New law firm seeks clients who can't afford a lawyer

Attorneys say they want to help fill gap for services to people of limited means

  • Michelle J. Moodispaw has started a new firm to help those who can't afford a lawyer. Joining her are her father Len Moodispaw, left, and retired judge Joseph Manck.
Michelle J. Moodispaw has started a new firm to help those who… (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun )
December 04, 2010|By Andrea F. Siegel, The Baltimore Sun

Like other law firms, a fledgling legal practice in Annapolis is looking for clients.

But this one is targeting clients who need but can't afford a lawyer, has a retired judge on the payroll and is being financially supported so it doesn't need to turn a profit.

The law firm of Michelle J. Moodispaw teams the former public defender with Joseph P. Manck, who retired from the Anne Arundel County bench three years ago.

The goal is to attract people who earn too much money to qualify for free legal services — that's a poverty-level income — but can't pay full freight.

They say they won't lure clients away from local lawyers. "This is to do the cases they aren't taking," Manck said.

Neither the people involved with the office nor other legal services providers knew of similar small law practices starting this way, though many large firms take "pro bono," or free public service, cases.

Moodispaw hopes to build the practice with referrals from organizations and civil legal services providers — some of which pay substantially reduced fees to lawyers handling their cases — as well as taking what clients can pay and accepting court-awarded fees. The firm is being added to the list of lawyers who take criminal cases from the Office of the Public Defender, said William Davis, the county's public defender. Moodispaw and Manck are considering offering public defender training.

Attorneys in the field say the new firm, run by Moodispaw and with Manck actively serving "of counsel," shouldn't lack for clients.

Its creation comes at a time of heightened need, with a sour economy, home foreclosure and job loss leaving more people with legal and financial woes.

"It's just getting worse," said Susan M. Ehrlichman, who as executive director of the Maryland Legal Services Corp., which funds 35 providers, regularly hears of the need for low-cost and free legal help with civil matters.

At least 1 million Marylanders qualify for free civil legal services; providers are scrambling to help barely 20 percent of them, she said.

Whether the new law office's model turns out to be an efficient way to add legal resources and whether it will reach the point of not relying on support from Moodispaw's father — who has committed $250,000 to the law practice for its first year — is unknown.

"I wish we could clone their benefactor," Ehrlichman said.

The market exists for discounted legal work, said Phillip Robinson, executive director of Civil Justice Inc., a Baltimore-based referral network of small firms and individual lawyers who are flexible in their fees.

While about 55 percent of full-time lawyers in Maryland provided some uncompensated work as a public service in 2008, only 22 percent met the 50-hour-a-year goal, according to a state courts report.

The idea for the practice came together this year. A former public defender in Florida's Key West area, Michelle Moodispaw wanted to stop commuting from her Crownsville home to Baltimore County, where she was an assistant public defender. She wanted to continue to work with a population in need.

"I feel fortunate to be able to do this," Moodispaw said.

Manck, who retired in 2007, was ready for a break from the traditional part-time judicial retirement job of working one-third of the year on the bench. "This is just a golden opportunity," Manck said.

At his own request, he had been mostly mediating divorces in Anne Arundel County.

The volume of cases with legal and financial complexities left insufficient time to hammer out a settlement, he said. "I didn't feel like I was accomplishing much," Manck said.

Judges receive two-thirds of their salary as a pension. Four months a year of courthouse work allows them to reach their old salaries. It's far less common for retired judges to return to legal practice — though an increasing number work privately in mediation and arbitration — and Manck's looking forward to the change.

Meanwhile, Moodispaw's father, Len, was seeking an avenue to give back to the community. In addition to his $250,000 commitment to the law practice for its first year, he plans "continuing investment as necessary," he said.

He is the CEO of KEYW Corp., a Hanover cybersecurity company that just went public, but his unrelated legal and technology consulting work is bankrolling this venture. "Fortunately I have the financial resources to do what we all want to do," he said.

Len Moodispaw, who is also Manck's longtime friend and a self-described "recovering attorney" added: "Joe and Michelle, they are the real heroes in this. Their hearts are in the right place. I want them to do those things without having to worry about making a lot of income."

andrea.siegel@baltsun.com

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