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Prepaid legal services offer peace of mind

Associate Editor Regular News

Prepaid legal services offer peace of mind

Associate Editor

S even out of 10 people experience at least one “legal event” in any 12 month period, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at them.

According to a study done by Russell Research, most individuals who face daunting legal obstacles choose to go it alone, never hiring an attorney to represent or guide them through the legal system.

John Joseph That’s a problem proponents of prepaid legal service plans say it’s time to eradicate. The plans function like insurance, offering consumers easy, affordable access to attorneys, both through telephone consultations and more comprehensive benefits.

For a small fee — ranging from between $9 to $25 a month — consumers can get the peace of mind that comes with knowing an attorney is just a phone call away, said St. Petersburg lawyer John Joseph, chair of The Florida Bar Prepaid Legal Services Committee.

“Let’s say a consumer just pays $9 or $20 a month. If this consumer needs help with drafting a will, reviewing a lease, representation in court for a traffic ticket, or some other legal issue, they’ll be able to pick up the phone and speak to an attorney right away. So for a very nominal fee, they can get the help they need.”

Individuals can enroll in a plan through their workplace — employees of The Florida Bar are automatically enrolled — or individually, and plans vary depending on the employer and the managing attorney.

Although prepaid legal service plans bring the consumer peace of mind, Joseph said attorneys benefit too.

“It’s more or less entrepreneurial,” explained Joseph.

An attorney interested in serving the community through a prepaid plan must submit paperwork outlining a proposed partnership to the PLS committee, which then reviews and analyzes the plans before approval. Once approved, the attorney’s plan is then submitted to the Bar Board of Governors for final authorization.

“Let’s say, for example, an attorney can contact a hospital or a credit union or a large employer in his community,” said Joseph, “and offer legal services to their employees at a reduced cost and as a free benefit from the employer to the employees. The employer can offer a legal plan, which most lawyers cover the cost to do, and it’s a benefit to their employees. It also benefits the community, because these people can get the help they need.

“The lawyer, for doing the plan — which is not much money — will be able to have access to clients he can serve and help.”

Attorneys can also limit plans to their particular area of practice, a point Joseph said ultimately helps consumers.

“It opens up more targeted availability of legal services to people who feel hesitant to talk to an attorney or don’t really like to talk to lawyers.” The barrier between the attorney and an individual in the community is removed.

Prepaid legal services plans offer a monthly rate for enrolled employees, but they also offer a reduced legal fee arrangement — a flat fee for services provided. There is no cost to the consumer unless they elect to take the service. Plans are chosen by the sponsoring employer and the managing attorney, and once a plan is selected, employers are responsible for informing their employees about the benefits and how they work.

“I’m a panel attorney for a couple of legal service plans, so basically I get calls from people wanting me to review documents such as leases, due demand letters, wills, and trusts, and they really appreciate the fact that someone can speak with them and help them, and they’ll know what the cost is up front,” said Joseph.

“A lot of people like this because they know going in that the service provided to them, whether they pay monthly or a reduced rate at the time at which they are retained, will cost the agreed amount.”

Plans are designed to help middle-income individuals obtain legal services that might otherwise be cost-prohibitive and to encourage preventative legal services, like document preparation and review, which can help resolve smaller legal issues early. The plans attempt to remove barriers and offer accessible in-roads to the legal system.

“People like to avoid lawyers for two reasons: one, they’re expensive, and two, there’s a negative connotation about talking to lawyers,” said Joseph.

“Very few people are proactive in saying, ‘I need to get my house in order and talk to an attorney ahead of time before something happens.’ Most people don’t plan that way.”

Cost, Joseph said, is also an issue. Prepaid legal service plans are affordable, but they also provide consumers with up-front cost details that they might not receive otherwise, and that knowledge goes a long way for a lot of consumers.

“Lawyers charge a lot of money per hour, and oftentimes people are scared not knowing what the total cost is going to be to have a lawyer assist them in their issue. A prepaid legal plan more or less lays out ahead of time what services are available at some certain cost, so the member knows going in what the cost is going to be.”

Bar-sponsored prepaid legal service plans operate under Ch. 9 of the Rules Regulating The Florida Bar, and those proposed plans must meet the approval of both the PLS committee and the Board of Governors. Once a sponsor or employer and managing attorney agree on the arrangement and the details of the services the lawyer is going to provide, and the committee has approved the plan for submission to the Board of Governors, the employer will then let the employees or the members of the organization know that the plan is available for their participation.

“Every week, I meet with people who appreciate the fact that they have an attorney they can call, because most people don’t know an attorney they can call if they have a need,” said Joseph. “Some people don’t realize that they should have a lawyer review a lease or do a will for them or review a demand letter until they’ve had it done for them. Once you do something for a client, they see the value in what an attorney does.

“Attorneys do more than just sue people; we help people. If we can meet with the client, listen to their needs, and convey the information they need based on suggestions to them, then let the client decide what action to take, they feel more comfortable with lawyers. When they have access to a lawyer and meet with him or her, they see that the lawyer provides services that really help them, they’re less afraid of lawyers, and they appreciate what we do.”

More information about legal services plans in Florida can be found on The Florida Bar website under “About the Bar,” “Committees,” “Standing Committees,” and “Prepaid Legal Services.” A full list of current plans is available on the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation website at www.floir.com.

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