Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Windy City

In a couple of weeks I will be speaking at the Clio Cloud 9 conference in Chicago. I am SO excited. I have never been to Chicago and have always wanted to go. Getting another opportunity to talk about OLS is exciting as well. The Revolution is in full force, with new entities popping up all over the country. Now that I am a super nerd in public (see image below), it's fun to see those passionate about Access to Justice in person and get to share my experiences. Normally I would hesitate to post my own license plate, but that's the beauty of vanity, I guess (the secret's already out as I'm driving around).

This week a local attorney sent a client referral to me specifically. I only have about 8 cases at this point (the ones that just will not end but that I can't let go of) and it pains me to see clients who ask for me specifically and to have to tell them no. I miss practicing, but it's just not really an option with the company getting as big as it has. They need me to run the place, the consulting about our experiences is keeping me busy, and I just don't feel like I can do as great of a job on cases if I have too many and try and juggle too much admin at the same time. Sometime soon, I might talk to the board about bringing on an executive director to replace me so that I can practice again. I can still do the consulting and management, but perhaps the nonprofit business side of things could go to someone else. Maybe even a part time person could do it, who knows. I'm a great attorney, and I was just getting a handle on family law when I had Henry and gave away most of my cases. Who knows what the future will hold? For now, I know that I get to talk about something I love to people who want to hear it.

Friday, September 25, 2015

My Annual Promise to Blog

Every year around this time I hop on, realize I haven't posted in a year, and promise to post more. It's a cycle but at least I recognize it!! Life as an executive director of a nonprofit seems to get busier and busier. Earlier this year I had a second child, so that on top of my day to day responsibilities with the firm has kept me in essentially a frantic mode at all times.

I am in serious need of a nap.

Henry is great. He is a wonderful baby and so very very cute. See Exhibit 1. At 7 months, he is already crawling and trying to pull himself up. He is in the 95 percentile for height. He is currently obsessed with blowing raspberries and trilling all day, while getting copious amounts of saliva all over his face. He spends half his time at daddy's house, and my heart breaks every time they go.

Abby is growing like a weed. She started first grade this year. She is SO smart and so creative. She makes up songs, on the spot, that are catchy and clever. The girl can write a hook, to be sure! She loves to dress up and is currently obsessed with fairies. She adores being a big sister. She is so tender with Henry, even when he pokes her in the eye or pulls her hair. She just smothers him in cuddles and lets him totally abuse her with his little sausage fingers and ham fists.

These two, along with my other baby (the company) are my sources of joy and accomplishment. While I have gotten a lot of credit for the low bono work the company is doing, coming home to these two is so rewarding. It will be amazing to see what they decide to do with their lives.

Practicing law is becoming a smaller part of my role. I am starting to get more into development, which I am not super in love with but must be done to help the company grow. There are days when I am perfectly content not dealing with family law drama, and others when I miss being in the courtroom kicking ass. I constantly go back and forth, but trying to manage both is not really sustainable. I can't believe it's almost been two years since we started Open Legal Services, I wonder what it will look like two years from now?

Friday, July 25, 2014

Tax Exemption!

One of the biggest steps for a nonprofit is applying to the IRS for tax exempt status. While not paying income tax is important, more important is the status of being an exempt organization. It is a symbol to potential donors that you are recognized by the IRS, and it brings legitimacy to your cause as a charity. The 1023 application for recognition as a tax exempt organization is extremely difficult. It took me hundreds of hours, because in order to answer the questions on the form you have to have made hundreds of policy decisions. What type of charity will you be? (We are a 509(a)(2), which is a service-based organization.) What type of charitable activities do you do, will do, might do, could possible consider doing while having a dream one night? What kind of fundraising and how often will you do it? Who are your board members? How much do you pay your officers?

It's a nightmare.

Once it was done, we heard from a friend who had recently gotten her determination letter (approval from the IRS) that it had taken 18 months.

So we assumed it would be awhile. We got our letter only 6 months after we applied. We are tax exempt!

We are officially a recognized 501(c)(3) charity, and it is retroactive to our date of incorporation. Microsoft and Adobe are giving us free software under their charitable giving programs, and our website host is also now covering our website. Other organizations are now helping market our services.

A single piece of paper, and the weight on my shoulders has been significantly reduced. Before our letter came, we were pretty sure that we would be approved and everything would be fine. But of course, we worried. Other states asking us for help building their own similar organizations were told repeatedly, "we are not approved yet, we are not experts, it's an experiment" because we were not 100% sure we had done everything correctly. Who were we to tell people how to do this?

Apparently we did things right, and now we can tell everyone about our experience and the revolution can continue to grow!

Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Other Public Defender

We are struggling at Open Legal Services to get the word out about our criminal defense services. It's frustrating because that is what I want to do. I do not enjoy family law and I know that a lot of people cannot afford private criminal attorneys so I want to help. Since we charge based on income most of my criminal cases are usually only a few hundred dollars.

So how to get the word out?

In Salt Lake County, the public defender association is large and very good at what they do. But when a defendant doesn't qualify, the courts really can't refer them to specific private attorneys, and the defendant ends up finding someone they cannot afford on Google.

We consider ourselves the other public defenders. Since as we are a nonprofit the courts are in fact allowed to refer to us. It has become about educating judges, which is tricky. Many have enthusiastically begun referring family law litigants to us, but not criminal.

We had lunch with a friend the other day whose partner is on the city council (or used to be, I'm not sure since I am a bad citizen who doesn't follow local politics much). He suggested we get the municipal courts to refer by getting mayors and city councils to approve us officially. He is going to help us get some meetings.

We are on our way, but it's frustrating. I was sitting in court just the other day when a judge was telling a defendant his income was too high to qualify for a public defender. Ethical rules prohibited me from approaching him. It was so frustrating and heartbreaking.

How can we change the thinking from public defender and pricey private attorney being the only options (other than defending yourself)?

We have tried to help educate defendants on their options, by creating and doing some radio spots, but we need more.


Friday, April 18, 2014

Growth and Growing Pains

This little company of ours is starting to take off. We are nearly at capacity for clients, with about 40 active cases each. That is a whole mess of cases. Most are family law though, so the work comes in bursts with nothing happening for large gaps of time. We hired a paralegal part time, and that is helping a lot. We are looking at hiring a third attorney. Our intern is very concerned with growth, and growing too fast.

We are getting noticed by the ABA, the Washington State Bar, the Colorado Supreme Court, and local firms who want to help us grow. How fast is too fast? We worry about opening the floodgates and having to turn people away. We worry about accepting more than we can handle and failing to provide competent representation. It's a tricky balance, but it's not a bad problem to have.

The entire mission of our nonprofit is to help those who have nowhere else to go. The fact that other nonprofits are starting to form in other states and we are being contacted for advice on how to build a model like ours is, well, flattering and not at all upsetting. We didn't do this to be innovative for innovation's sake. We did it to help the "doughnut hole" population that can't pay for a private attorney and doesn't qualify for pro bono. If other firms start up and do what we are doing, so much the better. If I went out of business because everyone could find an attorney they can afford, I would be absolutely thrilled.

Work/life balance is starting to present some challenges for me. In the beginning, my husband was so supportive and basically raised our daughter while I worked insane hours. He is still doing that, and is so selfless about it. The issue is me. I want to keep working. I want to stay at the office. I like what I am doing and I am such a control freak that I want to be the one who does everything. Learning to delegate to our paralegal is KILLING me. I should get a book on how to have an assistant. My partner needs her way more than I do, so that helps a bit. I delegate important tasks but manage my own calendar. Dan's clients call frequently, because they are family law and many of them have very dramatic cases. So they need to talk more, and it's great that Heather is there to get their calls and screen them to determine if they really need to speak to their attorney or if it's something she can handle.

My clients almost never call. They know that I will call them if I need them, and that I am on top of things. With criminal cases, you just do so much in court that you don't need to talk a lot. It's a waste of time and money, when you are waiting for pre-sentence reports or rulings on motions, to call your lawyer to just chat. It doesn't do any good, and I make sure my clients know that. I am of course always there if they need me, but I try to reinforce boundaries. I am not a social worker, and my personality is such that while I am compassionate I am also sort of nuts and bolts.

My partner, however, is so caring and kind. His clients will call him to talk about anxiety over their case and he talks them through it. He is glad to do it. I think that makes him an excellent family law attorney. Myself, I do not enjoy family law. Criminal law is largely about math. The evidence weighed against the defense's theory of the case. The odds of success. Statistics for recidivism. I love it. It's heartless and emotional at the same time, which is very odd. And for some reason, I fit right in there.

So I am trying to remember I have a family at home that needs me, but it is hard when I have this six month old baby (the company) that needs my constant attention. Most nights I get home about 6:30, and I don't go in until 9am. It's not so bad, but I am working weekends a lot and working remotely in the middle of the night when I have a filing due. It's challenging to keep myself emotionally at home with Brian and Abby when I am stressing over tasks to be done at the office.

In the next few weeks, we will be doing some things with the media and are working on publishing an article in the bar journal. We have a board meeting coming up in June, and right now we know that they are going to be very happy with what they see. We just have to keep the growth to a gradual, manageable rate and I think we will be fine.

As for me, I am going to put "Play Barbies" on my calendar more often.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Starting a Revolution Part II

Being an employer is hard. Really hard. I had no idea when I started my nonprofit that you have to do things like pay payroll taxes. Pay for worker's compensation insurance. Pay for...well everything. I am surprised someone as thoughtful (right? I CAN be thoughtful) as me didn't realize how much my former employers shelled out so I could make a living. It's a LOT.

Last weekend our little project had a huge boost. We attended the state bar convention, where I spoke on a panel. I talked about my experience graduating and not finding a job. I talked about the low bono movement (AKA "The Revolution"). I talked about making my own path and blowing off On Campus Interviews or "OCI" in favor of more practical training like avoiding Law School Pizza or "LSP".

As I ranted about unattainable overhead costs, inflated legal fees, and the modest means/aka low bono market, I saw people physically lean forward to listen to me. I even raised my fist in triumph, causing the audience to erupt in laughter. My partner and best friend sat in the front row and took photos. He was very proud and supportive. What happened next was even better.

The keynote speaker, someone who I believe to be downright prescient in his predictions about the legal market and highly in tune, asked me for MY card. It was swell. Then the bar president chatted me up for a while. The co-chair of the bar committee which deals with the low bono market asked me to have a drink and talk about my future plans. A big firm lawyer started talking about how others he mentors will do what I did (only as a solo and not a nonprofit) and then get offers from firms once they have had 3-5 years experience and because of the disappearing partner track he is advising them to TURN IT DOWN.

Many many people at the convention wanted to set up referrals and get brochures and have us speak on more panels and perhaps teach a CLE. There is momentum going on.

Viva la revolucion!

That said, being a boss sucks. We have to pay quarterly taxes in April and I would so much be doing a suppression hearing than dealing with that. With any luck, we will have someone else handling all that nonsense next year. We are growing, and things are going well, and that is what matters. Plus I am very grateful to myself for being a good boss and paying for things like worker's comp!

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Prisoner's Dilemma

A couple of years ago I got involved in a high profile murder trial. The murder happened in a city where economic disparity, racism, and religious tension run high. The prosecutor had been through a political firestorm due to several other high profile cases that had been horribly investigated and claims of corruption rang throughout the trials. The news in this city is awful, with a murder on nearly every night. When my client's loved one was killed, similar crimes had been occurring in the area. There was no physical evidence tying my client to the crime, and the "motive" the officers attributed to the defendant was thin at best. I spent a year prepping for the trial, helping catalog over 30,000 pages of discovery. I went out there for the trial, but had to come back for my law school graduation. I watched the verdict via a live feed.

It was a hung jury. I was devastated but it was better than a conviction. You see, my client is innocent. I feel it in every fiber of my being. I see the facts. I see the evidence (or lack thereof), and I see the tricks and manipulations of those involved in both the investigation and the prosecution. They immediately committed to re-try the case. Now, it's been a year, and the second trial is due to start.

Everyone is tired, including my client, who has been in custody since 2010. Waiting. Hearing the voice of a child, who barely remembers the time when the family was whole, growing up on the other side of the country with grandparents who try to keep hope alive.

The last hung jury case in the jurisdiction (also totally based on circumstantial evidence) ended in a conviction the second time around. The judge in our first trial let in horrifically tainted evidence. He refused to grant a mistrial despite a Brady violation so prejudicial and so game-changing, that the entire theory of the case changed overnight. While there is a new judge this time around, I have been up nights wondering if this new trial will be any less corrupt. I am not optimistic.

If you haven't heard the term, the prisoner's dilemma is related to an innocent person being forced to make the choice of whether to admit to something he or she did not do, in order to get out of prison. Parolees are required to own up to their crimes, show they've been rehabilitated while incarcerated, and commit to being better people on the outside. How can an innocent person do this? If they admit to the crime, they lose their innocence forever and the world will always consider them guilty. If they don't, they are not eligible for parole in almost all cases. For sex-related crimes, required treatment programs can never be completed because if you don't admit you have a problem, and you are denied participation.

How can you choose to save your life by admitting to a crime you did not commit in order to get out (or avoid the death penalty)? What can you do then to save your soul?

So the prisoner's dilemma is waiting, hoping that someone will come along with the proof you need to be exonerated. Many wait forever, or die waiting. Many are executed and then later proved innocent.

With the new trial starting next week, I am certain that my client is considering these same options, facing this same dilemma. It might not be too late to put the family back together. To teach the child to drive a car. To see the child graduate high school. Get married. Have grandchildren.

If you look only at the math, it seems like an easy choice. Get home. Get safe. But what will the cost of this choice be? Forever labeled a felon. A killer. And no one will ever look for the person who actually tore the family apart in the first place. Case closed.

I may never sleep again.