In 2001, I started my Illinois lawyer referral and legal guidance website with the goal of changing the way that people could find attorneys. At the time, the internet was still in its infancy and most law firms did not have websites.
The only real way to get an attorney was through the Yellow Pages, the recommendation from a friend or a Bar Association. If you just wanted a question answered for free without having to go to an attorney’s office, there were very limited resources. The problem with all of those options is that none of them take into consideration your unique legal situation and what is best for you.
My law firm isn’t perfect, but we have helped more than 300,000 people with their unique legal problems. Sometimes that meant helping them figure out that they didn’t even need an attorney. Still, there was one problem I could never solve: affordable legal service.
At least once a day, I would receive calls from good, honest people with lots of problems who were getting screwed over by the legal system. A person in need of a divorce who couldn’t afford a lawyer due to a spouse taking all of the marital funds. An older gentleman, who committed a crime as a teen but had turned his life around, and couldn’t afford to get a pardon. A consumer who was being bullied by a large corporation.
All of these callers would prevail in the courtroom if they could get in with a level playing field, but they can’t afford it. In my opinion, most of the free legal services out there are a joke and many have long waiting periods. If your apartment is infected with roaches, that won’t do you any good.
What typically happens is one of three things: people just give up, they try and represent themselves but end up digging a big hole, or they hire a cheap attorney with no experience who makes the situation worse.
I’ve always wanted to help these callers, but the reality is that attorneys are business people. If they didn’t get paid, they wouldn’t be around for long. I found myself parroting the line, “I wish I could help you, but unfortunately there’s nothing I can do for you.” This gave me angst because some of the callers had truly sad stories. They lived through the strife of having abusive spouses, bosses who were sexually harassing them, slum lords, and DCFS stealing their children. I just couldn’t do anything about it.
This past summer I read the biography of Biz Stone, the founder of Twitter. I don’t “tweet” but I do find the company inspiring, since it genuinely seems to want to help people and make the world a better place. In one chapter, Stone talks about how an entrepreneur is really a problem solver and then it clicked for me. I had never really sought a solution for the people that I couldn’t help.
I began talking to Chicago lawyers that I respected. They told me that about 30% of clients who want to hire them don’t because they can’t afford a retainer. This made me wonder what we can do to get these people in the door and give them a chance at legal fairness.
One day, it kind of just hit me that crowd funding was an option that needed to be explored. If someone tells me that they can’t afford a lawyer, I ask if they have a family member or friend that would loan them the money. Most people don’t know anyone that will lend $1,500 or whatever the needed amount is. I realized then that we were asking the wrong question. Instead of seeking one person to give a large amount, why not seek 100 people to each give $15? I would do that for someone I cared about and I know many others would too.
We also hope to be a good alternative to the legalized loan sharks that give plaintiffs loans in their case, but charge exorbitant interest rates. In one case I was involved in years ago, a desperate client had to borrow $75,000.00. When the case settled years later, the loan company fee had risen to over $400,000.00!!! That’s criminal and I wanted to find a way to stop it from happening.
I’ve just launched Funded Justice, a website to help people crowd fund for legal help. It’s in its infancy, but it’s very exciting because I believe that if someone is willing to reach out and tell their story, people will help them. Like other crowd funding sites we do take a small commission to keep the site running. Aside from that though, it’s safe, secure, and doesn’t cost anything except your time to sign up.
I realize that this won’t help everyone, but if we can help even a fraction of the people who can’t otherwise get a fair shot, then we will be a huge success.