J. S. Howell Legal
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Coming Soon:

Preventative Lawyering: why it is good to know an attorney before your business has an issue

 

Are we truly Free in the Free Market: Why access to legal services is the true measure of liberty

DISCLAIMER: NOT LEGAL ADVICE. FOR INFORMATION ONLY. DO NOT RELY ON ANY ADVICE YOU RECEIVE ON THIS FORUM. Legal advice comes after a complete review of the facts and relevant documents. An attorney-client relationship, with all the privileges associated with it, can only be formed through a written engagement letter which cannot occur in this forum. Mr. Howell is licensed to practice in the Commonwealth of Virginia only and his thoughts are rooted in Virginia Law or general legal principles, not any other specific state’s laws. You should speak with an attorney licensed in your state, to whom you have provided all the facts before you take steps that may impact your legal rights.

Every year on the Fourth of July, Americans reflect on our country’s unique heritage: our foundation upon the premise that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are natural rights of all people and our dedication to “liberty and justice for all.” However, the unique brilliance of our justice system often goes woefully unrealized where, as one commentator noted, “the saying ‘justice for all’ becomes ‘justice for those who can afford it.’”

This problem of access to justice is well known throughout our legal system. However, most of the focus placed on access to legal services is to protect the liberty of the criminal defendant. But all the familiar rights and liberties our justice system guarantees to the criminal defendant are typically unavailable to the civil litigant.

Our Constitution guarantees counsel for the Criminal defendant at the state's expense because our legal system has a plethora of means to deprive him of his liberty. However, the law poses an equal threat to the civil defendant and the fruits of their equally revered pursuit of happiness. Whether they approach the courtroom fresh from the battlefield of business or are seeking defense from or compensation for the unlawful conduct of another, the civil litigant faces a complex and intimidating system without any guarantee of counsel.  I know this firsthand. Many years ago, I saw the system come to bear against my family’s construction business. Whether it was a customer with superior resources seeking a way to avoid paying for services by filing a spurious civil action or other similarly baseless claims, we certainly had our share of legal challenges.  For many of them, our small family business was neither able to afford counsel nor successfully navigate the suit without them. Where that occurred, the losses were often substantial. It was unfair, it was infuriating, but, as my father reminded me, it was not abnormal.

To address the problem, lawyers are frequently asked to dedicate a certain percentage of their time to pro bono work — that is, providing free legal services for the good of the public. What may surprise the non-lawyer, is that there is not a similar imperative asking lawyers to reexamine their business model, and the rates they must charge, the other 90 to 95 percent of the time.  Can we really justify charging more for each hour of our services than some of our clients make in an entire day of work?  If we can, what essential interest are we advancing that justifies such a high rate? Do we really create value commensurate with the fees we charge? Where we discover the answer is no, do we try and adjust our model accordingly? If not, do we use the status of the market as an excuse to justify our own rates based on those of our competitors, even where we know those rates will prevent access to justice?

At my practice, we keep these questions at the forefront of our minds every day. Unlike many attorneys, I have not forgotten what it feels like to work two weeks for a paycheck with a three-digit number. I know how hard the rest of the world works for what a lawyer charges per hour. That is why I base our legal fees not on what the market says I can make, but on a fair measure of the value of the solutions we provide. We cater to the needs of individuals and small business who require a reliable estimate of the costs and benefits of advocating for their interests. Moreover, despite conventional wisdom in our profession, I heartily reject the notion that doing so will spell doom for my ability to maintain a successful practice. 

History shows that increasing access can be just as profitable as increasing prices. More than a century ago, in a true showing of American ingenuity, Henry Ford made himself one of the richest men of his age by finding a way to get the automobile, previously an exclusive toy of the rich, into every driveway in the nation. Ford achieved this, not by charging the maximum amount the market would bear for his unique product, but by adjusting his business model to support a price that was affordable to the common man. In so doing, he greatly increased the independence of the individual by easing the burdens of transportation throughout our vast nation.

I take a similar approach in my own practice.  In a system that promises so much to its citizens yet leans so heavily on the free market, attorneys must always remember that we are not merely businessmen, but businesses affected with a crucial public interest.  Our product is access to justice and without it businesses and individuals cannot realize the full benefit of our unique Constitutional order. Therefore, it is our sacred duty to ensure our rates do not needlessly impede that access.

At the Law Office of Jeff S. Howell, Jr., I have built my practice upon the lessons I have learned about the consequences of inadequate access to justice. That is why we focus first and foremost on preventing legal problems before they happen by providing wise counsel to our clients.  For those problems that cannot be avoided, we pride ourselves on tireless advocacy of essential interests through litigation with a full view of what can be gained and lost in the process. If this approach sounds right for you or your business, give us a call today for a free consultation.

DISCLAIMER: NOT LEGAL ADVICE. FOR INFORMATION ONLY. DO NOT RELY ON ANY ADVICE YOU RECEIVE ON THIS FORUM. Legal advice comes after a complete review of the facts and relevant documents. An attorney-client relationship, with all the privileges associated with it, can only be formed through a written engagement letter which cannot occur in this forum. Mr. Howell is licensed to practice in the Commonwealth of Virginia only and his thoughts are rooted in Virginia Law or general legal principles, not any other specific state’s laws. You should speak with an attorney licensed in your state, to whom you have provided all the facts before you take steps that may impact your legal rights.

Jeff Howell