I think bow ties are cool, and I think microlending can be a powerful tool for social change. I joined Kiva as a lender in 2010 and then served as a Kiva Fellow in 2011 in Sierra Leone. The Kiva Fellowship allowed me to witness first-hand the benefits of microlending in West Africa. Realizing that entrepreneurship can change lives for the better, I then pursued an MBA at the University of Utah.
During business school, I volunteered for our local legal aid organization and became passionate about access to justice. I learned that about half the population in the US falls into the justice gap – i.e. they earn too much to qualify for free legal aid but not enough to pay a traditional attorney $200+ per hour.
In December 2013, I was thrilled to meet Daniel Spencer and Shantelle Argyle, two attorneys who had just started Open Legal Services, a nonprofit law firm that provides affordable legal services to lower- and middle-income people in Utah. I immediately began volunteering one afternoon a week. After I graduated with my MBA, I joined Open Legal Services as the assistant director.
Working with Open Legal Services over the past two years has been a fantastic experience. Our dream is for everyone who needs legal help to be able to afford the representation they need.
Open Legal Services is starting a revolution in the legal industry. We are the first nonprofit law firm in Utah that exclusively serves people that fall into the justice gap – i.e. they earn too much to qualify for free legal aid but not enough to pay a traditional attorney $200+ per hour. We charge from $60-145 an hour on a sliding scale, based on a client’s income and family size.
How do we offer quality legal services at a lower price? First, we operate as a non-profit, which means we pay less in taxes and are eligible for grants, donations, and volunteer service. Second, we charge on a sliding scale. If we had to choose only one rate to charge, we would either price ourselves out of this market (like traditional law firms) or charge too little to cover our expenses (like traditional non-profits, which require grants and donations). By charging on a sliding scale, the people at the top of our scale subsidize the people at the bottom, thus allowing us to help a wider range of people in need than we could otherwise. Finally, we are able to charge less by keeping our costs low. For example, we buy surplus computers and second-hand office furniture.
We started in November 2013, and have been growing steadily. We currently have six attorneys, a paralegal, and a part-time assistant director. We have been able to meet all of our ongoing expenses since January 2014. In 2015, the American Bar Association named our founding attorneys among the Legal Rebels of the Year, and the Utah Minority Bar Association named us law firm of the year. Because of our success people all over the country regularly contact us about replicating our business model.
We used our first Kiva Zip loan to pay off startup debt and buy office equipment. Since that time, we have been receiving local and national attention, along with encouragement from the courts and the Utah State Bar to expand our operations to help more people. We have outgrown our current working environment and have more people who want to work at OLS than we have space to put them! We are currently located in a basement with no furnace, no windows, and no elevator for clients with disabilities. We have two attorneys per office, which makes confidential client meetings difficult to schedule.
Now that we have successfully grown and paid off all our debt, we intend to use this second loan to pay for remodeling costs for a newer, larger office space so we can hire more attorneys and serve more clients. The new office space we are looking at renting used to be a medical office, so it needs new carpet, new paint, and some of the medical fixtures removed. The remodel and move will cost about $40,000. We have already raised almost $21,000, and this loan will cover the bulk of the remainder. The new office will give us a bit of room to grow, and be a more permanent location so that those who need us most can count on us being there.