Youve just been charged with reckless driving, having zipped through a quiet neighborhood at 50 mph (in a 25 mph zone.) Visions of license points dance in your head. Besides paying the ticket, youll no doubt be forking over more money to Allstate.

 

But what if that prescription youre taking for a sluggish thyroid caused you to speed? Might a good lawyer get you out of this mess?

Maybe. And except for the $1,000 retainer, youd call one today. But what if you could have competent counsel, like a guardian angel, whod come to your rescue when needed?

Enter the prepaid legal plan." Similar to medical insurance, prepaid legal insurance, whether paid by an employer or an individual, guarantees access to a qualified attorney for future legal needs.

An American Bar Association survey conducted by Leo J. Shapiro and Associates estimates that seven in ten households (71%) had something happen during the past year that could have used a lawyers help.

Where did this idea come from?

Pre-paid legal services have been common in Europe for over 100 years, but got their start in the U.S. in 1947, when Congress amended the Taft-Hartley Law, allowing legal services to become just another fringe benefit. Group legal plans, largely available at work, got a boost in 1975, when they were endorsed by the AFL-CIO.

Since then, providers have mushroomed. The American Bar Associations Standing Committee on Group & Prepaid Legal Services lists sixteen established companies in the legal service business. One of the ABAs affiliates, the American Prepaid Legal Institute, estimates that more than 45 million Americans receive some kind of prepaid legal coverage.

Plans may be offered as an automatic employee benefit, similar to medical or dental benefits, or on an opt-in basis, with the client enrolling voluntarily and paying the monthly charge.

Still another avenue for finding a group offering prepaid legal plans is to look at professional groups or associations to which you belong. Examples of associations or unions which offer this legal benefit include the Engineers & Architects Association, the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses and the American Postal Workers Union.

Benefits

What do you get for your money?

Much depends on whether you need help with business or personal/family needs. Typical plans offer packages suited to both.

One provider, Group Legal Consultants, Inc., lists services sought by individuals: legal advice/consultation; wills and other legal documents; adoption proceedings; representation in civil and criminal actions; representation in traffic offenses; domestic relations problems; real estate transactions; consumer complaints; landlord-tenant actions; estate planning; bankruptcy; probate and administration of estates; immigration and living trusts.

Monthly costs for Group Legal range from $9.75 to $17.30 per month, depending on number of employees enrolled and how comprehensive coverage is.

If you primarily need business advice, your requested topics will be quite different. Another prepaid legal service provider, Caldwell Legal, USA, offers a package called Business Protector for clients. This service offers unlimited telephone advice, contract or document review, debt collection letters or telephone calls, as well as the full range of personal and tax-related legal advice, and goes for $37 per month.

Andrew Kohn, General Counsel and Vice President of Operations for giant Hyatt Legal Plans, said, We market group legal plans, or what might be called legal benefit plans, to large corporations. Kohn commented that services most frequently used are those involving estate planning and real estate matters.

Who do you get for your money?

Johnnie Cochran and Clarence Darrow are no longer available, but all prepaid plans are legally obliged to screen and offer lawyers skilled in their particular practice area. Many plans use a broad group of lawyers, drawn from area law firms, to provide covered services.

These lawyers contract with the provider to dispense legal services, either for free (no charge other than the monthly fee) or at a reduced fee (typically, 25% less than the lawyers customary rate.) Lawyers who apply to be on a legal services panel are quizzed about their experience, office set-up, rates, insurance coverage and other issues.

There are other models for providing legal services, depending on the client group and what makes sense. In a large organization, attorneys may be full-time employees. Occasionally, clients may choose any attorney in an area, not limited to a particular panel or law firm. Whatever the arrangement, only you can decide whether to stay within the attorney pool provided by your plan.

As one experienced consumer lawyer told us, There are any number of reasons people need lawyers. Sometimes its a routine matter, other times its literally a question of survival. Sometimes you can do with a lawyer whos merely competent, other times you need one who eats other attorneys for lunch. There are times you can think about saving money, and other times, like being charged with a felony DUI, when cost is no object.

Do your research

While many consumers are satisfied with the representation offered by the prepaid plans, that's not always the case. You can review the complaints of disgruntled consumers in ConsumerAffairs.com's Legal Services section. there are steps you can take to reassure yourself about an attorney.

Consulting the granddaddy of all lawyer compilations, the Martindale-Hubbell Legal Directory, can ease your mind. The directory lists lawyers by geographical area and law firm affiliation, and will tell you about the attorneys education, clients served, and provide other useful information.

If you encounter an incompetent or unethical attorney, you can complain to the service provider or the bar association in the state where the attorney practices. Joan Beranbaum, President of the American Prepaid Legal Services Institute, states Prepaid legal plans involve the law, which is regulated by the courts. If a provider or attorney messes up, the customer needs to speak up and let his voice be heard.

Contrary to what many consumers believe, lawyers are among the most tightly regulated profession in the country and discipline for misbehavior is often swift and harsh.

Resources

There are many resources available to help with your exploration of prepaid legal services and lawyers in general. Here are a few:

American Bar Association (ABA) Prepaid Legal Services Institute
Martindale-Hubbell Legal Directory
Findlaw Lawyer Directory

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Joan E. Lisante is an attorney who writes frequently on consumer issues.