Why It’s So Hard to Ask a Lawyer for Advice

This summer while visiting my family, I reconnected with a good friend–a former mentor and teacher from middle school. We had coffee, reminisced, shared stories, hugged. A couple of weeks later, she emailed.
“I have a legal query for you and hope I am not out of line asking you this,” it began. “I have been thinking about putting together a will and have done some initial searching online to see if I can do this on my own. First question is this: am I crazy to try to do this without a lawyer’s assistance? Second question: if you think it’s a doable DIY personal project, does this website look as good to you as it does to me?”
She included a link, then added, “Thank you in advance for your kind response. And please know that if I AM so incredibly out of line asking you about making a will, you just have to say so and I will understand and never do it again.”
I began mentally composing the reply: Of course it’s not a problem. I get this question all the time. You’re not crazy… and then I paused. This is someone I met when I was 10. Outside of family there are few people who have known me longer, or better. And I wondered:
What does it say that someone who knows me that well would hesitate to ask me a legal question? Are lawyers that scary?
Apparently so. Research suggests that a major reason people hesitate to call lawyers is fear–fear of being embarrassed, of being rejected, of losing control, of making things worse, of being stuck with a running meter and an unpayable bill. Compared to that, DIY seems safe and simple. What could be more straightforward than searching online for the solution to your problem? My friend seemed less concerned about drafting a will using an online form than about imposing on me. Which means she’s polite (of course), but also says a lot about how accessible lawyers seem to be, even to our friends.
Part of the value added by lawyers is that we can plug you into the living, breathing law. For example, you might have heard about recent changes to the tax law. Well, lawyers everywhere are retooling their advice based on what has happened. We’re human beings; not only can we do that, but we’re required to do that in order to be competent at our jobs. We keep up with the legal context so you don’t have to. Online forms? Not so much.
Don’t know what questions to ask? We do. For example:
• We know that every written legal document (including wills) is interpreted according to some law. Which law? You have a choice: you can either specify the law in the document, or you can let a court decide later. Not every part of a form will work in every state. (That’s one reason lawyers are licensed by individual states, and limit their advice to the law of the states where they’re licensed).
• We can “spot issues” and give you a sense of whether your situation is simple or complicated. In the first year of law school we’re trained in a mysterious art: we’re told facts about a situation that appears to be simple, and our mission is to spot all the things about it that could make it more complicated. This gives us a well-deserved reputation for making things complicated, but don’t let that intimidate you. Sometimes things are more complicated than they appear at first—and it is always better to know that before you make a decision, not after. And sometimes things are more straightforward to us than they may appear to you, just because it’s what we do for a living and we’ve seen it before.
• We can point out red flags as well. Do you want to do something that the law won’t allow? We can tell you. Will the agreement you have in mind accomplish the result you seek? We will have an opinion. What will happen if members of your family don’t like your estate plan? We can run through scenarios and options. That’s what we do.

Back to my friend. I responded to her email with my thoughts, which boiled down to: you don’t have to choose between forms and lawyers. It’s okay to use both. If you want to get your thoughts on paper, use the form. Fill it out, get your wishes clear in your mind, and jot down questions. Then—if you want to be sure things will actually go the way you’d like them to go—visit a lawyer and run your form and your questions by someone whose business it is to make sure things turn out as planned. Ask for an estimate or quote: you may be surprised to learn that the lawyer can give you a form plus advice at a lower price than you’d expect.
I told her an uncomfortable truth: that, even though I’m a lawyer and I read a lot of wills as part of my job, I would not draft my own, because they’re more complicated than they look, and your mileage may vary dramatically from state to state. (I also had to admit that, although I had someone in mind to draft one for me, I hadn’t gotten around to it either.)
Bottom line? It’s okay to ask. Lawyers are paid to answer questions, but it’s on us to point out the boundary between just talking and paid consultation. If we can’t help, we may know someone who can. And for those readers with a law degree: remember how hard it is for people to connect with lawyers they can trust. Take a moment to answer questions, make referrals, and remind the public that lawyers are not as scary as all that.

Welcome Kristina Perez of Paloma Law Services!

Meet our newest advocate, Kristina Perez.  Kristina is a native of Winona, MN. She grew up with a single mother, 3 brothers, and a sister. She helped care for her siblings from early on in life. As a result, she takes pride in encouraging and empowering others and loves problem-solving. She is the proud mom of an Olde English Bulldog named Bubba.  Asked to describe her practice, Kristina says, “I want to help people who are overwhelmed at a tough time in their lives, whether it is a family law matter, housing or employment matter, or an issue affecting our immigrant population in Southeastern Minnesota. I want to offer guidance and reassurance to people who otherwise might have trouble accessing legal services. Giving people a fair chance is important to me.”  Welcome Kristina!


Attempting the “impossible”

What is it like to study for the bar exam? It is akin to memorizing a full set of encyclopedia Britannica and understanding how the nuances of each word agree with and contradict the nuances of every other word. Basically, it is impossible. One bar prep instructor kindly pointed that out. His consolation was that it is also impossible for everyone else, so, “Don’t panic. Attempt the impossible.”

When I started bar prep, I explained to my friends that I would be unavailable while I was studying. They complied and left me alone to study. Now I wonder why all my friends deserted me. Bar prep is isolating. Depressing. Impossible. Sometimes I cry. I quit. How could I even think about quitting when I look back at all it took to get me this far? I am irrational.

I have wanted to become an attorney for almost fifty years, since I was twelve. Finally, after my own kids got their degrees and careers, I took a year and studied for the LSAT. The LSAT is the entrance exam that requires you to know where Sam would sit if he was two chairs to the left of Renee and never saw a doctor on Sunday. I still don’t know how the LSAT applies to practicing law. I’m not alone. The LSAT is no longer required for Harvard and Georgetown law schools. I took it twice.

My job did not allow me to go to law school in the traditional way, so when a friend told me about law schools in California that were entirely online, I immediately applied. The caveat is, if I was in the lucky 5% of the class who passed the first year, and then passed the “Baby Bar” required to take years the next 2-4 years, and graduated, I would still be allowed to practice only in California. I live in Minnesota.

Just as I was about to enroll in my second year of online law school in California, William Mitchell (now Mitchell Hamline) announced that it was starting a Hybrid program that would allow people to study part online, and part concentrated study on campus. I would have to start over, but then I could practice where I live. To my amazement I was accepted to the law school of my dreams. William Mitchell was where my hero, Rosalie Wahl, went. Justice Wahl was the reason I never let go of my dream over the years. Justice Wahl did not go to law school until her kids were older. It is never too late to follow your dream.

I am pretty sure I was the happiest person who walked across that stage in May. No one told me that bar prep is this horrendous and would cause me to question my own sanity. If they did, I did not believe them. (I studied Greek, in Portuguese, in Brazil—without knowing Portuguese. Bar prep is worse.) I have a newfound awe for anyone who ever passed the bar. They are superheroes who did the impossible. I am not a superhero–but still, I will attempt the impossible in three weeks.

Karen Grossman, the author of this post, externed for CCLI in 2017, graduated from Mitchell Hamline in 2018 and will take the Minnesota bar shortly.  We wish her fulfillment of her “impossible” dream!

Congratulations to Inti Martínez Alemán as Ceiba Fôrte launches

Inti Martínez Alemán practices civil, business, and employment litigation, and is dedicated to helping those in the Latino community facing unjust situations at work, in their neighborhood, with their lenders, with their business partners, and in other situations where they are concerned they may be taken advantage of.

Before practicing in the United States, Inti was a licensed attorney in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, where practiced law for five years representing clients in cases of national impact and coverage. A 2016 graduate of Mitchell Hamline School of Law, Inti founded Ceiba Fôrte Law Firm upon admission to the Minnesota bar and became CCLI’s first full-time advocate. In his 18 months with CCLI, Inti built a practice that provides affordable and competent legal representation to Latinos who are more comfortable working with a Spanish-speaking attorney who was born and raised in Latin America. Inti was interviewed by KSTP about his service to the immigrant community in Minnesota and the increasing use of delegations of parental authority, a form he helped to develop.

In addition to his law practice, Inti’s service to the public and the profession is extensive.  Among many other service and teaching activities he represents the Hennepin County Bar Association in the Minnesota State Bar Association Assembly, serves on the boards of LegalCORPS, Twin Cities Christian Legal Aid, and the alumni association and MBA advisory council of Houghton College. Inti also founded and now coordinates a regular legal aid clinic at Eagle Brook Church. He has been recognized as a Diversity Fellow by the ABA Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division, and in May 2018 received the Access to Justice Award from the Minnesota Hispanic Bar Association.

CCLI is grateful to have had the opportunity to assist Inti in the launch of the Ceiba Fôrte Law Firm and congratulates him as he continues his practice in the community.

AND GREAT NEWS… Ceiba Fôrte Law Firm is not moving far! Inti is setting up his practice in the same suite at 393 Dunlap Street (St. Paul) where CCLI is located. Come visit him in Suite #450F.

May 1 – CCLI at Washington County Law Day

Many thanks to David Tomenes and the organizers of Law Day in Washington County for inviting CCLI to join the Washington County Law Library, Court Self-Help Center, and volunteer attorneys speaking with the public about the legal system and options for Minnesotans who are not eligible for free legal services.  Pictured – Law Librarian Tim Devine, Karin Ciano, Haroun McClellan, and Joe Vaccaro.

A la Carte (Unbundled) Legal Services for What We Don’t Know That We Don’t Know

Up to 85% of people with legal concerns represent themselves in civil cases. This is rarely a good idea. Donald Rumsfield is quoted as saying, “[w]e know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” Sadly, many people who represent themselves discover too late that there was a form they needed or that a deadline was missed. The attorneys at CCLI can help you research the law, gather facts and forms, draft documents, aid with discovery, coach you for court, or represent you in court. You, the client can decide how much and in what areas you need legal assistance. This is usually a more affordable option, especially when you consider how costly it can be to represent yourself if it turns out there were vital things that you didn’t know that you didn’t know.

Why do people represent themselves? Some have confidence in their own ability to find and read the law. Someone like this may hire an attorney to do no more than review documents. Others represent themselves because they cannot afford legal services. Even if they qualify for free legal aid, they may be one of the 50% who quality but are turned away. And still others may not qualify for legal aid but they also cannot afford to pay thousands for an attorney. We at CCLI call these the people who fall in the “Justice Gap.” CCLI provides legal services (and access to justice) to more people in the community, in an effort to close that gap.

This video from Arkansas explains it well.