Posted Dec 1, 2012 2:20 AM CST
By Rachel M. Zahorsky
The fear of possibly unaffordable legal fees is paralyzing access to legal aid for a growing number of moderate-income Americans, as we reported in “Biloxi Blues” in last month’s ABA Journal. And while would-be clients, courts and lawyers struggle to find cost structures that bridge the gap between needs and services, another barrier was repeatedly cited while I was speaking with folks along the Gulf Coast: distrust of the private bar.
Potential oil spill claimants, community activists and local attorneys derided the outcomes of town hall meetings in Mississippi and Louisiana during the immediate aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Billed as educational forums about the claims process (which often included free lunches from out-of-town-lawyers), session attendees were regularly corralled and pressed to sign client contracts.
And while some meetings offered translators for the highly sought-after Vietnamese fishermen with potentially larger claims, others didn’t. That only added to the confusion.
“That’s when everyone started to get freaked out,” says Clay J. Garside, a partner at New Orleans-based Waltzer & Wiygul. His law firm has served the local Vietnamese community for 20 years. Garside says people were saying: “What is the attorney’s role here? What are they doing? It feels like a trap.”
For a number of unlucky claimants who signed the contracts, their new lawyers swiftly disappeared. They were left to flounder alone, uncertain of how to even contact the attorneys and unable to proceed with their claims, says Adrianne Williams, a project supervisor at the New Orleans nonprofit organization Vietnamese Initiatives in Economic Training. Overpromised and underdelivered results by private lawyers also ran rampant after the proposed billion-dollar settlement with BP was announced, according to Stephanie Short, a staff attorney at Southeast Louisiana Legal Services in New Orleans.
Because Short’s services are federally funded, she often has to turn away would-be oil spill victims who earn more than the mandated income restrictions. “Those people are more inclined to seek assistance elsewhere before going to a private attorney,” she says. And that decision to look elsewhere isn’t solely because those people don’t have access to funds for an attorney, adds staff lawyer Timothy McEvoy, Short’s colleague at SLLS. Distrust of the private bar stands near the top of the list for many would-be clients who are suspicious of high contingency fees charged by private lawyers to navigate a claims process that is, in theory, designed to be done without legal aid. As a result, McEvoy says, “you have very disparate views on the worth of an attorney’s work as well as the quality of that work.”
“A lot of the public have a very negative view of the profession, and of how much money we charge for our services. In some cases they are right and in others they are dead wrong,” he says. “We need to do a better job of showing clients what the value-add is for our profession.”