Making counsel more affordable

2 nonlawyers set up roster of barristers at a group discount

March 16, 2000|By Mark Ribbing | Mark Ribbing,SUN STAFF

For many Americans, the prospect of finding and paying for the right legal assistance seems as difficult as getting one's teeth pulled.

Two Lutherville businessmen want to help change that. Their mission is to make finding and paying for a lawyer as easy as, well, getting one's teeth pulled.

B. Douglas Goodell and Neill Mitchell are the heads of United Legal Benefits LLC, a company that offers group legal benefits. Such benefits work much like employer-sponsored medical or dental plans; an employee chips in a regular subscription fee, and then pays little or nothing to have a lawyer draft a will, interpret a contract, defend against a speeding ticket, or carry out a broad array of other legal tasks.

Goodell and Mitchell are not lawyers, but businessmen who sense an opportunity. They said their company fills a void in the legal landscape, offering legal coverage for $20 or less per month in a market where attorney's fees can easily reach into the hundreds of dollars per hour. By garnering monthly subscriptions from a broad pool of customers, their company has been able to assemble a small roster of general-practice attorneys throughout the area.

Lawyers participating in the plan keep their independent practices, but receive monthly retainer fees from United Legal Benefits in return for agreeing to take on cases from the company's customers.

Mitchell, the company's president, said making counsel more available and affordable will make people more willing to get professional help on the myriad legal issues that crop up in modern American life. "Most people, if they don't have an attorney, choose not to get legal advice," Mitchell said.

Goodell, the chief executive officer, referred to the company's mission as "bringing legal services to the masses," and said such access will make society less litigious rather than more so. When people are comfortable seeking counsel in the early stages of a potential dispute, Goodell said, such matters are less likely to wind up in court.

"The whole theme of this is preventive law, nipping something in the bud," Goodell said.

Estimates of how many people are covered by such plans nationwide vary widely. When all legal-benefit packages are included, the number is thought to be around 100 million. Including only employer-sponsored and payroll-deduction plans such as that offered by United Legal Benefits, the number is put closer to 10 million.

United Legal Benefits advertises a range of legal services, from landlord-tenant disputes to adoptions. Most of these services require no additional payment from the subscriber, but some -- such as personal-injury matters -- carry additional fees.

In deference to its objective of getting employers to sponsor the program, United Legal Benefits flatly refuses to provide one impor tant type of legal assistance: lawsuits filed by workers against their supervisors.

"We don't give subscribers the gun and the bullets to shoot the employer," Goodell explained.

"If I do a good job for people in the plan, they'll recommend me to people who are not necessarily in the plan."

Michael L. Wilsman, attorney

Part of United Legal Benefits' pitch to employers is that offering such a plan can help attract and keep workers in a tight labor market. "A recent survey reveals that the fifth-most-requested employee benefit is a legal services plan," reads one brochure.

However, it's far from clear that a legal-assistance package plays a role in employee attraction or retention. "It's not a benefit that determines very often whether someone takes a job or stays in a job or leaves it," said Bill Bolger, executive director of the National Resource Center for Consumers of Legal Services in Gloucester, Va.

Bolger said the merits of such plans are much broader: "The most important thing about any legal-services plan is that they level the playing field between the [average] individual and the big business or the wealthy person, because they make preventive legal service readily available."

One of the attorneys in the United Legal Benefits plan, Michael L. Wilsman of Severna Park, said he sees about 100 clients under the program. He said the check he gets from United Legal Benefits each month typically is smaller than what he would have made on a normal payment basis. However, he said, this shortfall is balanced by the additional business he has gained: "If I do a good job for people in the plan, they'll recommend me to people who are not necessarily in the plan."

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