access to justice

Colorado Lawyer--Ethical Considerations When Using Freelance Legal Services

I am so pleased to have the opportunity to spread the word about freelance legal services through Colorado Lawyer, the monthly publication of the Colorado Bar Association. 

This article discusses the basics of freelance legal services, compares freelance legal services to unbundled legal services, the hiring lawyer's duties with respect to disclosure to the client, confidentiality issues, conflict of interest issues, compensation arrangements, supervision, and fee agreements. 

Here is the article: https://www.cobar.org/Portals/COBAR/TCL/June%202018/CL_June_Features_Ethics.pdf

Pro Bono Recognition

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The Colorado Attorney Oath of Admission states "I do solemnly swear....I will use my knowledge of the law for the better of society and the improvement of the legal system."  I love that the legal profession cares about pro bono work and access to justice issues.  I am proud to do my small part!

Ski Town Lawyering: Challenges and Opportunities

If you’re seriously thinking about becoming a ski town lawyer, you need to make that decision with your eyes open to both the challenges and opportunities of living and working in this type of community.  For me, the benefits definitely outweigh the drawbacks, but you’ll have to make that decision for yourself.  

Nordic ski track looking towards the Paradise Divide

Nordic ski track looking towards the Paradise Divide

THE CHALLENGES

Small Towns

Although the population of ski towns varies, you’re going to be in a pretty small town, especially compared to the larger population centers on the Front Range.  Here is the breakdown of approximate county population size of some of Colorado’s best ski areas:

  • La Plata County (Purgatory): 55,000
  • Eagle County (Vail, Beaver Creek): 54,000
  • Summit County (Arapahoe Basin, Breckenridge, Copper Mountain, Keystone): 30,000
  • Routt County (Steamboat Springs): 25,000
  • Chaffee County (Monarch Mountain): 19,000
  • Pitkin County (Aspen, Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk, Snowmass): 17,000
  • Gunnison County (Crested Butte): 16,000
  • Grand County (Winter Park): 15,000
  • San Miguel County (Telluride): 8,000
  • San Juan County (Silverton): 694—yes, you read that right.

Keep in mind that this is the population of the entire county, some of which rival the smaller states in size.  As you can see, some resorts are in counties with a healthy population base, some are…not.  Your ability to land a job in a ski town will very likely strongly correlate with the population of that town or county.  Anecdotally, I see more legal job postings in Pitkin County and Eagle County than other ski towns, which is probably a function of population size, accessibility, and wealth concentration.

Remote

The distance from the population centers and resources in the Front Range is a huge factor in being a ski town lawyer.  Many Colorado ski resorts line the I-70 corridor or are a 2 hour drive from Denver.  Summit County and Eagle County are the most accessible from Denver.  Others are an 8 hour drive from Denver.  And these are not easy cruises.  Getting from Denver to almost any ski town will involve driving over one or two 12,000-foot mountain passes.  San Juan County is accessed by the scariest road in America, Red Mountain Pass.  (Don’t believe me?  Read this Outside Magazine article: https://www.outsideonline.com/2158856/keep-your-hands-wheel-and-dont-look-down)

I am hardly a winter driving novice, but between wildlife on the road, sketchy weather, and serious passes, I think twice about driving in the mountains in the winter.  It is definitely something to keep in mind.  Some towns are supported by the Denver drive market, and some are more of destination resorts. 

The remote and relatively inaccessible nature of ski towns can be an access to justice issue.  Every appellate court in Colorado is located in Denver.  Most state and federal agencies are headquartered in Denver or the surrounding suburbs.  This can mean long and expensive travel to represent clients, although Colorado is working on expanding remote oral argument opportunities in the Court of Appeals.

I live in Colorado's 7th Judicial District.  The official Colorado Judicial Branch webpage says this about the 7th JD:

The 7th Judicial District is made up of six counties in west-central Colorado...The geographical area of the District is approximately 10,000 square miles of mostly high mountain valleys. This area is about the same size as the state of Vermont or Connecticut, Rhode Island and Delaware combined. The distance between Lake City in the eastern part of the District and Nucla in the west is approximately 200 miles one-way. The towns of Gunnison (Gunnison County), Lake City (Hinsdale) and Telluride (San Miguel County) have elevations of over 7,700 feet.

Boom and Bust

At any time, ski towns fall somewhere in a continual boom-and-bust economic cycle.  When the economy is strong, ski resorts do well, visitors come and spend their money, businesses open and hire employees, and houses are built.  When the economy is in a recession, ski towns feel it hard.  People stop coming, businesses go under, houses go into foreclosure, and locals move out of town.  And because so much of the economy directly or indirectly depends on tourism, the impact is really concentrated. 

You’ll absolutely see a difference practicing law in a boom time versus a bust time, and you need to think about building a practice that can weather the slow times as well as the busy ones.

Specialist vs. Generalist

Ski towns, especially the smaller ones, do not support legal specialists.  (I’ll talk more about business models in a later post).  If you want to practice bankruptcy or immigration or patent law, you will probably find it difficult to do in a ski town.  Most ski town lawyers are generalists to some extent.  You'll really need to consider whether you can live with that, or really need to consider how you’ll hack it in a ski town with a more specialized practice.

Also, most lawyers in ski towns practice in solo or small firms.  In my county, the biggest firm has four lawyers.  Some larger law firms in Denver have a satellite office in a ski town, especially Vail or Aspen, but those often consist of a few lawyers at the most.

Compensation

Pretty much as a rule, compensation is lower across the board in rural Colorado compared to the urban corridor.  This is true in the legal profession.  Your salary is just not going to be what it would be in Denver.  If money is a primary consideration for you (no judgment either way), assess whether you’ll be happy not being able to keep up with the Denver Joneses and being on the left (low) end of the bimodal attorney compensation distribution curve.

Economic Opportunities

Limited economic opportunity is somewhat of a hallmark of ski towns.  This might not directly impact you as a lawyer, but it will definitely impact your clients, spouse, and children.  Ski town jobs focus on hospitality, resort management, and recreation.  Some of the larger ski towns will have colleges or universities, hospitals, start-ups, and state/federal government offices.  I personally think there is tremendous potential for growth in ski towns and in rural Colorado, but the reality is that there is simply less opportunity compared what you’d find in a bigger city.

One issue that I have seen play out time and time again is that one half of a couple can find a job that they’re happy with in a ski town, but the other partner really struggles to find a job in their chosen field.  If you have a significant other, have a really honest conversation about this before you make the plunge to be a ski town lawyer.

Resort Town Issues

There are a couple of unavoidable truths about ski town life.  The cost of living is high.  Affordable housing, even on a lawyer’s salary, can feel like a pipe dream.  You might get sick of getting pizza from the one joint in town.  Small town politics can be really fun.  If you’re in a ski town, you really might experience a couple months of -20 mornings and you really might have snow on the ground from October to May.  When they're road biking and golfing in Denver, we might be living through 'Mayuary,' also known as ‘second winter.’ 

If you’re really committed to living in a ski town, assuming you haven’t already spent time living in one, try to see it through a local’s eyes.  Imagine actually living here for a year or two, not just as an occasional weekend visitor.  Sometimes, people come to a ski town on vacation and imagine their life here as an extension of their vacation.  I think this happens more often with casual visitors more so than with frequent visitors or Colorado natives.  Just keep in mind what you’re getting into!

THE OPPORTUNITIES

If you’ve read all about the challenges and it didn’t completely scare you off, the good news is that there really are opportunities for lawyers in ski towns.  I am going to talk more specifically about business/employment models in the next post, but here is my take on the opportunities that will help you land a ski town lawyering gig.

Need for Lawyers

In my experience, a large segment of ski town lawyers are entering retirement age or have moved out of the area.  I haven’t seen a significant influx of new lawyers taking their place.  I believe there is a need for lawyers in ski towns and a very strong need for lawyers in counties adjacent to counties with ski towns.  For example, my county, Gunnison County, has a healthy population of practicing lawyers.  The counties directly to the south of me, Saguache and Hinsdale Counties, have very low population densities and have maybe 1 or 2 lawyers.  If you're at all interested in access to justice work, there is a role for you in rural Colorado. 

Strong Growth

Colorado is experiencing strong economic growth, and ski towns are no exception.  There’s no doubt that we are in the boom part of the boom and bust cycle.  I see entire neighborhoods being built, and during my time on the Planning Commission, I saw several new large-scale commercial developments approved.  People are definitely visiting, moving to, or investing money in ski towns, and they'll need lawyers at some point.

The changing demographic and the pace of growth both suggest that there is an unfilled need for ski town lawyers.  Most of the lawyers I know practicing in a ski town are busy these days.  Some report that they are really busier than they want to be. 

Whether or not solos and small firms are advertising for associates, my sense is that they could use additional help and that business is brisk.

Collegial Atmosphere

An additional opportunity is that ski town lawyers tend to be a very close knit and collegial group.  Lawyers in general are pretty generous with their time, and I think most ski town lawyers would be happy to sit down over coffee or a beer and discuss practicing in their community.  I talk with several lawyers each year looking to make the transition to practicing law in the mountains, and I am always willing to be a sounding board or resource for them.

Mentoring

The Colorado Attorney Mentoring Program facilitates mentoring relationships between Colorado lawyers.  Lawyers can specify the criteria and qualities that they are looking for in a mentor or mentee.  I think this would be a great opportunity for aspiring ski town lawyers to connect with established ski town lawyers (I do think it might make sense to connect with a lawyer in a different area of the state to avoid being in competition for jobs or clients). 

NEXT POST:

In the next post, I am going to discuss the various business and employment models I have seen for ski town lawyers.   

Coleman Law--Reflections on 2017

As we are still early in the new year, I want to take a moment to reflect over the last year.

I started Coleman Law in late September 2017.  I formed Coleman Law to do what I love best—help lawyers with their legal research and writing needs.  I work with lawyers and clients across Colorado to provide alternative, low-cost representation on a freelance or contract basis. 

I chose this business model for several reasons.  First, I truly enjoy legal research and writing.  It is the part of the practice of law that I like best.  I want to invest my professional energy in continuing to develop these skills.  Second, I love supporting other lawyers and helping them sustain and grow their practices.  I often work with busy solo or small firm practitioners, especially in rural Colorado.  I understand the unique challenges of solo/small firm practice because I have been there myself.  I know that they're busy, they're really busy.  These lawyers do not have someone else in the office to help moderate their workflow.  I can add value by giving them the option to add capacity to their practice without the long-term commitment of adding another employee.  Finally, I chose to provide freelance legal research and writing services because it offers me the opportunity to balance my professional life and personal life.  I get to practice law from paradise, Crested Butte, and still be a stay-at-home mom (most days).  I feel very fortunate indeed.

In 2017, I exceed my goal for pro bono hours.  I volunteered with Colorado Legal Services San Luis Valley virtual legal aid clinic and worked with a public interest organization.  I look forward to continuing to provide pro bono representation in 2018.

I also assumed responsibility for coordinating the Gunnison County Inns of Court, our local bar association.  I took over from my mentor and former employer, Luke Danielson, who served as coordinator for many years.  I want to use this forum to highlight access to justice issues and resources for rural practitioners.

I gave a CLE presentation to my local bar association on the Ethical Considerations in the use of Freelance Legal Services.  I will be sharing this presentation with other bar associations and writing an article for the Colorado Lawyer on this topic.

As I look back over the last year and the formation of Coleman Law, I realize how privileged I am to practice law.  I am thankful for the incredibly decent and generous people in this profession.  I am excited about the prospects for “serving Colorado clients, supporting Colorado lawyers” in 2018.

Thoughts on Civics Education

Throughout December, I will be writing about my experience teaching civics education to community members.  In 2016, I researched, designed, and wrote a four-part lecture series that I called “American Government Primer.”  My aim was to give people a big picture understanding of their government.  I wanted to give them a framework for evaluating the government as a system and for contextualizing what they saw and heard on the news.  Finally, I wanted community members to feel more empowered and confident in dealing with their government. 

I taught the four-part lecture series through my local library district.  In February 2017, I taught it at the Crested Butte library and in March, I taught it at the Gunnison library.  The course was completely free to the public, and every attendee received a free pocket Constitution that they could keep.  Although I encouraged people to attend the whole series, I understand that people are busy and so told people to come whenever they could.  

The course was so well attended and positively received that the library asked me to teach it again.  I’ll be teaching “American Government Primer” at the Crested Butte library January 3, 10, 17, and 31 at 6 pm (wine and beer provided).  I am also going to use videoconferencing to connect with library districts throughout Colorado to share these lectures with a wider audience.  Access to justice in rural Colorado is very important to me, and sharing this knowledge with people in more remote parts of the state is a great way to serve this cause.  Here’s the link to the library event page.

American Government Primer covered three main topics: (i)the relationship between the federal and the state governments, (ii) the relationship between the branches of the federal government, and (iii) the relationship between the government and individuals.  For the first topic, federalism, we covered enumerated powers and police powers, the 10th Amendment, the supremacy clause and preemption.  For the second topic, separation of powers and checks and balances, we covered each branch of the government.  For the legislative branch, we discussed its structure and organization, the legislative path, Congress’ enumerated powers, including the necessary and proper clause, tax and spend clause, commerce clause, and the post-Civil War Amendments.  For the judicial branch, we discussed its structure and organization, federal jurisdiction, composition of the Supreme Court, and judicial limitations such as standing, ripeness, and mootness.  For the executive branch, we discussed the President’s inherent powers and those granted by Congress, the Electoral College, foreign policy, and limitations on the President, such as impeachment and civil suits.  We also discussed the creation of administrative agencies, rulemaking, and adjudication.  For the final topic, individual rights, we discussed the source and meaning of due process.  With respect to fundamental rights, we discussed the Bill of Rights, incorporation, the state actor requirement, and how new rights are recognized.  Finally, we discussed equal protection and the different levels of scrutiny applied to equal protection challenges.

In the next post, I will talk about why I think civics education is so important and why lawyers are so suited to teaching community-based civics education. 

Virtual Legal Aid Clinic

Last month, I participated in a Colorado Legal Services virtual legal aid clinic.  This innovative clinic uses technology to connect lawyers throughout Colorado to clients in the San Luis Valley.  The Saguache Public Library in Saguache County and the Blanca/Fort Garland Library in Costilla County host the clinic.  The lawyer connects with clients by Zoom videoconferencing and uses Google Docs to send closing letters and additional information.  I was so impressed by how smoothly the clinic is run and how effectively it leverages technology.

I decided to commit to volunteering for as many of these clinics as I can.  Access to justice in rural Colorado is a topic near and dear to me.  I live in rural Gunnison County, and am surrounded by some very rural counties (Saguache County, served by the clinic, is directly south of Gunnison County and has a density of less than 2 people per square mile).  

I provide freelance legal services, and I primarily serve other rural lawyers and their clients.  Like the Colorado Legal Services Clinic, I also rely on technology such as videoconferencing and document sharing to connect with people across Colorado.

I will serve as a volunteer attorney for the next San Luis Valley virtual legal aid clinic on November 30, 2017 at 5 pm.  There won't be a clinic in December due to the holidays, but the clinic will resume in January 2018.  This is a wonderful pro bono opportunity for Colorado lawyers.  See the flyer below for more information.

Promoting access to justice in rural Colorado

October 22-28, 2017 is Pro Bono Week, and lawyers across Colorado and the nation are donating their time and energy to promote access to justice.  To honor Pro Bono Week, I participated in a Colorado Legal Services virtual legal aid clinic.  This program uses technology to allow lawyers throughout the state to serve some very rural and remote parts of Colorado.  

Colorado Legal Services runs a virtual clinic to serve the San Luis Valley, one of the more remote areas in Colorado.  The San Luis Valley is made up of six counties: Alamosa, Conejos, Costilla, Mineral, Rio Grande, and Saguache (directly south of my own county, Gunnison).  Mineral County is the second least populous county in Colorado.  (Hinsdale County, also directly south of Gunnison, is the third least populous county in Colorado.  I live in a small town, but it is a resort community so has many resources that similarly sized towns lack.  I am surrounded by some truly wild and remote places!)  Saguache County has a density of less than 2 people per square mile (compare this to Boulder County, which has a density of about 4,300 people per square mile).

When it comes to access to justice, rural and remote communities face several challenges.  First, far fewer lawyers practice in rural areas than the urban Front Range.  Many counties in Colorado do not have a single lawyer, and Saguache and Costilla Counties have only one lawyer each.  Representation for even basic legal issues may be completely lacking in rural communities.  Second, these communities lack the economic base and non-legal resources of more urban areas, including mental health, health care, education, and business.  Third, high speed internet and reliable cell phone service, something that people in urban areas take for granted, is diminished or completely missing in rural communities.  Connectivity is a big issue in the urban-rural divide in Colorado.  Finally, people in rural Colorado may have to drive significant distances to access a lawyer or the courts, often over incredible mountain passes.  In Colorado, in the winter, this can be a huge barrier.  (For example, take Red Mountain Pass, an 8% grade road built into the side of a mountain, featuring sheer thousand foot drop-offs with no guardrails and crumbling shoulders.  It connects San Juan County, Colorado's least populous county, with Ouray County.  I'm not a mountain driving wimp but I will not drive it at night in the winter!)

I saw a flyer for a virtual legal aid clinic, and I was immediately intrigued.  Being a country lawyer, I love serving rural communities.  I contacted Jen Cuesta, a Colorado Legal Services attorney, filled out the volunteer attorney application (which included providing my malpractice insurance information and information for a background check), and Jen was immediately in touch with me. 

Once we picked the date of the clinic I would participate in, we scheduled a Zoom teleconference training.  In the training, Jen walked me through the Zoom features that we would use, explained the process of the virtual aid clinic, and answered my questions.  The entire training took maybe 20 minutes.  Jen also sent me a very (very!) helpful and through attorney handbook that she put together, which summarized issues, standards, and process in family law, landlord-tenant, consumer collection, small claims, and probate. 

Public libraries in the San Luis Valley host the clinic.  Clients come to the library and use the library’s computer, internet, and facilities in a confidential setting.  Clients are prescreened for income eligibility and legal issues.  The attorney uses Zoom to teleconference with the client at the library.  The attorney can do this from their home or office anywhere in the state.

By using the share screen function on the Zoom program, the attorney can pull up the Colorado Court website and walk the client through the various self-help forms, such as family, small claims, protection orders, housing, and estate cases. 

After the client interview, the attorney uses a Google Docs link to submit a closing letter.  The attorney fills out the form with the client’s name, their own name, the client’s legal issues, the advice given, and referrals given.  The Legal Services attorney follows up and provides the client with the names and contact information of the referral and JDF forms.

I was so impressed by how smoothly the clinic ran and how effective it can be to use technology like Zoom and Google Docs to connect attorney and client.  I am planning on volunteering for a virtual clinic again.  So many areas of Colorado suffer from a lack of access to justice, and the urban-rural divide in Colorado is still significant when it comes to legal resources.  This type of innovative clinic can offer so much to underserved communities, and I hope that the legislature continues to invest in legal aid.   

To sign up, go to:

https://coloradoprobono.com/volunteer-at-virtual-clinics/