information, take some classes, take some training on just business one-on-one and how to read a Profit & Loss statement, do some basic accounting, I think it’s critical.
Daniel Spencer: And even early on in law school, there was a — I know at the University of Utah we had a program where we could actually take reciprocal courses through other colleges. We could have either of us had we had any idea that we were getting in for this, would have been able to take classes from the College of Business and get some reciprocal credit for that towards our law degree. We didn’t avail ourselves of that, most attorneys don’t, you just — you want to practice law and you have under this idea, this notion that really I think we all need to be doing a better idea of disabusing young lawyers of that notion because it’s really no matter what you’re doing, if you’re in a firm of hundred attorneys or if you are solo, you need to know other skills, you’ve got to either be a rainmaker, you’ve got to be an accountant or bookkeeper. There are always crossover skills, almost no one gets to just practice law.
Adriana Linares: It’s true, it’s a great tip. Let me ask you this before I ask you my next question because I think this will be a pretty easy answer, were you able to set up or sign up for any sort of loan forgiveness because of the nonprofit status of your law firm for your law school loans?
Shantelle Argyle: Yes, so we’re eligible for the public interest loan forgiveness under Federal Law because we are a 501(c)(3) charity. So it’s 10 years and most lawyers don’t know this, I think it’s interesting that we all kind of have these ideas in law school when they say those magic words, loan forgiveness, we think of, someday I’ll figure that out, some of my attorneys that work here don’t even know how this works and I have explained it a couple times.
You have to make a 120 qualifying payments. Qualifying payments towards your student loans means you paid it every month and it was on time for that month to count, and it’s cumulative, meaning, if I work at the prosecutor’s office for five years and then I leave and go run my own firm for a couple of years and then I take a job teaching at the State school down the street, those years can add up as long as I was making qualifying payments during that time.
So you’ve got 60 payments at the prosecutor’s office and then you get the rest of them at the University, it’s going to qualify. You just need to have your employer fill out a form when you leave your employment or annually and have them certify that they are an eligible institution and turn it in, and I encourage everybody to do that because every year the legislature is talking about repealing this option for us. And there’s always an uproar and then it doesn’t happen but it could happen and because the very first group of those eligible for public interest loan forgiveness will not be till 2017 unless you’ve been filing your annual statements, which you are not required to do, you can wait till the 10 years is up, they don’t actually know how many people are relying on this.
And if we can get people turning them in every year even though they’re not required to, the legislature will have a much better idea of how many of us are counting on that money and that’s why we do these jobs.
Daniel Spencer: And we might all have a class-action estoppel claim.
Adriana Linares: There you go. Always thinking like the good lawyer that you are, Dan. The next question I wanted to ask you, thanks for that, I am sure that’s going to — oh there is a lot of people that are going to be listening to this and their eyes are going to bulge open because that’s really good straightforward information that you’re right, Shantelle, you kind of hear that but maybe you don’t understand how it works, so I think that’s great.
So moving along sort of trying to go through the timeline, you have the law firm, you decide Open, you’ve got some space maybe, you were in the back of another law firm, but I know we are going to talk in a few minutes about your big grand opening that you had. How did you get those initial clients once you opened your doors?
Shantelle Argyle: It’s really funny, I put an ad on Facebook, I paid like $5.
Adriana Linares: Okay, it’s brilliant.
Shantelle Argyle: We just boosted a post.
Adriana Linares: Who says you can’t get legal clients from Facebook?
Shantelle Argyle: Oh, we tell people all the time, especially in our demographic that it is a great service. You boost a post, I think all I said was something like we are so proud that we are now able to serve low and moderate income clients on a sliding scale starting at $60 an hour for family law cases and I just boosted the post, I paid like $5, we had a client within a day.
Adriana Linares: No way.
Shantelle Argyle: Yeah.
Adriana Linares: I love that.
Shantelle Argyle: And then we had three more by the end of the week and then we had — and so we were only open for 1.5 months in 2013 when we very first open and we still did about $6,500 in business.
Adriana Linares: That’s great.
Shantelle Argyle: So for very little payout as far as the cost of acquisition, once the doors were open, the clients just poured in and they are still doing it, we are actually – we have a waiting list right now for the first time ever because we are trying to hire another attorney right now and we are in this weird gap between the two Bar exams, so it’s tough.
Daniel Spencer: So if any of you Florida attorneys who are listening to this wanting to ask in beautiful Utah where the skiing is fantastic year-round —
Adriana Linares: Contact us now. If lines are busy, call back. No, that’s great. And hey, you never know, maybe you will get somebody who is dying to come out there and work at a nonprofit law firm that’s doing amazing things.
Tell me real quick, so today, are you still using — obviously you are probably still using Facebook, have you expanded your marketing budget, are you using other forms?
Shantelle Argyle: No, we are really not. I mean, sometimes I do $20 instead of $5.
Adriana Linares: Whoa!
Shantelle Argyle: It’s like twice a year. I know, right, hold the phone. We don’t really have an advertising budget because we don’t really need it.
Adriana Linares: That’s amazing.
Daniel Spencer: Yeah, the thing is that if you build it, they will come, it’s true, it’s very much true. There is such a need out there. The challenge is just education. It’s not about just brand recognition, it’s not about trying to compare and contrast your services to the next room over, it’s really just a matter of people knowing that you exist and that people will just come and start saying please take my case, because when you are one of the only options for a lot of people, they are going to tend to come and talk to you.
Adriana Linares: They will find you. They will talk to you. Tell me a little bit about your sliding scale.
Shantelle Argyle: Our sliding scale is based on a little bit of science and a little bit of art, because we did it in a spreadsheet and tried to make the grades look as pretty as possible.
It’s evenly spaced. The art came in when we said, just because you have more annual income doesn’t necessarily mean you have more disposable income or does it, and by how much, and so it really was a little bit of determining the beginning and endpoints and then trying to decide what was the most fair way to place the gaps in between those ranges of income.
What we found is that we sort of expected people to wear toward maybe 200% of poverty, those who knew they didn’t have a ton of money, but didn’t feel like they were nonprofit people who would be looking for a free attorney, and what we have learned is that almost everybody is at the bottom of the scale, really, really close to the bottom of the scale.
And so we have actually considered reestablishing the scale to be maybe with less gradients or maybe it’s just like three tiers, or maybe we recognize that the majority are going to be toward the bottom so we make that a bigger gap. We are still tweaking the model, and that’s the thing that we tell people all the time is we are guessing at demographics. These are human beings with jobs and families and lives and Federal Poverty Level is incredibly arbitrary, so we have talked about switching to the Area Median Income, which is done by county, so it’s a little bit more representative of the demographic of our community here.
Daniel Spencer: But even with that, then we are dealing with a lot of guesswork and really just feedback from clients, are we getting a lot of people that are coming in at this price point or that price point. The main thing that we focus on is just trying to make sure that it is affordable. I mean, it certainly is that, but yeah, we were very surprised.
We assumed that it would be closer to the middle, but the thing is if you picture a bell curve, being a whole lot of people in the middle, and then a few people in the tail end, that’s not how the economy works. It’s more of a pyramid, and it’s very, very sharply tapered. You have got a lot of people at the bottom two-thirds or so and then it’s just very, very few people at the very top. So that’s just how it works, and that’s partly just because of the disparity in wealth in this country right now, and for various reasons, but whatever those may be, when you have a hard cutoff for help with legal aid, hard cutoff is 125% of the Federal Poverty Level, you are above that, sorry. So when that’s a factor, yeah, we are going to have a lot more people at the very bottom than we are at the top or the middle.
Adriana Linares: Do you take on any pro bono cases?
Shantelle Argyle: We don’t, but we participate in some of the clinics that are done around town and we send volunteers over to do those, and sometimes they turn into paying clients, because they need a little bit more help and they are not able to really be pro se.
Adriana Linares: Excellent.
Shantelle Argyle: Yeah, it’s a good way. And we actually started a clinic as part of that same task force I mentioned earlier, that’s Dan’s brain baby, he came up with the name which I love, it’s called Courthouse Steps. And Courthouse Steps is a clinic to walk in and pay your $100 and be with an attorney for an hour to draft your family law documents.
It’s just incredible, because it’s basically taking people, even those who go to the free clinic at the Courthouse, and they need more help, they need something hands-on, and the Online Court Assistance Program that the State of Utah offers spits out about 200 pages of documents, and while you can walk into the clerk and hand them over and start your case, sometimes those free form fields you are allowed to type in whatever you want aren’t actually constitutional, sometimes an attorney needs to speak with the other side and you could just solve the whole case all at once.
And so having a clinic where it’s recognized that we don’t care what your income is, come pay a $100, you get an hour of our time, we will draft something up and we will send you out of there with a product that actually looks like it should and it’s what the court is expecting to see, and with clear instructions about what to do next.
And oftentimes they come back and they want to hire that attorney. So it’s a way to generate business for solos and small businesses who are looking to serve the modest means demographic, but not necessarily a long-term commitment, unless the attorney chooses to do that.
Adriana Linares: That’s great. That’s amazing. Good job you guys. Let me ask you a little bit about something that’s of course very near and dear to my heart and I couldn’t do an interview like this without talking about it, and that is the type of technology that you are using to manage your matters and/or the importance of having good technology in place that allows you to move these matters quickly through the lifecycle of a matter.
Daniel Spencer: Having something in place is definitely critical so 30:42 malpractice, pretty much universally required that the Model Rules have some kind of conflict check procedure, even if that is just a matter of keeping track of names and contact information in an Excel spreadsheet, but we weren’t really satisfied with that going into this.
The whole idea from the get-go was that this would be a scalable model. We knew that there was a huge demographic out there. We knew that just the two of us weren’t going to be able to cut it. There is just too much of a need, and that has borne out. And so as we have grown, we have pretty much I think within the first couple of months outgrown the ability to just se an Excel spreadsheet.
With my background in database management I was able to put together a fairly basic system in Microsoft Access that served most of our needs, and really still is serving most of our needs, just an idea of keeping track of, not just the clients’ personal information for conflict check purposes, but also tracking the billing that we are doing and being able to put notes next to what it was that we did. These basic functions that you can get a lot of these through other paid services and all that, but when we are just starting out on a shoestring budget, then paying the cloud subscription rates, even if it’s $10, $15 a month, it just wasn’t doable, it wasn’t feasible for us. So we basically got this thing coded in a couple of weeks in its most basic form and we went from there.
We now have gotten to a point though where we have kind of outgrown the capabilities of Microsoft Access, as expansive as those are. We are now moving to, as a nonprofit, the Salesforce Foundation actually gives free licenses for Salesforce subscription to nonprofits; we get 10 licenses.
Salesforce, for those that are not in the know, is an incredibly powerful cloud-based tool. It’s not really designed for law practice management, so it has required quite a bit of tweaking and optimization to try and make it actually work for our purposes, but the fact that it is distributed, and the fact that it’s in the cloud means that we can do things like open an office one city over and still have the same system in place. We can have attorneys entering their time in court. These are all important efficiencies that we get and we don’t have billable hours falling through the cracks.
And so that type of system, it is something that — it certainly wouldn’t be available to us if it weren’t for both of our technical backgrounds, but it’s an example though of thinking outside the box. Instead of using a readymade solution, we rolled our own.
Adriana Linares: And I think that’s incredibly impressive and amazing. I was in a law firm last week, Leslie Stewart’s office in Lake Mary, Florida. Her husband is also a coder and had written for her a custom solution for her law firm and the type of practice that she has, which is niche, and it’s amazing and I was so impressed I couldn’t believe it.
I do want to say out loud though that most attorneys are not going to have the ability to do that, or the time to pay a coder to develop something on the shelf for them, and really all lawyers should consider a practice management program that is affordable and pliable and helps you reduce the risk of malpractice.
And in Florida we have a lot of great member benefits that are cloud-based, so I want to encourage the listeners in Florida to make sure they go to the PRI website and look at what some of those options are, because you get some good discounts. And of course if you do end up thinking about a nonprofit law firm, many of these legal technology specific companies will of course honor a heavy discount or maybe even offer at no charge some of their services, so keep that in mind.
Shantelle Argyle: We actually do consulting, so if somebody out there is interested in starting their own nonprofit law firm and they contact me to do consulting work, I actually provide Microsoft Access database for free to those clients.
Adriana Linares: That’s great. That’s pretty cool.
Shantelle Argyle: And it is amazing. Dan doesn’t take enough credit for this database that he made, and he sort of — it’s like the first child. He feels like he worked really hard on it and then it dropped out of high school or something. He moved on to Salesforce and abandoned it. But it is so fantastic, and the metrics and reporting you can pull out of this database and the usability of that. We export the billing events from Access into a spreadsheet that I then pop into the quick box, so we don’t have to type in invoices every week, it’s just automated.
Adriana Linares: Amazing.
Shantelle Argyle: Yeah, it’s fantastic.
Adriana Linares: And it’s just — it’s so refreshing and great to hear lawyers talking like this. And I know you all had a little bit of a cheat because of your previous backgrounds, but I love it, I think it’s great.
Before I let you go, because we have had you on for a long time and we could probably talk about this all day, I do want you to tell us about your new office that you just had a grand opening for, and how you got there and how excited you are, and I know that much of that success is based on Dan’s Access Program.
Daniel Spencer: Sure, of course, yeah.
Shantelle Argyle: We actually — so this is our third location since we have opened. The first one was just a couple of rooms in the back of a law firm and we were doing trade work, and we did that trade work until we actually had enough clients that it didn’t make sense for us to do the trade work. We would make more money if we were staying back at the office billing.
So we gave that up and it was only a month or so later that we realized we were ready to start hiring some staff. And we found an office downtown, right across from the courthouse, and it was a great 100-year-old building with plumbing issues and no heat or air conditioning in the basement.
Daniel Spencer: My office smelt of week old curry.
Shantelle Argyle: It did, it was next to a curry restaurant, which smells fantastic and has great food, but in the basement where the kitchen is the smells were less pleasant. So we were struggling, our attorneys needed some actual sunlight, and so we started looking for some alternative space, because it used to be two of us and we answered our own phones and we just thought we were the coolest thing ever, and suddenly we had people that worked for us who needed to be cared for and taken care of and nourished and —
Daniel Spencer: You are describing our employees like plants, you realize that, right?
Shantelle Argyle: Well, better that than children; usually I describe them like children.
Adriana Linares: I was thinking it sounds like a great indoor plant.
Shantelle Argyle: Yeah, we needed places for them to nap and have snacks. So if we wanted them to grow and be successful, we needed to get them out of the darkness.
So we looked around for another space, because we needed to make sure that we could take care of our people. We work in a really grueling industry, and particularly so dealing with custody and divorce, so it’s important to work in an environment where you can take a little pride.
So we found this amazing office space, which wasn’t that much more per month, a couple of hundred dollars more per month, and we won an award called the Impact Award from an organization called 100 Women Who Care, which is a national organization.
Adriana Linares: Congratulations! That’s pretty cool.
Shantelle Argyle: Thank you. It’s really exciting and it’s an amazing enterprise, because 100 individual women come together for an hour, four times a year, and they all donate $100, which becomes $10,000, and that’s the Impact Award.
So it’s really kind of funny. They nominate charities and they put the charities in a hat and they draw three names out of the hat, and those three charities have five minutes to present about what they are doing, what their current project is, why they should get this money, and we won. And we were able to get the award to get all new desks and computers for our whole new office.
Adriana Linares: That’s amazing.
Daniel Spencer: Yeah, it gave us a little bit of a jumpstart. Normally it would have taken us about a year-and-a-half to be able to put together that kind of money to be able to jump right into something like this. So while we certainly don’t prefer to rely on donations for day-to-day operations as part of our model, any kind of grants or anything like that that we get to allow us to more quickly expand, we are all about that.
Adriana Linares: And quick question, do you all apply for any sort of grants?
Shantelle Argyle: We have applied for one grant so far, and it was through our local legal aid organization called And Justice For All, and it was a $5,000 grant to help us open our second location, which will be in Ogden, Utah, which is up on the northern part of Utah. It’s a very large city, but it serves a number of rural communities that are kind of surrounding, that are too hard for us to get to from Salt Lake, or at least not cost-effective with all the travel time that we would have to bill for. So we will be opening that location hopefully later on this summer; we are looking for office space right now.
Adriana Linares: That’s amazing. Do you — sorry, I have so many questions for you, I can’t let you go. Did you do the grant writing yourself, because I know that that can be kind of a challenge, especially if it’s something that you are new and not used to, but certainly not something an intelligent attorney with some good research couldn’t figure out, did you all write the grants yourselves?
Daniel Spencer: We did. One thing that I would encourage certainly is it can be incredibly helpful to have a development person. It’s a very specialized skill set. It’s something that if you can swing it, then that would be fantastic, but again, early on we are not in a position to be able to pay a salary to someone to just do development. So we pretty much just — we did it ourselves, we kind of figured it out, and it has worked out great so far.
Shantelle Argyle: Well, and one thing I will say about that is, eventually depending on if our model changes to where grants become a bigger part of our structure, I don’t know that that will happen, because it’s counterintuitive to the sustainability that we preach, but I was not great at this grant application in one way, which was that I wasn’t willing to play along with the rules that typically go with legal grants. They don’t like you to have geographic service areas that overlap, that’s part of the Legal Services Corporation thing. And I basically wrote on the grant, if somebody else applies for this money and you won’t give it to them because they are in my neighborhood, just give it to them, I don’t want it. Because I want to encourage —
Adriana Linares: That’s interesting. You are a real legal rebel after all, aren’t you Shantelle?
Shantelle Argyle: I am. I want to encourage competition, including in the nonprofit industry. Now, that means looking for funding sources that don’t take funding away from legal aid, but it also means that there should be plenty of us, there should be one on every corner, and until that happens I am not going to have somebody else who doesn’t maybe have the same model as us who really does need that money lose that money because of us.
Adriana Linares: That’s cool. Well, you two are at the top of my list of amazing do-gooders, that’s for sure. So I really want to congratulate you and I certainly hope and I am just positive that listening to the two of you is going to really open up some eyes and encourage lot of young attorneys, or maybe even older attorneys to take a look at a model like this in Florida. The Access issue is certainly something that our Board of Governors is interested in and looking at, and I just think it’s amazing.
So before I let you go why don’t you each take a moment to let everyone know how they can learn more about you, talk to you about your consulting services, find, friend, or follow you on the Internet.
Shantelle Argyle: Yeah, so they can — the easiest way to get in touch is go to our website, which is HYPERLINK “http://www.openlegalservices.org” openlegalservices.org. There is a Contact Form on there they can fill out. They can follow me on Twitter, I am @shantelle8.
Daniel Spencer: And I tend to be pretty busy just helping our baby lawyers practice law, so I am a little harder to get a hold of, but if you get a hold of Shantelle and you have any questions for me about coding or otherwise, I am happy to help out.
Adriana Linares: Sounds like that form is a great way to really get the conversation started. I am sure you have a process for how those forms get pushed through to the right person.
Shantelle Argyle: Yeah, I read them all.
Adriana Linares: Well, Shantelle, maybe someday you will have somebody who can read them for you, but you guys just need to keep doing the amazing and successful and inspirational work that you are doing. Thank you so much. And thank you for taking $120 worth of your daily time out to talk to us. I really, really appreciate it.
Shantelle Argyle: Thank you so much for having us.
Daniel Spencer: It’s our pleasure, Adriana. Thank you.
Adriana Linares: You are welcome. Well, for all you listeners who would like to learn more, make sure you check out the official Florida Bar Podcast on the PRI section of the Florida Bar website.
And don’t forget that on HYPERLINK “http://www.legaltalknetwork.com” legaltalknetwork.com you can also subscribe to the various, and there is more than just this podcast, there is a lot of great podcasts out there, you can subscribe through iTunes, RSS, Twitter, Facebook, and make sure you find, friend, and follow us too.
That brings us to the end of our show. I am Adriana Linares. Thank you for listening. Make sure to join us next time for another great episode of the official Florida Bar Podcast.
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