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    Inside the Bar: A Modest Proposal 

    The State Bar’s modest means panel assists people who earn too much to qualify for free legal services but too little to pay an attorney’s standard rate. Panel attorneys offer limited-scope representation or reduced fees to qualifying clients, improving access to justice for hundreds of people in these cash-strapped times. 

    George Brown

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    Wisconsin LawyerWisconsin Lawyer
    Vol. 82, No. 2, February 2009

    by George C. Brown, executive director

    George BrownSo, you get arrested on a misdemeanor charge but you haven’t been charged yet and you need to dispute it because you’re innocent and you’re afraid you will lose the only job that is supporting you and your two children. You gross about $260 a week at your minimum-wage job, you have $300 cash on hand, and no savings or other assets except a car that is worth about $2,000. You can get a public defender, right? Not in Wisconsin.

    Or, you’re single and working full-time, but earn only about $15,000 a year. You own an old car, and you’re deep in debt with credit cards and medical bills. Bankruptcy seems like the only option. Can you qualify for legal aid? Probably not.

    Where can Wisconsinites turn, if they are not destitute but have low-wage jobs or financial difficulties and are facing legal problems?

    Starting in July 2008, the State Bar began taking applications from clients for modest means referrals. Attorneys on the modest means panel have agreed to make flexible payment arrangements with clients whose financial need has been documented. By the end of December 2008, the panel consisted of 191 attorneys throughout Wisconsin, and 24 prescreened clients had received referrals, most in the areas of bankruptcy, consumer law, family law, probate, and pre-charging conferences in criminal cases. Feedback from applicants has been very positive; clients are grateful to find representation that they can afford.

    The modest means panel was developed in response to the “Bridging the Justice Gap: Wisconsin’s Unmet Legal Needs” report that the Board of Governors approved in May 2007. The creation of the modest means panel directly supports recommendation 10(d) of the report, which calls for the State Bar to expand the Lawyer Referral and Information Service (LRIS) to include a panel of attorneys willing to offer limited scope representation or reduced fees to clients who qualify based on income. The panel is governed by the State Bar’s LRIS Committee.

    The State Bar assists attorneys who serve on the modest means panel. Client representation through the modest means panel qualifies as pro bono legal services within the meaning of SCR 20:6.1, and attorneys are eligible for State Bar pro bono benefits, including first-dollar malpractice insurance through the State Bar for these cases. Participating attorneys are not charged a fee to join the modest means panel, and referrals made through the panel are exempt from LRIS referral fees.

    There is still plenty of room on the panel and, given the economic times, there certainly will be an increasing need in the future. For more information or to join the State Bar’s modest means panel, visit Modest Means or contact Patricia Ruppert at (800) 444-9404, ext. 6131. It is your opportunity to help those people in greatest need.