This week, just ahead of the first anniversary of the Commons Law Center, OregonPEN is pleased to present an interview with its founding executive, Amanda Caffall.
OregonPEN: When did the Commons Law Center officially kick off?
Amanda Caffall: Well, we were incorporated in May of 2016. And started serving clients in January of 2017.
OregonPEN: Do you have a virtual space, or do you have a physical office?
Amanda Caffall: We have a physical office down in John’s Landing in Portland. And I do work remotely with a lot of clients, so I work with people remotely, digitally, and I also meet with people in the offices of the pro bono lawyers who volunteer with our program.
OregonPEN: Can you estimate how many clients you’ve seen since January of 2017?
Amanda Caffall: 19.
OregonPEN: What was the mission or the thought of creating the Commons Law Center when you formed it?
Amanda Caffall: So currently, and this number is from the American Bar Association. 80% of people in the United States do not have access to civil legal care. The ABA published a report in August of last year by The Commission on the Future of Legal Services, and that report really dives into what is our access to justice pro bono, and what the heck are we going to do about it.
So 80% of people don’t have access to civil legal care. Meanwhile, the National Association for Law Placement reports that 30% of new lawyers are unemployed or underemployed nine months after graduation. So that’s either two big problems, or an apparent solution to a big problem.
So what the Commons Law Center does is train new lawyers to be competent providers of legal services, and direct their energy to serve clients who live between 125 and 400% of the federal poverty level. So 125% of where legal aid drops off, and 400% of the federal poverty level is, for a family of four this year, it’s about $97,000 dollars a year. So people at 400% not necessarily living in crisis, not necessarily facing potential homelessness, but also having a hard time making it in today’s economy.
And they are part of the access to justice gap. So that report I mentioned from August 2016 found that “yeah, we know that low income people have trouble finding legal help, but also moderate income Americans have trouble finding legal help.”
So we looked around the country at the legal incubator movement, which has proliferated since 2007. There are now about 65 or 70 so-called legal incubators operating. And we looked at what was working with the legal incubators and what wasn’t. And the big idea behind legal incubators is take those five new lawyers, direct them at the access to justice gap. Unfortunately, most legal incubators operate such that new lawyers are solo practitioners participating in a program, rather than new lawyers being full time salaried staff members at a nonprofit organization.
And so, many legal incubators struggle financially. A law firm or a law school or a state buyer association will seed fund an incubator, and then a couple years down the road they’re like, gee whiz, could we keep carrying this or what? Because it’s not making any money on its own.
So we also looked around the country at the sliding scale law firm movement, which has proliferated as well. And we found an organization in Utah called Open Legal Services. They’ve been financially self-sufficient since 2012, and they’re serving the same socio-economic demographic, 125-400% of the federal poverty level. And we said gee, why don’t we combine these two concepts, why don’t we say we want to hire and train new lawyers, and we want to provide sliding scale legal services to people to help them afford legal services. So we’ve developed a business model — we don’t do any pro bono services. Everything we provide for people, every legal service we provide for people they pay for, but we provide it on a sliding scale.
Our hourly rates range outside the family law context from $35 – $150 dollars, and in the family law context they range from $75 – $175 dollars. We believe that our organization can be financially self sufficient, and can expand access to justice. Which is important, because funding for the Legal Services Corporation, which supports Legal Aid, has continued to drop.
And even though in Oregon we’re really good, as a legal community, at giving to the Campaign for Equal Justice, we’re still not giving nearly enough for them to have the resources they need to serve the population that lives below 125%. So one thing that’s really essential is that we do not long term compete for those philanthropic dollars with Legal Aid, but that we create a model that can support itself financially and expand access to justice.
That was a big answer to your question. I’m happy to break any of that down.
OregonPEN: What is the reason for the distinction in the sliding scales, in and out of family law? Family law being an area where people are often in crisis, such as when monetary stress causes family stress. I was surprised that your sliding scale for family law was higher than your normal sliding scale – what’s that about?
Amanda Caffall: Gotta make the boat float financially. For most of the matters we do in the business context, the nonprofit context, and the estate planning context, 90% of the work in those areas if not more is on a flat or fixed rate basis. So we’re never charging people by the hour.
In the family law context and in the probate context, we have to charge people by the hour, because it’s impossible to predict how their matter’s going to go. There’s no such thing as a simple divorce.
Because we’re actually doing a lot of hourly work in the family law context, we have to make sure that the hourly work is generating enough revenue to make the organization viable.
We looked at St. Andrews legal clinic. They’ve been around for 40 years providing sliding scale legal services to largely the same population that we’re providing those services to. And their minimum retainer is a thousand dollars. My minimum retainer is a thousand dollars. So I know I’m on par with other nonprofits in this space already. Now we’re what, eight months into this program? There’s a lot of learning as we go along with … The intent is how can we deliver services in a way that drives the cost down for the low to moderate income consumer.
So in ten years, is it possible that the minimum hourly rate for family law is less than $75 dollars, sure, that’s possible. But there’s a lot of strict attention and discipline around the business model, that, yes, we are operating in the nonprofit context, but we are dependent on fees earned to make the thing go. There’s no foundation backing us up with fifty or a hundred grand. Do I think there should be? Hell yes I do. Have I asked? You bet. Am I going to continue asking? Absolutely. But right now, it is this very careful balance of making sure we have enough matters at rates that clients can afford, that also help pay for the program.
One of the things I’m doing right now is I’m raising a $100,000 seed fund. And that $100,000 seed fund goes to on-board the first cohort fellows, and build the community relationships that we need to really make the phone ring.
What I know today is that I’m getting about 15 calls a month. Every three calls turns into a client. I need to make the phone ring a lot more every month before I can hire the first cohort of fellows. And I need a philanthropic infusion to help. Before the business part of this is really rolling and generating enough revenue to be financially self sufficient, I need that capital infusion to do things like pay the bar dues of the brand new lawyers who come to work for our program. Pay the professional liability insurance for the new fellows that come work for our program.
The other thing I want to make sure I explain is how the training happens for these new lawyers. I like to joke that any brand new lawyer can be your lawyer, they’re just probably not going to be a very good one. And I’ve only had one person push back on that. The other joke that somebody shared with me is that brand new law license is essentially a license to commit malpractice. So we know that there is something really fundamentally broken about how new lawyers are produced — there’s a disconnect between the educational process and the actual providing the public with services process.
So we are intending to hire these brand new lawyers who don’t have any practical training, who maybe had some clerkships or summer jobs but who haven’t actually been a practicing lawyer. So the quality control, the training for those new lawyers, comes in the form of pro bono supervisory input, basically.
As you can imagine, we’ve sort of taken the partner-associate relationship, and the associate is within the Commons Law Center, and the “partner” is a pro bono lawyer who gives a minimum of two hours a month to our program to help mentor, train, and supervise new lawyers.
And it started by building the team of pro bono lawyers. I need to triple it in short order, before it turns into 2018. And those lawyers, instead of giving pro bono services directly to a client, they’re giving services in partnership with our fellows. So they are having the opportunity to mentor and train, in a really practical, hands on way, new lawyers, and also provide pro bono services.
So we’re in the process right now of our application to be an Oregon State Bar certified pro bono agency is winding its way through the right channels. It has passed all the desk it needs to pass at the bar, it’s on the right desk at the Professional Liability Fund right now.
If we are accepted as a pro bono certified agency, then lawyers who, say, are in-house counsel or are retired and not currently carrying their own PLF coverage can get umbrella coverage through the PLF because they’re giving pro bono time to our program. So I think there’s a big opportunity to tap into the wealth of expertise that experienced, retired or semi-retired lawyers in Oregon have to help train new lawyers to expand access to get this.
OregonPEN: Yeah, there’s a lot in that. The issues around PLF are huge. I know that in my first year in practice, my PLF bill was bigger than the billings from clients. I began in the last quarter of the year, and I ended up paying more to the PLF than all my clients combined paid me in that quarter. And it’s quite a serious issue when you have the mandatory PLF. Do you have any sense whether pulling this off is easier in states without the mandatory malpractice insurance for every new lawyer?
Amanda Caffall: No idea. But what I do know is if I’m a brand new lawyer in any state in the country, I want professional liability insurance. I want to be covered. As brand new lawyers, people have almost no idea what they’re doing. They need the insurance. I’m perfectly okay going out to fundraise to say I need this money to pay for PLF for the fellows in my program, because I want them to have that coverage. And there’s no way around me paying for PLF coverage for those lawyers, and so that’s okay. But with our plan to hire three fellows each fall, by the time we get to a place where — and we’re asking the fellows to stay with the program for three years – so that bill to the PLF gets really big really fast.
But so too does the bill for the bar dues. Now the benefit is that these fellows are all going to be new lawyers, so they’ll be in that … I think it’s the first three years your PLF dues are lower than they are later on.
OregonPEN: You have no exposure until you have clients. I’ve often wondered about the huge barrier to entry, even with the 40% discount for the first year and 20% for the second year, you’re still talking thousands of dollars before you’ve seen your first client. And that’s whether it’s a paying client or not a paying client, it’s quite a barrier.
Let’s talk more about the economics that you have alluded to. I run into a number of older lawyers who basically went into practice with no debt. Are there any new lawyers coming around without any debt, into your program?
Amanda Caffall: No way. The average debt load of a new lawyer is $112,000 dollars. That data is a couple years old, I heard someone say recently it was more like $140,000 today. These new lawyers — they have huge debt. There’s so much we could talk about, about just like big national macroeconomic trends, and the enormous debt load that Millennials are carrying that no other generation before us has carried. And it’s huge, it’s criminal. I mean, we have essentially debilitated an entire generation in American history, because of the huge debt load they’re carrying. And I feel really passionately about this. I have an enormous debt load.
There’s one way I imagine that debt load going away, which is part of the reason why I think our program will be really attractive to new fellows. So in our budget we’ve targeted that we’ll pay these new fellows $40,000 a year. Is that a huge salary? Nope. Is it a livable salary? Yes. I think I can hire lawyers at that salary because there aren’t other nonprofit organizations that will hire them. For the class of 2016, when they graduated, in the entire State of Oregon there were 1.5 positions available to practice law in a nonprofit organization in the state. And those 1.5 positions were with Legal Aid, and they will tell you that they don’t hire brand new lawyers because we are way too expensive to train and they don’t have the resources for it.
So the benefit of working for the Commons Law Center as a brand new lawyer with enormous debt load is twofold. One, your student loan payments will be based on your income, your income will be modest, your loan payments will also be modest.
Number two, and this is the important one, because we’re a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, the loan payments that our fellows make while they’re working with us qualify for public interest loan forgiveness. This is a program that George W. Bush put together, and if you work for ten years and make 120 qualifying payments — a payment that’s made on time while you work for a 501(c)(3) — then your entire remaining student debt can be forgiven.
Now you may have read about the lawsuit that the ADA and others are in right now, with the U.S. Department of Education, where the Department of Education denied forgiveness for a number of people.
And it’s the ABA and other folks that are suing. And honestly I would know more about it if the thought of the program going away didn’t keep me up at night and give me tremendous anxiety about my future and my life choices. The Justice Department last week filed a motion for summary judgment saying that they didn’t actually really ever promise to forgive all this debt, so we’re not sure that these people reasonably relied on the program. It just drives me crazy.
So provided that [A] we all survive this administration, literally, and [B] that the public interest loan forgiveness program survives this administration, then the fellows will have that other huge benefit to working to working with the Commons Law Center, because they’ll have three years under their belt towards their ten years right out of the gate.
And what I hope — more than hope, what I intend — is that we’re equipping new lawyers with the ability to be competent providers of legal services, but also with the understanding of how to make the business or nonprofit go, how to make the boat float financially.
In my dream world, after fellows get done with our program, they move to a rural part of Oregon that currently doesn’t have a lawyer or doesn’t have enough lawyers, and they start a new nonprofit organization there with all the tools I’ve given them in their time with the Commons Law Center. And boom, now they’re expanding access to justice in a part of the state that’s underserved. So that’s my big dream.
OregonPEN: So if the feds decide to get rid of the public service loan program, does your model still work?
Amanda Caffall: Yeah, because new lawyers – a third of new lawyers are still un- or underemployed. Whether they can get their debt forgiven or not, they’re going to need a job, and they just spent $100 or $200 grand figuring out how to be a lawyer so they need somewhere to work, to actually learn how to be a lawyer. It’s interesting what we’ve seen happen in law firms. The experience that people had who graduated law school a couple years after you through today is very different than the experience people had when they graduated law school in the 90s.
I mean, I remember, I was a 2011 grad, and I could count on one hand the people who had jobs, who I knew before we graduated. And my friend who graduated from U of O three years before I did: everyone had a job, those employers were paying for their bar study, paying for their bar dues. And the rest of us — I graduated in 2011 and was like well, now that I’ve passed the bar and my bar loan is almost gone, I have three weeks to get a job or I don’t know, I move into a van, I move back in with my parents in Washington.
So the economics for new lawyers have just changed dramatically.
The good news is that the market is responding to these changes, and fewer people are applying to go to law school. But no, I don’t think the program depends on public interest loan forgiveness; I think the sanity and the mental health of people graduating from law school, I think that depends on the public interest loan forgiveness surviving.
OregonPEN: So tell me how it is that it’s a good thing if fewer people go to law school? I mean, doesn’t the law of supply and demand say that to bring the cost of legal services down you have to have more supply chasing the market? Otherwise, if you don’t have enough lawyers, don’t prices stay up?
Amanda Caffall: Yeah. I mean that makes sense, but what about the 30% of lawyers who graduate every year who can’t get a job? The supply isn’t the problem, we have the supply. Which is why when I see the Board of Governors proposal for a licensed paraprofessionals I’m like, all right, well that sounds cool. Sure, let’s do that, let’s try that too, but let’s not mistake licensed paraprofessionals as a solution to a problem of having too few professionals. We have plenty of professionals. What we don’t have is a way for those professionals to take the step from getting their license to practice to actually being able to serve the public.
OregonPEN: So I wanted to ask you, you mentioned living with your parents in Washington. Did you mean Washington State?
Amanda Caffall: Yeah. And luckily, I got a job as the political organizer on a political campaign, so for the last six years, I’ve been doing things that have almost nothing to do with practicing law. I mean, I learned how to be a fundraiser and an organizer and a movement builder, and that’s all helpful and I’m glad I know that stuff. But I’ve been practicing law for a year. Because I didn’t have a — there was no entryway into legal service for me.
OregonPEN: The law schools are cranking out new solos all the time. And it is sobering to imagine life for these young people, typically it’s young people, who have to learn to practice law while at the same time trying to learn how to be a small business person.
Amanda Caffall: No kidding.
OregonPEN: It’s not easy to open any small business, much less while trying to learn how to practice law. The reason I mention Washington though was that Washington has something that’s always appealed to me, which is that you can read law and not acquire a huge law school debt. What I hear you saying is that we have plenty of talent and we have plenty of need, but we don’t have an economic model that allows the need to be served at any sort of cost that the market will bear. And what about getting rid of law school, or making law school an alternative rather than the only gateway to practice, by expanding on Washington’s idea that let’s you read law with a qualified mentor?
Amanda Caffall: I don’t really have an opinion about that. I mean that, is an enormous proposal. I think the proposal on my desk, which is to make the Commons Law Center go, is plenty big. I don’t want to also get into a situation where I am now advocating that legal education is fundamentally changed. I have a mentor who graduated from William and Mary, or Washington and Lee, or one of those schools in Virginia that’s a pretty — used to be — a pretty good fancy law school, high ranking in the US News and World Reports. And they changed their legal education program and they said, all right, we’ve got these three years. For the third year, it’s all practical experience, it’s all externship, it’s all working alongside and practice with a lawyer. And what happened to their ranking is that they totally tanked.
So who is going to follow that law school’s lead to fundamentally change what legal education is? I don’t know, if I’m a law school, I would have a lot of hesitation about that. I don’t want to tell law schools how to do it, I don’t want to tell anybody how to do it, but I do want people to understand that. Yes we need new economic models to connect the supply of new lawyers to the need, but we also need new training models. We need new training models, that’s the part we’re missing. We’re missing the part that enables somebody to say with confidence that they are really following the Oregon Rules of Professional Conduct around competence. How do we make brand new lawyers competent providers of legal services? That’s really the question.
And so the Commons Law Center’s answer to that is let’s bring them into the Commons Law Center, let’s partner them with experienced pro bono co-council, and let’s get them a lot of practice with somebody holding their hand through it all, to make sure that the competence is really there. And then once they’ve done that for a couple years and worked with a lot of different pro bono lawyers who all have their own theories and philosophies about practice, then let’s kick them out into the world and say okay new lawyer, you’re good now. But we just don’t have the training. And you know, things that don’t help: Lewis and Clark shutting down, the Lewis and Clark legal clinic in downtown Portland. That’s not that helpful. It’s not that helpful for the public, and it’s not that helpful for new lawyers who had that as one of their few opportunities to get practical experience at Lewis and Clark.
Amanda Caffall: But what I really want to focus on is how do we fill this training gap for lawyers? Once they’re out of law school, they’ve passed the bar, they’re certified, licensed, whatever, they’re ready to go — except they’re not really ready to go yet. How do we make them really ready to go?
And the reason I don’t want to pick on law school is because i need them. I need them to partner with me, I want them to help fund me, I want them to send me the best students they have who would be great for our program. So I don’t want to pick on law school.
OregonPEN: Sure. But let me ask about that again this way: if you have a paralegal working in a law office who’s able to work under supervision, and then at the end of five years sit for the bar exam without having to get that $140,000 of debt, doesn’t that make that person someone who’s much more able to find a $40,000 a year opportunity attractive? Because they do have all that practical experience from working in a law office for five years under supervision, and they don’t have that huge nut to service every month for student loan debt.
Amanda Caffall: Right. I don’t really know the answer to that, because as you were talking some of the things that were flashing through my mind were like, it’s sort of the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t. So I’m thinking about yeah, but what about all that stuff in law school where we dig deep on Con Law and Contracts and Property and Civ Pro, and what about all that sort of underpinnings of our whole system of justice and government? Don’t we want people to have that foundation in them when they’re going out providing legal services to the public? And maybe that is me falling into the trap of lawyers thinking they’re some sort of special snowflakes. Accountants don’t really think of themselves as some sort of special snowflakes. And us being special snowflakes is evidenced by us calling it a paraprofessional program.
OregonPEN: But this isn’t a new idea. I mean, this is in place in Washington State now, and has been for a long time.
Amanda Caffall: I’m not familiar with it in Washington. I know in California you don’t have to go to law school and you can just take the bar, but-
OregonPEN: No, you don’t have to go to an ABA accredited school in California, they’ll let you sit the bar if you go to a state accredited school.
Amanda Caffall: Oh, okay. That’s the difference.
OregonPEN: And so there’s a huge number of law schools, relatively speaking, in California compared to other states, because they can get a state accreditation without having to have ABA. Their grads can sit the bar exam, but that’s part of why the California bar pass rate is typically quite low.
Amanda Caffall: I don’t feel like this question is within the scope of my work, or the Commons Law Center’s work. Do I want people to be thinking about what’s broken about our legal education system? Yes. But what I want to think about is how do I develop a model that is replicable that helps solve the problem today? Part of my huge frustration is there’s conversations about legal incubators and training programs and the bar is having them, and committees are having them, and everyone’s having conversations, conversations, conversations with each other. And you know what that does for low income people who need a lawyer today? Nothing.
So I’m glad people are talking, that’s super. But sitting around talking about ideas is not what I consider what my role is. My role is to execute a new model that is replicable so that it can be transformative, so that we can really start doing something huge to impact who gets access to a lawyer and who doesn’t. So what I want people to do is buy into the idea that hey, we used to train lawyers by sending them to firms to work under the supervision of partners. Once they figured out what the heck they were doing, if they wanted to spin out and have a solo practice, great. But that’s how they got the training, was going to work for a law firm.
For whatever reason about law firm economics, or macroeconomics or social trends or whatever, that pipeline is broken, that is no longer how we train new lawyers to be competent providers of legal services. So how else are we going to train them so that 30% of them aren’t unemployed or underemployed, but that 100% of new lawyers who graduate law school directly start serving the public’s legal needs?
I don’t want to think about how to make life better for lawyers, I want to think about how are we going to get people access to services that they need. And my answer to that is hire them into this fellowship program, pair them with pro bono supervising attorneys, let them offer services on a sliding scale, and make it financially self sufficient so that it’s replicable and scalable and transformative and all that stuff. I want people to buy into we can establish a new model. The options are not legal aid or a private law firm, there are lots of options in between, and let’s start trying them and helping people, and let the cream rise to the top.
OregonPEN: Let’s talk about your clients – to the extent you can describe the clients that you’ve seen. You’ve had 19 cases, I think you said.
Amanda Caffall: Yep.
OregonPEN: And you feel like you’re getting a case every three calls. So there’s been 57 people who have called, and so 19 have ended up being engaged, needing legal services. Who are you serving, and how did they find you?
Amanda Caffall: Good question. So I’ll give you a couple client profiles. So one of my clients is a woman who lives on less than $16,000 a year in Social Security. She wanted to make sure that she had some kind of estate plan in place so that her son could take care of her if she became incapacitated. She called me asking for a will. She said “I need a will.” And I said okay, I learned about her situation, I made sure she was qualified for the program, and I said you know what, you don’t actually need a will. There’s nothing to probate, you’re not going to have a probate, you don’t have enough assets. Make sure you have a Transfer on Death checking account, and let me set you up with a power of attorney and advance directive and HIPPA, so that your family, your son and your sister can take care of you if anything happens. And, you know, your son gets the art supplies, your sister gets the craft supplies, they know, boom you’re taken care of. So that’s one example of a client. She came to me because she went to a senior law project clinic, and one of the attorneys that she spoke with knew about our program and said you know, you should call the Commons Law Center. So she did.
Business clients have come to me through the Oregon Secretary of State, which has a small business ombudsman. And that person is really excited about our program, gets tons of calls from businesses needing help. And their office has referred a number of business clients to the Commons Law Center. Same goes for the Small Business Development Center, which is housed at Portland Community College here in Portland. They’re part of the SBA, is SBA funded. So they’re referring clients to us, people come to them – so, for example, I have a client who’s a filmmaker right now. And he came to me wanting help forming an entity, he is a documentary filmmaker, he’s only made one film. It’s not really a job yet. And he needed help forming an entity, which I helped with.
And then he also had some pretty enormous intellectual property questions, and that is outside the scope of what I can do for him, so I’m working to find, among my stable of pro bono cooperating attorneys, somebody who will give him an hour of their time to help him understand what he needs to do, and how much it might cost him to do that stuff.
My nonprofit clients, there’s a law firm that helped. There’s a private law firm, Catalyst Law, it was their idea to start this nonprofit. They recruited me to make it go. And so they’ve had a number of clients contact them, who needed help forming a nonprofit organization, who couldn’t afford their rates and who qualified for the Commons Law Center. So I’m helping a fair amount of nonprofit organizations right now apply for tax exempt status, and clean up their corporate government stuff. These are largely nonprofits that are entirely volunteer run, and don’t have a lot of resources, either within the nonprofit or within the board of directors of a non profit organization.
The family law clients — I’m signed up for the [Oregon State Bar’s] Lawyer Referral Service and the Modest Means Service. And at least one family law client came in through the Lawyer Referral Service, and the other was a referral from an attorney who knows about our program. So it’s word of mouth at this point.
I have a list of 125 nonprofit organizations that are either community based or they are social service providers that are some sort of governmental entity. And I’m writing them all a letter and sending them a brochure saying this program exists, if we can help people that you’re helping, please let them know about us. And my hope is that I can establish relationships that are partnerships with some number of those nonprofit organizations. For example, the immigrant and refugee community organization, I reached out to them by email two weeks ago. And they said wow, thank you so much for telling us about your services. Will you come out and present about small business law, and forming a small business, to immigrant and refugee, current or prospective small business owners? And I said absolutely.
So we’re doing that in October. Because part of closing the access to justice gap is about getting people legal services they can afford, and part of it is about educating people that they even have a problem that has a legal solution. And so, making sure people have some of that initial education, so that when they are going into business with a partner, that they have a good operating agreement that has exit ramps. So that when something funky happens in their business or with their partnership, people aren’t losing their homes over it. They’re not made to be in a worse economic situation than they were before they started the business, just because they didn’t have their few legal ducks in a row that they needed.
And the thing that’s really important about our program is that for us to achieve financial self sufficiency, I have to make sure that we’re serving people across the income spectrum. So if all my clients are at 125% of the poverty level, I’m not going to be able to make the boat float financially. If they’re all at 400% of the federal poverty level, then I’m not helping — I want to be able to help people — across the spectrum, so that we’re really lifting a lot of boats, and targeting services to communities that need it. So a lot of the organizations that I hope to establish partnerships with work with communities of color or in communities of color. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that communities of color have gotten a rough ride in Oregon and in the rest of America. And if our program can not only be a tool for access to justice but also social justice, great. Better.
OregonPEN: Yeah. So if you assess an individual based on income of 125% to 400% of the poverty level income, how do you access and screen to help prospective nonprofit, or a prospective small business? How do you determine, when an entity is the client or the prospective client, how do you scale your services for them?
Amanda Caffall: Good question. Basically the same way. I require that people submit either a copy of their most recently filed taxes, or a series of recent pay stubs. And so when somebody wants to start a small business, I do the same thing. If it’s two business partners going into business, I say great, let me look at your personal tax returns for the last year to see where you are. So in that regard, the business qualification is that same as the personal qualification, because typically my clients are at that formation stage. Now I do have at least one client who has a business that’s established, and that’s been going for a couple of years. And so for their business, I was able to sit with them. And it’s a husband and wife and they both work for and run the business together, so their personal finances are the business’s finances too, their salary and earning is reflected there.
So for that client, I said let me see a copy of your business tax return, to make sure that the highest income earners don’t make more than $55,000 a year, and that the annual operating budget of the business is less than $1 million. And this is on my website, on the legal services page, there are qualifying sheets for individuals and for businesses and nonprofits, sort of breaks this down. And so if it’s an hourly business client for example, for whatever we’re working on if I have to be hourly, and the highest income earners earn $55,000 a year, then their rate is the highest hourly rate I’ll charge. So that’s how we do it for businesses and nonprofits, it is still really looking at the taxes and the individuals, and who’s making money.
For a nonprofit organization it’s the same thing. If you come to me and want to start a nonprofit organization with your partner — So this is a great example. I have a client who, with her husband and another person, are starting a nonprofit to raise money for cystic fibrosis research. And I said great, I want to see a copy of your personal tax returns, to make sure that you’re personally qualified for the program. Now in that case, the personal situation was really entwined with the nonprofit situation because it was a family starting a thing to raise money for cystic fibrosis research. And, for example, I have a nonprofit client right now that their annual operating budget is 235,000 dollars a year. I require that the budget is less than a million, but really I’m focusing on organizations that are below the $250k mark. Most of the nonprofits I serve haven’t crossed the $50,000 a year threshold and operating budget.
Amanda Caffall: This … When I first put the fee scale together for nonprofits, I said okay, we’ll only serve nonprofits if the highest salary of the highest income earner at the nonprofit organization makes less than $50,000 a year. I sat down with the Nonprofit Association of Oregon and I said all right, here’s how it works, here’s some qualifying nonprofits. And they said “Oh gee, you’re missing a lot of nonprofits who can’t afford legal services by limiting your provision of services to organizations that have the highest income earner earning less than 50k. And they also said it doesn’t seem fair for you to be considering the personal economic circumstances of individuals who work at a nonprofit, rather than the nonprofit itself. So, this one client I have, their executive director makes $80,000 a year, the nonprofit’s budget is $235,000 a year. So in that case, I looked at the budget and the financials and tax filings of the nonprofit, to qualify them.
So it’s a little bit squishy in the nonprofit context, and it moves a little bit more. But if somebody who made $500,000 a year called me and said, hey I want to start a nonprofit for Ferrari fans, and we’re all going to get together and drive our Ferraris around, I’d be like that’s really nice but you can go downtown and hire a market rate lawyer for that. I’m not going to help you do that, not because we don’t like Ferraris, but because if you have enough money to have Ferraris, you can go get a market rate lawyer. My services aren’t designed for you.
Amanda Caffall: The other things that are super important, is that when I’m qualifying individuals, I’m requiring that they give me their tax returns so I can look at their income, but I’m also requiring that they disclose their assets. Because if you make $35,000 a year but you have two million dollars in a trust or a brokerage account or something, our services aren’t for you. You have assets and resources, and you can hire a market rate lawyer to help you, just take some money out of your two million dollar brokerage account.
OregonPEN: Well, sure, Legal Aid screens the same way. I mean, it’s not just current income, it’s also assets. It makes sense to me, anyway.
Amanda Caffall: I talked with a forty year old family law nonprofit based in Los Angeles, and they said nope, we only look at income, we don’t look at assets. And my board president and I were like really? Gee, that doesn’t seem right.
OregonPEN: Yeah. So you basically serve what I call the kitchen table nonprofits, the mom and pop who, it’s them and their friends forming a volunteer board, and there’s not much money there yet it sounds like.
Amanda Caffall: Yeah. Although some of them are growing concerns. Like the nonprofit with the ED who’s making 80 grand, their nonprofit has been around since 2011, they have ten years of stable financial support, but still their budget is small, and legal help isn’t something that’s built into their budget because it’s really tightly designed around delivering their programs.
OregonPEN: Right. So how do you keep from getting buried in landlord-tenant law, or more realistically, tenant law?
Amanda Caffall: I don’t offer that service.
OregonPEN: So even people in crisis who really meet your income, it’s just not there?
Amanda Caffall: Right. The services we offer are for businesses, nonprofits. We offer estate planning and probate. Now those were the first four we started with, because those were the first four areas that I had adequate pro bono supervision for.
When I first started working on this last August, August 15 actually, is when I dove into this project, so we’re coming up on a year. When I first dove into this, I went out, I met with Legal Aid, I met with the Campaign for Equal Justice, I met with St. Andrew. I talked to lawyers, I talked to the Oregon State Bar, I talked to Oregon Law Foundation. And the response I got was “Cool program, but there’s already a small business legal clinic and are you really helping people who need it the most? Can’t you offer family law, because that’s an enormous area of need?” And I heard that again, and again, again and again. And so in March, about a year ahead of schedule, I was able to bring family law into our suite of services.
We have a resource sharing agreement with a local family law firm, that has agreed to offer services on our sliding scale. So for family law matters, typically I serve as a project manager. In some ways, I’m sort of turning the partner associate relationship on its head, and then changing some stuff about it. So in my world, the associate does all the relationship management, all the billing, the initial intake. And the “partner,” who’s the experienced legal beagle in the relationship, they come in and do the legal services. So in the family law context, I’m able to offer a sliding scale services through the Commons Law Center, because I have a partnership with a family law firm that helps me actually provide the services. But the idea is that we build up the internal capacity within the Commons Law Center so that we can just use pro bono family law counsel rather than having to pay for sliding scale counsel.
The other thing I should mention is that our five year pro forma budget does envision an on-staff supervising attorney. And it’s likely that that person will need to have family law experience, because I see that as our biggest opportunity for growth. I see that as an area where we could really have a big impact for people who need help but can’t afford market rates. And so some time, and I don’t know when, but some time we do envision having an on-staff supervising lawyer, maybe in family law. We’ll just have to see.
OregonPEN: Yeah. I used to volunteer at Legal Aid, and the family law and domestic violence response is a huge fraction of their workload. Do you get into that through your family law? Do you get into restraining orders and things like that?
Amanda Caffall: Haven’t yet, but anticipate we will. Especially once I start this outreach to nonprofit organizations. So yeah, the family law stuff we do include custody, parenting time, dissolution. And we can do restraining order work as well. But the challenge there is it can’t be for free. That’s the hard part.
I had a woman call last week, she’s got five kids, she’s never worked, had a mean, controlling husband. They finally broke up, she’s living with her mom and five kids. Controlling husband never let her work, he’s exposing the kids to potential sexual assault by this crappy cousin of theirs. And I had to tell this woman, I would love to help you, I need you to find a $1,000. That sucks. I just kept thinking about that. And I really wish that I had a better answer for her but I don’t because this is the model. I’m not asking her for $4,000 like somebody downtown would, but I am asking her to find $1,000 bucks.
And that’s hard. I would like to say no, shoot, come on in, let me help you, let’s figure it out. But I don’t have those resources, that’s not what this model is.
OregonPEN: Yep. I get it. So are you getting any breaks to help reduce your overhead, to make your system more viable? There’s a lot of cost to running a law office that most people aren’t aware of, PLF just being one of them.
Amanda Caffall: Right.
OregonPEN: But your space and your utilities and your phone, are you getting any breaks, or are you paying market rates for everything you buy?
Amanda Caffall: Huge breaks. So that’s the great benefit of being a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. I mean, one of the many benefits, besides doing charitable work. So I have a bunch of digital applications that I use. For example, I use something called Box.com for all my file storage, for all my files within the cloud. And all my files are electronic only, I have notes and then I scan them and I shred the notes. So everything lives on the cloud, and I pay 50% of what someone in private practice would pay to use that cloud. Same thing for my time tracking system.
The firm that thought this was a good idea is hosting office space. They are hosting my phone system, and they are hosting a couple other things, like my fax system, and my electronic signature system. I need to get those on my own system, but rather than paying ten dollars a month for those services, I hope to pay five dollars a month for those services. Every time I have to buy something, my first question to the person is do you offer a discount for a nonprofit organization? And most places do. And also taking advantage of free stuff. I have a free conflict system, it’s a customer relationship manager called Insightly, and it’s a free program so I don’t have to pay for that.
Now this fall, starting in September I will have to start paying for my own office space. But it will be discounted office space, I won’t be paying market rate because I’ll continue to be hosted partially by Catalyst Law.
OregonPEN: Very good. So I’ve taken an hour of your time, for which I’m very grateful. And I appreciate you’re being willing to talk to me about this. Is there anything that you want to say in summary about what you’re doing and where you’re going?
Amanda Caffall: I want to say that I’m really excited about the potential for collaboration, both between the pro bono lawyers who participate in my program, and the fellows, but also with the law schools, the bar association, the private bar, the law firms. I think it’s really easy, because I’ve seen this happen in conversations I’m having with lawyers, it’s really easy for people to go the problem is so big and huge, and here I am earning a nice salary at private practice. And now I feel really guilty and crappy about myself, and am I part of the problem?
And I don’t want to trigger that in people. I want to trigger people’s optimism that we can do something. Like yeah, we have some pretty huge problems in our industry, and we haven’t even really talked about like sexism and racism.
But let’s just take access to justice and unemployed new lawyers. Huge problem, but there’s really something meaningful and powerful that we can do. And that’s really what I’m excited about, I’m excited to see who collaborates with this program, how collaborating with this program and learning from this program inspires other people to start new programs, and I just think there’s so much potential for programs like the Commons Law Center to really help the people who need it, and I’m really excited to facilitate that collaboration as best I can, to help consumers, people with legal problems, get legal help.
OregonPEN: Very good. There is one question that popped into my head while you were saying that. You know, we had a big national discussion, or shouting match, whatever you want to call it, about whether there is a right to healthcare. Do you think there should be recognized right to legal services? Do people have a right, a civil Gideon right? Do they have a right to an attorney when their lives and their well being is at risk?
Amanda Caffall: I’ll answer that by sharing a fascinating thing I heard on NPR this morning, that Mayor Bill De Blasio in New York City just committed that every person going through landlord-tenant court, all the tenants would have a lawyer. He guaranteed they would all have a lawyer that they didn’t have to pay for. And it’s going to cost the City of New York something like 200 million dollars a year. That’s incredible. The report also said that they think it’ll save the city of New York 300 million dollars a year in support for shelter services, stuff like that. So I thought that was really interesting and awesome. Yay, Bill De Blasio. I’m going to share it on the Commons Law Center Facebook page today, I’m so excited about what he’s done.
Here’s the thing I think is interesting. So … And this isn’t really … I don’t have an answer to your question because I’m not sure, but I do know that the thing that was supposed to make the United States of America different was that our country was founded on the rule of law, and that we’re a nation of laws not a nation of men. And the rule of law on the national stage we are seeing play out how important it is. And you might say we’re in a constitutional crisis of sorts.
So I had coffee with Michael Lavelle, the current president of the Oregon State Bar, and he said, “Amanda, when most people don’t have access to those laws, at some point they stop appreciating them, respecting them.”
And so to my mind, people having access to civil legal care, that’s important for the health of our democracy. That’s important for the rule of law perpetuating. You know what I mean? If four out of five people can’t access the law or enforce their rights under the law, then do four out of five people not give a hoot about the law at all? Do they care if the constitution burns? Not really doing much for them if they can’t access it. So I think that’s an interesting question we can ask ourselves, is do we have a right to civil legal care? Maybe, maybe not.
But what happens really practically in our democracy when most people don’t have access to civil legal care is the question.
OregonPEN: If 80% of the people didn’t have access to healthcare, I think the discussion about whether health care is a right would be much different. Well, Winston Churchill said that Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing after first exhausting all the alternatives.