Prepaid legal plans offer cheap access to lawyer

October 28, 1994|By Andrew Leckey | Andrew Leckey,Tribune Media Services

"Talk to my lawyer."

"I'll have to see my attorney about this."

"Next time, you'll be hearing from my lawyer."

For those of us who'd love to evoke the name of our very own legal eagle when troubles arise, a prepaid legal plan may be an inexpensive answer.

More than 20 million people in this country already are members of prepaid legal plans sold individually or, more commonly, offered through employers, labor unions, associations or credit card issuers. The total number entitled to coverage through various plans but who haven't participated is three times that figure.

Membership grows steadily due to the search for peace of mind in a litigious society. For $15 a month or less, plans offer subscribers access to attorneys, unlimited telephone consultations, many free services and discounted rates on everything from divorces to criminal defense work. Most plans cover all household members.

"If you're in a prepaid legal plan, you won't procrastinate in finding out your rights, duties and proper course of action when something arises," said William Bolger, executive director of the nonprofit National Resource Center for Consumers of Legal Services in Gloucester, Va. Consider the recent "Case of the Missing Screen Door" as an example.

Sarina Butler had paid a $200 deposit for a new screen door, but the company hired to install it missed deadline after deadline. Ms. Butler, who says, "Mosquitoes were driving me crazy," finally canceled the order and demanded her money back. She ordered a door from another company.

When her deposit wasn't returned from the first company, she phoned her attorney from her prepaid legal plan, who quickly fired off a letter. A week later, the deposit was returned and Ms. Butler, as a plan member, didn't have to pay for the help.

"The plan's fee is $8.99 per month, which you can cancel at any time, and includes free benefits such as telephone advice and consultation, review of documents of up to six pages and creation of a simple will," explained Ms. Butler, who also is a spokesperson for Montgomery Ward & Co., the issuer of the Signature Group plan, in which she is a member.

Signature Group is the nation's largest prepaid legal plan with more than 550,000 active accounts, including its administration of additional programs, such as the one American Express offers cardholders. Some of the other large prepaid legal plans available include Pre-Paid Legal Services Inc., LawPhone and Hyatt Legal Services. All vary in price and services offered.

"These plans benefit the lawyers because they get new clients who have never used lawyers before, and this gives them an opportunity to increase their practice," said Alec Schwartz, executive director of the Chicago-based American Prepaid Legal Services Institute, which is affiliated with the American Bar Association.

However, some criticism centers on the quality of services offered by some plans, how quickly responses are handled and whether lawyers sometimes use the plans as an opportunity to boost the consumer up to higher-fee legal work. Carefully examine a plan, talk to others who have used it and determine whether its services meet your needs.

Stephen Elias, associate publisher of Nolo Press, a Berkeley, Calif.-based publisher of self-help products, says he has no quarrel with plans offered through employers or other large groups because it's easy to see the economics that make the service profitable for the attorneys. The large group also has muscle to make sure services meet basic requirements and that their telephone lines aren't always busy. However, private plans sold to individuals don't make as much sense, he believes.

The National Resource Center for Consumers of Legal Services will send a list of the largest prepaid plans if you send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to P.O. Box 340, Gloucester, Va. 23061.

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