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Innovative legal service helps those 'dancing along the poverty line'

Published: Saturday, Aug. 16 2014 2:25 p.m. MDT

A. Daniel Spencer of Open Legal Services checks the look of a new sign he placed near the door outside his office in Salt Lake City, Monday, Aug. 11, 2014.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — From a tiny office in the basement of a Himalyan restaurant near the Matheson Court House, attorneys Shantelle Argyle and Daniel Spencer are waging what they call "a revolution in affordable legal services."

Argyle and Spencer have created the state's first nonprofit law firm for clients of modest means who need legal help for family or criminal law matters. Their universe of clients are people who do not qualify for pro bono legal services but can't afford to hire traditional law firms.

The firm, Open Legal Services, offers legal services on a sliding scale, depending on a household's annual income. Fees start at $50 an hour and go up to $135.

The law firm's services are not free but its hourly fees are well below the market rate.

Corinne Albam, a current client of OLS, said the law firm was an attractive option for her legal needs, a lingering divorce case.

"I had been shopping for some time and my biggest challenge was cost. How am I going to do this cost-effectively because I’m not going to have any help on the other side and all of my financial resources have to go to raising my girls?" she said.

After the law office assisted Albam's friend with her divorce, she asked Argyle and Spencer to handle her case, too.

"When I began to learn about really what they’re trying to do, I was absolutely in awe," Alban said.

"I really hired them because their mission is so powerful. Being alone and not really having a lot of excess resources, I felt like why doesn’t everybody know that these guys exist?"

The law office, which operates in less than 400-square-feet of office space at 66 Exchange Place, employs four attorneys and a paralegal/assistant. Argyle and Spencer each wear two other hats. She is president/executive managing director of their nonprofit agency and handles the firm's bookkeeping. Spencer is vice president/secretary and handles the firm's IT issues.

That's on top of their attorney responsibilities.

While the attorneys, who met in law school at the University of Utah and graduated in 2013, could have taken their careers a more traditional route, establishing a nonprofit law firm created an opportunity to, as Spencer puts it, offer "justice for the rest of us."

Running their own law firm also enables them to better balance their family and professional lives. Each is married and has young children.

It also created an opportunity for Argyle and Spencer to work toward forgiveness of their law school loans. Lawyers who work for qualifying government or nonprofit agencies in “public service” can have the balance of their federal student loans forgiven if they pay their monthly installments on time for 10 years.

The law firm's nonprofit status give them other advantages, Argyle said.

As a 501(c)3 organization, the firm does not have to pay income tax and it can receive a rebate on sales taxes. Open Legal Services also qualifies for free or deeply discounted software from companies such as Microsoft or Adobe.

"The big one for us, and the advantage we have in law, is the referral sources. That’s the No. 1 thing. The court can refer to us directly. The Bar (Association) can refer to us directly and the other nonprofits that have strict policies can refer to us," she said.

Their nonprofit application commits them to providing "discounted legal services to clients whose income falls above indigent levels (125 percent of poverty) up to moderate income (400 percent of poverty)."

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