Law Talk Episode 13: Subscription Retainer Services

In today’s episode of Law Talk, we discuss our exciting new subscription retainer service.


Andrew Michael: Alright, it looks like we are live, so welcome back. It is Wednesday morning, 11:00, recovering from July 4th and all that natural goodness, today we’re talking about making justice more affordable for the masses. So you have anything to say, Jacob?

Jacob Tingen: So yeah, so today we wanted to spend some time talking about what we’re doing at Tingen & Williams to increase access to justice, and one of the big projects that we’ve been working on for a number of months now is a subscription retainer service. So one of the reasons that people don’t get access to justice or feel uncomfortable hiring an attorney is the cost involved, and so one of the things we’re looking at is making legal services more affordable by breaking down our representation into small monthly bites. So we’re planning to provide a service, somewhere around $29 a month or less, also on annual plans, where essentially we’re on call for you and we’ll provide certain legal services for free, certain consultations for free, and then discounts on other legal services. So we’re kind of excited. We’re putting together our contracts right now and we’ll have an online system and an online portal where people can log in, but yeah, this is real, this is happening, this is something that we’ll be offering to the general public, an opportunity for you to get legal representation at a lower cost than you would otherwise.

Andrew Michael: Yeah. So obviously today we’re just going to talk through the why, the how, the what’s the point of this sort of retainer service. So I guess a good place to start is the why. Why is there a need for such a retainer service? ‘Cause I know we’ve been talking about tiny law around the office where it’s like stuff you don’t really want to hire an attorney for just because the cost doesn’t really offset what you’re trying to do, like traffic tickets and stuff like that. So what is the purpose of such a retainer service? Who is it good for? Why are we offering it? seems like a good place to start.

Jacob Tingen: No, I’d say that’s a good place to start too. So the law makes provision for certain kinds of representation, so there are courts that limit the amount of money that can be sued for, for example. In small claims court it’s only small claims. It’s issues that are so low. And what’s interesting in small claims court, if you bring a lawyer, then they say, “Well we can’t handle this.” If you’re represented it goes straight to general district court. So small claims court is a court available to Virginians where the issues are small enough that most people aren’t going to hire a lawyer. It’s just not worth the time and effort. For most lawyers it’s not economically viable for the lawyer to represent you, but it still could be a lot of money to an individual.

Andrew Michael: Yeah, ’cause what’s the limit for a small claims court in Virginia?

Jacob Tingen: I don’t even know. I should have looked back on it.

Andrew Michael: I think it’s generally about a couple thousand dollars.

Jacob Tingen: Yeah, but a couple thousand dollars-

Andrew Michael: Is a lot.

Jacob Tingen: … can be a lot for an individual, but a lot of lawyers work on a contingent fee, so 33% of a thousand bucks is 300 bucks. That’s just not worth most lawyers’ time to go into court and fight over, so good luck finding that attorney. And so that’s kind of the root of the problem is that for most people they’re just going to pay a traffic ticket rather than hire a lawyer and fight it, even if they should fight it, because it’s going to be more expensive to hire that lawyer than to just go pay the ticket. And so that’s kind of where this concept comes in is that there are areas of law or legal issues that arise in everybody’s everyday life, but you can’t find a lawyer to represent you for those issues because they’re not economically viable enough for most lawyers and you’re not going to be able to find somebody.

Andrew Michael: And even further than that, there’s also some things in everyday life that you wouldn’t even know you’d need a lawyer for. So for example, my roommate is super loud at all hours of the night. If you’re like, “Hey, I have a lawyer on retainer,” you can be, “Hey, is this against City ordinance?” You can talk to your lawyer because you’re already paying to have them on …

Jacob Tingen: Yeah, so we contemplate providing free consultations on a variety of issues, and by free consultation I mean they would be included within this retainer plan. And then also beyond those things that you maybe wouldn’t have hired a lawyer for originally or be able to find a lawyer to help you with a certain service, we’d also provide the standard legal representation that we would provide normally, but at a discount. So we’re looking at providing for people who have subscribed to this service, a discount on things that, again, reckless driving charges for example. In Virginia, if you’re going over 80 miles an hour and you get a speeding ticket, but if you’re over 80, that’s actually a misdemeanor charge.

Andrew Michael: And a serious one too.

Jacob Tingen: And a serious one too. It’s comparable to drunk driving and it’ll go on your criminal record which, you don’t want that, and so people may not know that actually when they go to look at a reckless driving charge.

Andrew Michael: ‘Cause if you pay the charge you’re automatically guilty too, as well.

Jacob Tingen: Yes. So you’d want to have lawyer. So there’re a lot of ways where having the subscription service and having someone that you could talk things over without being worried about paying for an extra consultation or being sent a bill, you could pick up the phone, you could talk to somebody, you can get some kind of better idea about what’s about to happen. At a minimum.

Andrew Michael: Yeah. So who specifically do you think this would be useful for? I’ve been thinking it over and it seems like something that’d be really good for small businesses, families who would have traffic tickets, that kind of stuff. Just sort of talk maybe a little bit on that point for a little bit.

Jacob Tingen: Right, well, so I know that the statistics are that the average person has one to five legal matters arise every year, so that’s everybody, and just because you have a legal matter, a lot of people go without being represented on that stuff, and that can be risky, depending on the legal matter. Traffic tickets, reckless driving charges, risky to go without a lawyer, and people may not understand the nature of the legal issue they’re facing. Now if you’re a small business owner, whether it’s just a home business or an actual business where you’re renting a location and you’re trying to make it … you’re hiring employees, yeah, you’re going to have a lot more legal issues pop up because that’s just the nature of running a business. So we foresee having individual plans, family plans, small business plans, and then supplements to those plans. So one of the things that is popular in Virginia, and we’re seeing people or services that provide something similar to this, where they’ll have a gun owner supplement. So we’re probably planning to have an add-on contract for gun owners in addition to the individual plan where you could get services, say, like defense and minor gun incidents, although a minor gun incident is a major incident in your life. But also gun trusts are a very common way to manage and own firearms, so that’s something else we’d also be looking at.

Jacob Tingen: But for small businesses, there’s a whole host of issues that you might be looking into, so small businesses are going to deal with tax issues, they’re going to deal with immigration issues, they’re going to deal with trademark issues which is something … Immigration and trademark are two specialties of mine. It’s helpful to have somebody in your corner that you can call up when you have a legal question just in the course of running a small business to make sure you avoid bigger legal trouble down the road as well. Copyright, intellectual property issues, these are all things you’d want to run by somebody and we’d be able to help you with that.

Andrew Michael: Just setting up a small business is a whole legal hurdle by itself, like setting up an LLC, making sure you’re doing your taxes and stuff [crosstalk 00:09:05].

Jacob Tingen: Setting up businesses is actually something I’m really excited about, so if you want to set up a business, please give me a call. But yeah, absolutely. We’re planning on having a business setup package too, because I just enjoy planning and starting things up. So that’s a lot of fun for me. Call me if you’re interested.

Andrew Michael: Yeah. So just because it’s something that I know people will obviously be asking about, what exactly would signing up for the service entail? What would we cover? Walk through the process of what benefits does this service have.

Jacob Tingen: Okay, well, so first let me touch on what traditional legal representation looks like and then how this differs, okay?

Andrew Michael: That’s a good way to start, yeah.

Jacob Tingen: And then also, a lot of people may not realize that lawyers have their own set of ethical rules and particularly in how we deal with money, so I’ll talk a little bit about that to help people who are listening right now understand better why this is a benefit and how it’s going to work. So typically, under current legal representation, you don’t have a lawyer, you don’t have anybody under retainer, you don’t have a personal lawyer ’cause you’re not super wealthy or whatever. So what you do when a legal issue arises … Typically a lot of people will just, a legal issue arises and they’ll turn to the internet. A lot of times we’ll pop up if you’re searching for topics in Virginia. We have a ton of information on our website. But they’ll look on the internet, they’ll look at books, and maybe they’ll try to handle the issue on their own, and maybe they get through unscathed. If that’s you, good luck, and good for you.

Andrew Michael: But it’s still a lot of time and effort put into …

Jacob Tingen: It’s still a lot of time and effort, and just because you didn’t get into any trouble doesn’t mean that it worked out perfectly. There are legal issues that can lurk for years and then rear an ugly head later.

Jacob Tingen: The other way that you deal with it is you look around and you read that info and you say, “Oh gosh, I’m out of my depth. I’m going to hire a lawyer.” And then you contact a lawyer, and you may or may not get a free consult. We do free consults in some practice areas and not in others. So then you start to sink money into a lawyer, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I have learned that, being a lawyer, that if somebody charges for it it’s probably worth it to consider hiring them.

Andrew Michael: Because it’s more expensive not to have one.

Jacob Tingen: Yeah, there’s an opportunity cost involved for sure. But yeah, and then for a lot of lawyers depending on who you get lucky enough to hire, you may have a flat fee, you may be charged by the hour, some attorneys will charge every time they touch your file. They’ll charge a tenth of an hour, they’ll charge six minutes, and so every time they touch the file, that’s 35 bucks, the 10% of my $350 hourly rate. And so that becomes problematic because I’m going to pay you 35 bucks for every phone call, for every email, for every time you look at my file. That adds up. If I contact you three or four times in a week, well there went 200 bucks. And so people aren’t used to that, they’re not prepared for that, and so that is typically how legal representation is done today.

Jacob Tingen: So then we come in with the subscription retainer plan which allows you to contact us two or three times a month, and we’re happy to talk to you. And you’ve already paid for it.

Andrew Michael: For $30 which is, again, the price of six minutes that we were just talking about.

Jacob Tingen: Yeah, but chances are you’ll get more than six minutes out of us.

Andrew Michael: Definitely.

Jacob Tingen: And probably even an answer to your legal question, and at a minimum we’ll help guide you to an appropriate legal resource.

Jacob Tingen: So yeah, that’s kind of the basic gist of it, and I think the reason that lawyers don’t currently do this is because, one, there are services on the market that do this already, pre-paid legal service providers, and they claim to connect you to a lawyer in your practice area. One of the ways that we’re different from those plans is that you know who you’re hiring. You’re hiring Tingen & Williams. We have some reputation here locally and you can talk to actual attorneys, and these are plans sponsored by actual attorneys.

Andrew Michael: And it’s also much more transparent with what you’re getting.

Jacob Tingen: Yeah, that’s one of the goals that we have to set out. We’re looking, especially as we look at contracts of similar services, we want to make sure that people who sign up know what they’re getting and get value out of it as well.

Andrew Michael: Yeah. I’m trying to think, is there any other questions that we haven’t covered yet?

Jacob Tingen: Why don’t other law firms do this?

Andrew Michael: Yeah. I mean, go back to the Ethics Board, ’cause I know personally, one of the big things is like, you can’t charge for something if the person doesn’t know what they’re paying for. You need to be upfront with what you’re charging versus what they’re getting, sort of, which seems especially appropriate for this, where you’re charging a monthly subscription, so maybe talk through that a little bit, sort of any precedents in Virginia related to that.

Jacob Tingen: Okay. So lawyers have very specific rules and there’s a set of ethical rules, the Virginia Rules of Professional Responsibility, and many of those rules have to do with the handling of client funds or the handling of money generally. So most lawyers will have, at a minimum, two bank accounts: an operating account where they run payroll and that kind of thing, and so when you’ve paid a lawyer for services rendered, that money goes into the operating account. So fees that a lawyer earns or has earned are considered, again, earned fees, that’s the legal term, and it goes into the operating account. Any fee that the lawyer hasn’t earned that they’re holding in trust for a client goes into a trust account, so that would include advanced legal fees, so if I haven’t yet done the work but I want the money in advanced as surety for the work I’m about to do. I’m about to do 10 hours worth of work on your case, then I need $3,500 in my trust account. And then also there are a lot of court fees and filing fees and expenses that come up in most cases, and so I need that from the client before I can pursue your case, but it’s not my money, so I’m not going to put it in my operating account. I’m going to put it in my trust account.

Andrew Michael: Yeah, it’s the money to submit the paperwork on behalf of the client.

Jacob Tingen: Right. And it’ll be attributed to ongoing expenses in your case. So lawyers have a duty to kind of manage and separate the funds per client. Now one of the issues that we face in setting up this kind of subscription service is they make a big deal in the Bar between earned versus unearned fees. So you’ve probably heard of the term “retainer” before, and the legal ethics opinions say that the Bar tends to use the word “retainer” incorrectly. So when most people think of a retainer, they think, “Okay, I’m going to pay the lawyer $3,000 and that’s the retainer.” But actually that retainer is the advanced legal fee. So when you pay a lawyer 3,000 bucks up front and he hasn’t done anything yet, those funds go into the trust account, and then as the lawyer does work, he bills against those $3,000 that are already present.

Andrew Michael: Yes.

Jacob Tingen: And so that is what most people think of as a retainer, but the correct legal term for that is an “advanced legal fee.” And the Virginia Bar distinguishes between an advanced legal fee and what’s known as a “true retainer” which is, “I’m going to pay you to reserve your availability.” And there are certain requirements for a true retainer fee, and so the subscription agreement that we’re going to set up for this service is going to be a true retainer. You are reserving our availability to you to help you with certain legal matters that we’re going to set out in our contract. And so that’s what allows us to do this, whereas there are some firms that do it here in Virginia, but it’s not very common. But yeah, the reason that it is available under the ethical rules is because it’s termed “true retainer,” and again, it just allows us to be available to you and kind of on-call.

Andrew Michael: Yeah, so it’s the difference between paying up-front for someone to help you with your divorce versus paying to reserve a spot with the lawyer whenever you want over the course of that month sort of.

Jacob Tingen: Right, yeah. So we expect to provide a certain number of phone calls each month. Some people like the mean letter written by their lawyer-

Andrew Michael: Oh, they’re the best, yeah.

Jacob Tingen: … a certain number of mean letters per month. We expect to provide certain touching base with the attorney services included as part of your plan. And so we’re making ourselves available. And then to those who are subscribed to the plan we can provide a discount to whoever we want, and so those who are subscribed can get a 25% discount is what we’re thinking off of legal services, so we’ll have more details on that as we kind of move forward.

Andrew Michael: Alright, cool. I’m just thinking of sort of as like the “You’ll hear from my lawyer” fee. ‘Cause that’s kind of where it is where you have a lawyer that you can turn to whenever an issue comes up.

Jacob Tingen: Yeah, you literally have a lawyer on retainer, on a true retainer, and so it’s interesting because it gives … Hopefully the monthly price that we’re looking at will allow a lot of people who otherwise wouldn’t have access to that kind of legal power the chance to fight back, so we’re helping ideally little guys have legal representation where they otherwise wouldn’t have legal representation.

Andrew Michael: Yeah, I think access is a really good word for it because you’re essentially paying for all of the knowledge, all of the resources that that lawyer has, which is especially useful in these tiny law cases that we’ve been talking about like traffic tickets, sending cease and desist letters, helping with general business law, all these really little things that you wouldn’t normally want to hire a lawyer for but under the service you could.

Jacob Tingen: Yeah, under the service you could, and then again, we are real, legitimate, admitted-to-the-Bar lawyers with a real legal practice, so not only for those smaller issues but for the bigger issues too we’re ready and available to represent you, and on a variety of topics.

Andrew Michael: Even more value for your buck, yeah.

Jacob Tingen: Yeah, even more value for your buck. And then if it’s not something that we can do and a legal issue arises, we’ll do our best to connect you to somebody who does. One of the things as we were reviewing the contracts, we plan to have, like I said, a separate business plan, for example, but debt collection isn’t something we would do. But I’ve got a buddy who has a debt collection practice. So you call me and we talk about, I don’t know, immigration issues with your business, international issues with your business. If you’re importing we do international work, we do immigration work. I can talk to you about intellectual property, I can talk to you about setting up your business, but if you’ve got a client that’s not paying and you need debt collection, well, you can still talk to me about it, and that’s included as part of your package, and then I’ll refer you to that guy who’s really the expert in that. And then the same thing for tax. I’m not a tax lawyer, but if you do need a tax lawyer then we’d refer you to somebody who could actually help you with that.

Andrew Michael: And the added bonus of that is you know you’re getting a lawyer you can trust if we refer you. As opposed to blindly Googling someone and seeing what comes up.

Jacob Tingen: Yeah, I mean lawyers know lawyers, so there is that element. I can’t say that we know every single lawyer in Richmond ’cause that’s clearly not true, but we would do our best to vet somebody before we send you to them, so that’s definitely a plus.

Andrew Michael: Alright, cool. I’m trying to think, is there anything else we need to cover for this?

Jacob Tingen: Well, I mean-

Andrew Michael: It’s one of those topics that’s super super broad, but at the same time, doing a base overview is [crosstalk 00:21:32].

Jacob Tingen: Yeah. Well, I think one of the other things that we are looking at with this project is I’d be curious to hear your thoughts, so if you’re watching this video and you have suggestions on what you’d like to see as part of this service, leave a comment or a question. You can come to tingenwilliams.com. You can leave us a message in our contact form. Because this is the kind of thing we would want feedback on; it’s something that I think has the potential to help a great many people, and I think that that’s kind of where Tingen & Williams can excel and help people who, again, wouldn’t ordinarily have access to justice but will now.

Andrew Michael: Because the whole point of this service is basically to make getting legal representation easier and more affordable for people who normally wouldn’t be able to.

Jacob Tingen: Right. Or just offsetting the cost of hiring a lawyer [crosstalk 00:22:26] you need one. As I’ve thought about this service, one of the things that comes up a lot is if I have a kid going off to college, we were just looking at stats on criminal law in Virginia, and essentially if you’re going to be convicted of a crime … I’m not going to say if you’re going to commit a crime. But if you’re going to be convicted of a crime, chances are you’re between the ages of 18 and 30.

Andrew Michael: Yeah.

Jacob Tingen: And so if I’ve got a kid that’s going off to college and the first time without parental supervision, if I’m at all worried, this is a good idea. This is something that’s going to help you save money down the road.

Andrew Michael: And just have peace-of-mind in general.

Jacob Tingen: Yeah, peace of mind that you can call somebody and talk to somebody that’s not going to charge you just to have a chit-chat in the event the worst happens. And that’s kind of what you want to avoid, especially … College is a very crucial, critical time of your child’s life, so this is a good service for you if you’re a parent and you’re concerned about your child going to college, this is a great idea.

Andrew Michael: Cool. I think that’s about everything, so thanks for tuning in, everybody. We’ll be back next Wednesday, same time, and I hope everyone looks forward to the subscription retainer service. I know I am personally. And again, if you have any questions, any comments, this is coming out … When are we planning to launch it?

Jacob Tingen: Late July maybe, more likely mid-August.

Andrew Michael: Yeah, so there’s time to change the plan if we get significant feedback about making it easier, more available for people. So definitely we will be reading and factoring comments in too as we’re launching this over the next few months.

Jacob Tingen: Yeah, please let us know. I’d be very interested to hear what anybody has to say about it.

Andrew Michael: Awesome. Thanks everybody, I hope you have the nice rest of your week, and this is Law Talk out.

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