Lawyers say many Jackson residents struggle to pay fees

 By Tom Gantert
Jackson Legal News

Longtime Jackson Attorney Ron Fabian says he’s seen a large increase in the number of lawyers over the years in Michigan.

But at the same time, he sees fewer and fewer Jackson County residents who can afford to hire a lawyer and pay the retainer fee.

Legal retainers can vary from as low as $500 for simple cases to $3,000 for a complicated divorce.

“If I was a younger lawyer, I couldn’t get that kind of work,” Fabian said. “Unless people borrow money from their grandmother or uncle, they don’t have it. How can you afford your attorney on $15 an hour?  The day of the middle class lawyer is over. Jackson is a broke city.”

The ability to pay fees will be the focus of the State Bar of Michigan next month when, for the fifth straight year, it designates October as Pro Bono Month. Events will be held throughout the state highlighting the need for pro bono services.

There have been signs that people throughout Michigan and having a hard time paying for legal fees.

When the legal information web site launched in August of 2012, it was expecting to get about 3,000 visits per week. By July of 2013, it was getting 6,000 visits per week.

Erica Zimny, managing attorney for Legal Services of South Central Michigan’s Jackson office, said she has definitely seen an increase in the number of clients they serve.

“This is supported by the numbers nationally,” Zimny said.

Jackson Attorney Brendon Beer of Abbott, Thomson, & Beer agrees that many in Jackson struggle to come up with lawyers’ fees.

“I do lots of pro-bono work,” Beer said, smiling. “Most of it by accident.”

Jackson attorney Jennifer Lamp agreed that many Jackson area residents struggle to pay their legal fees.

“People sign away important rights because they don't understand what they are signing and cannot afford an attorney to explain the legal consequences,” Lamp said.

Lamp said she is making adjustments in fees that are in accordance with her client’s ability to pay.

“They bring in what they can and we try to work something out,” she said. “Even with reduced legal fees, it is often hard for some clients to come up with a proportionately reduced retainer.  I do pro bono work but I am only able to do one case at a time -- usually through a referral from Legal Services.”

Lamp said she does accept payments on her retainer fee so she can start working on a case.

“I try to be flexible and creative in working out a fee arrangement--sometimes I barter services for services which can really be a win-win situation,” she said.

In 2011, the latest year data is available, Jackson County ranked as the 43rd poorest county out of 83, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

However, the per-capita income in Jackson County has been stagnant when adjusted for inflation. In 2008 it was $31,067 in 2011 dollars and just slightly lower than $31,396 in 2011.

Longtime Jackson attorney Jerry Engle said people are still retaining lawyers in Jackson County, although he said it is probably easier for established attorneys.

“I think the simple answer is that it is more difficult,” Engle said. “I think there are still a lot of attorneys in the middle class. I don’t see a lot of attorneys adjusting their fees downward in any meaningful fashion.”?

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