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Saturday, Oct. 25, 2014

Innovative legal service helps those 'dancing along the poverty line'

By Marjorie Cortez, Deseret News

Published: Sat, Aug. 16 2:25 p.m. MDT

 A. Daniel Spencer of Open Legal Services checks the look of a new sign he placed near the door outside his office in Salt Lake City, Monday, Aug. 11, 2014.

A. Daniel Spencer of Open Legal Services checks the look of a new sign he placed near the door outside his office in Salt Lake City, Monday, Aug. 11, 2014.

(Ravell Call, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — From a tiny office in the basement of a Himalyan restaurant near the Matheson Court House, attorneys Shantelle Argyle and Daniel Spencer are waging what they call "a revolution in affordable legal services."

Argyle and Spencer have created the state's first nonprofit law firm for clients of modest means who need legal help for family or criminal law matters. Their universe of clients are people who do not qualify for pro bono legal services but can't afford to hire traditional law firms.

The firm, Open Legal Services, offers legal services on a sliding scale, depending on a household's annual income. Fees start at $50 an hour and go up to $135.

The law firm's services are not free but its hourly fees are well below the market rate.

Corinne Albam, a current client of OLS, said the law firm was an attractive option for her legal needs, a lingering divorce case.

"I had been shopping for some time and my biggest challenge was cost. How am I going to do this cost-effectively because I’m not going to have any help on the other side and all of my financial resources have to go to raising my girls?" she said.

After the law office assisted Albam's friend with her divorce, she asked Argyle and Spencer to handle her case, too.

"When I began to learn about really what they’re trying to do, I was absolutely in awe," Alban said.

"I really hired them because their mission is so powerful. Being alone and not really having a lot of excess resources, I felt like why doesn’t everybody know that these guys exist?"

The law office, which operates in less than 400-square-feet of office space at 66 Exchange Place, employs four attorneys and a paralegal/assistant. Argyle and Spencer each wear two other hats. She is president/executive managing director of their nonprofit agency and handles the firm's bookkeeping. Spencer is vice president/secretary and handles the firm's IT issues.

That's on top of their attorney responsibilities.

While the attorneys, who met in law school at the University of Utah and graduated in 2013, could have taken their careers a more traditional route, establishing a nonprofit law firm created an opportunity to, as Spencer puts it, offer "justice for the rest of us."

Running their own law firm also enables them to better balance their family and professional lives. Each is married and has young children.

It also created an opportunity for Argyle and Spencer to work toward forgiveness of their law school loans. Lawyers who work for qualifying government or nonprofit agencies in “public service” can have the balance of their federal student loans forgiven if they pay their monthly installments on time for 10 years.

The law firm's nonprofit status give them other advantages, Argyle said.

As a 501(c)3 organization, the firm does not have to pay income tax and it can receive a rebate on sales taxes. Open Legal Services also qualifies for free or deeply discounted software from companies such as Microsoft or Adobe.

"The big one for us, and the advantage we have in law, is the referral sources. That’s the No. 1 thing. The court can refer to us directly. The Bar (Association) can refer to us directly and the other nonprofits that have strict policies can refer to us," she said.

Their nonprofit application commits them to providing "discounted legal services to clients whose income falls above indigent levels (125 percent of poverty) up to moderate income (400 percent of poverty)."

Albam said she has been represented by other attorneys on other matters in the past and appreciates that Open Legal Service's business model acknowledges the unmet need of people who do not qualify for the "ridiculously low" income requirements of free community legal offices yet cannot afford to pay $150 to $200 an hour charged by traditional law firms.

"So for me, I was very, very driven by the fact that they’re so aware of the need, they’re so cognizant," she said.

Argyle said she learned at an early age what it meant to be of modest means.

It meant frequent moves. It meant attending three elementary schools. It meant qualifying for free and reduced price school lunch.

It meant that after her construction worker parents were evicted from their housing that they had to live with her grandparents – six of them shared a mobile home.

As Argyle explains it, her family “danced along the poverty line.”

Spencer grew up firmly entrenched in middle class. He is a self-described non-traditional student, who completed his GED after dropping out of high school, attended community college before enrolling at the University of Utah.

He attended law school for a year at the University of Denver before returning to the U. to complete his legal studies. He and Argyle met as second-year students.

"Shantelle kind of took me under her wing," he explained.

The two share a small office and frequently collaborate on one another's cases. The office is furnished with second-hand desks and the firms' computers and printers are suplus equipment purchased from the U. "For $100, we can have a whole new work station for an employee," Argyle said.

While the nonprofit can accept donations, it has thus far made a deliberate decision not to accept grants because of the limitations they can place on the type of law they can be used for or caps on clients' income.

The firm is assisted by David McNeill, who recently earned an MBA from the University of Utah. McNeill is the firm's volunteer business analyst.

Affordable access to justice is "one of the big social issues of our time. If you don’t have money, you really don’t get a fair shake," McNeill said.

Among divorce filings alone, a 2006 survey conducted by the Utah State Courts found that nearly half of petitioners and 81 percent of respondents were representing themselves.

For now, Argyle and Spencer are enjoying the attention that their small law office is receiving locally and nationally. They have twice presented on their model before members of the Utah State Bar. Their nonprofit office was recently featured in The Atlantic.

Argyle says there is tremendous growth potential for the nonprofit law firm. "If we will be as big as ULS (nonprofit Utah Legal Services) if not bigger. I think we're going to have multiple offices all over the state. We're looking at Southern Utah, we're looking at eastern Utah," she said.

"This is our dream," Spencer said.

Email: marjorie@deseretnews.com

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1. shamrock
Salt Lake City, UT,
Aug. 17, 2014

Hats off to this wonderful law firm for helping these clients!

2. Spell_It_Right
Salt Lake City, UT,
Aug. 17, 2014

Congratulations from W15!

3. Dave Duncan
Orem, UT,
Aug. 17, 2014

I think Argle and Spencer are doing a great thing here. I hope they help many people, and have the financial success to sustain it!

4. SLC Grandma
Salt Lake City, UT,
Aug. 18, 2014

How refreshing to have attorneys more interested in their clients' welfare and justice being served rather than the "bottom line" and what's in it for them! Congratulations to them and their lofty efforts. I'm certainly going to refer any qualifying people I know to them who are discouraged with the more common lawyer-attitude which translates into "I need more money to move further on your case", after doddling along for weeks/months and accomplishing very little. Isn't there an old saying "The wheels of justice move slow"? - I don't think they're meant to move at parking-lot speed unless they're "greased" with more and more money though!