Cost of legal representation too high for many – National Consumers League

By NCL Executive Director Sally Greenberg

As often happens when I’m trying to get out of the office, my phone rang on a recent late Friday afternoon. On the line was a woman who described her difficult circumstances. She and her husband inherited his mother’s condo after she died. They live in Alabama, and the condo is in South Carolina. They are both unemployed and can’t pay the condo fees and the condominium association won’t let them off the hook. I asked her whether she’s considered hiring a lawyer to take on her case

“If we can’t pay the condo fees, then we sure can’t afford a lawyer,” she told me. I suggested she call the South Carolina Attorney General’s office. “We already did that,” she told me. “They said they couldn’t help.”  She had tried everything. And my heart went out to her. I suggested she make a pact with the condo association that she’ll put the condo on the market and pay the fees out of the money from the sale.

The condo association wouldn’t accept that compromise either. I have a lot of friends in the legal profession in law schools and cities around the country, including South Carolina. I can usually think of someone who can offer advice, if not actual help, so I asked her to send me an email. But her circumstances reminded me that the average person in need of legal services usually cannot afford to pay the hefty prices too many lawyers charge. Recent articles in the Wall Street Journal show some superstar lawyers fees topping $1,000 an hour and making well over $5 million per year.

No one expects the average person to pay that kind of hourly fee, but nevertheless, when the top rung is getting ridiculous fees like this, it creates fee creep among more average attorney fees. We need a system that provides far more access to affordable civil legal services to average people, the way the criminal justice system provides representation to those accused of committing a crime.