How a Moderate Means Attorney Can Provide Low-Cost Help for Employment Legal Issues

A female lawyer meets her new client, both in masks.

Running a small nonprofit law firm that focuses on the access-to-justice gap, it is very helpful to have someone refer and screen clients in need. In the past year, our firm has taken several referrals from the WSBA’s Moderate Means Program (MMP) in housing and family law. These cases have gone very well, and it is with great excitement that we are starting to take referrals in employment law through Moderate Means!

In 2016, more than 2 million people in Washington fell between 200 and 400 percent of the Federal Poverty Level (click here for the poverty guidelines) and were considered of moderate income. For an individual, that is an annual earnings range of about $25,000 to $51,000. For a couple, that would be about $35,000 to $70,000. This means they probably couldn’t afford a full-fee attorney, yet they did not qualify for free legal aid. The MMP is a statewide program designed to bridge this gap with attorneys who offer reduced-fee assistance in family, housing, consumer, and unemployment law cases. The program is a partnership between the WSBA and the law schools of Gonzaga University, Seattle University, and the University of Washington. In 2019, the program added Limited License Legal Technicians (LLLTs) to provide more legal assistance options to clients in family law matters. The WSBA Board of Governors and private grant funding through the Washington State Bar Foundation support the program.

Once a potential client applies to the MMP, law students, under the supervision of a law school staff attorney, conduct a full intake, which includes gathering income information and details of the case. Law students contact legal professionals to place the case. Attorneys (and LLLTs in family law cases) get free referrals and access to over 20 free trainings in exchange for reducing their fees. If someone agrees to speak with the applicant, the law student provides the legal professional’s name and contact information to the applicant and the professional receives the full client intake.

Recently my firm has started taking cases for unemployment insurance appeals. These administrative hearings are a whole new type of law for me because, with a background in copyright and family law, I had not done administrative hearings. The turnaround time on a case is often days and the procedures are very informal. Yes, you still need a great record for the court to review, but there is no opening statement and you jump strait into the facts and questions from the judge. The judge has a very short period of time to review the cases and keeps things focused on the issues under review. The employer may or may not be present, but is often not needed to make a ruling, as many of the appeals are not related to employment. They cover other issues like who the person is or did they quit for a reason allowed under the law?

These short 15-minute hearings mean a lot to a client. My first sliding-scale appearance covered a case in which my client was not getting their claim for a five-month period of time due to a poor original determination. The client had quit a part-time job to take more hours at their full-time job. Two weeks later the pandemic hit and they were indefinitely out of work. Their job in the restaurant industry may not come back for months still, but we were able to secure their benefits so now they can cover mortgage payments and costs related to remote schooling for their kids. The pandemic is hitting people hard and unemployment insurance is a lifeline that people need to cover basic bills. The five to 10 hours it takes to prepare for and advocate for clients can have a serious impact on their life.

Moderate Means, Employment Law, and COVID-19

Due to the large number of moderate income Washington households experiencing a recent loss of employment, work hours, or business because of the COVID-19 emergency measures, the MMP will likely be an especially important source of legal assistance, due to its system of reduced legal fees for qualified applicants who earned too much to qualify for free legal aid, but now earn too little to afford full fees. The program conducts its new client screenings and intakes either online or via telephone, for the safety of all potential clients and legal professionals during this pandemic.

If you have annual earnings in the moderate range mentioned above and are seeking legal assistance pertaining to family law, consumer law, housing law, employment law or unemployment compensation law, you can apply for legal assistance at a reduced rate via the MMP online application page. The application will ask for information about your income, the people who live in your household, and your legal issue. It will take you approximately 10-15 minutes to complete this application and provide the necessary information to determine if you are eligible. The WSBA MMP will keep all information you provide through this online application confidential. The program may share your information with lawyers participating with the WSBA Moderate Means Program during its case referral process. If you prefer to apply by telephone, you may call 855-741-6930.

Thank you to the WSBA and the law schools for providing the valuable prescreen tool to those in need.