Is This The Future for Law Firms? Ice Rolling Out Innovative Legal Representation Option
If Thomas Ice has his way, lay people with limited budgets and no knowledge of Latin could soon find Florida courtrooms a lot less intimidating.
So much so, they’ll be comfortable enough to face off against seasoned attorneys without fear of being outmaneuvered, Ice hopes.
“The profession generally has a vested interest in having the public believe that law and court procedure are so complex and arcane that years of education and training are required to be proficient,” the Royal Palm Beach attorney said. “To whatever extent that’s true, that’s what the court system needs to change. … But in many situations, that is not true. Not every hearing in every case requires a veteran lawyer, just like not every repair job around the house requires a professional builder.”
The outspoken foreclosure defense attorney, who charges flat fees for some cases, is disrupting the status quo with an innovation that could change the delivery of legal services.
It comes at a time when the legal industry in Florida is grappling with the idea of reciprocity and advertising rule changes that could mean stiffer competition and smaller revenue streams.
Ice’s LegalYou program is set to launch online in December with dozens of educational videos, legal forms, tutorials, discussion forums and other tools designed to help users navigate courthouses, understand legal procedure and lay the groundwork to represent themselves with guidance from attorneys.
Unlike competitor sites like LegalZoom offering nonlitigation documents and stopping short of offering legal advice, LegalYou would provide both litigation and nonlitigation forms plus attorney guidance. It would also allow unbundling—a concept already popular in family court and one that Ice believes will soon become prevalent across most practice areas.
Instead of clients hiring attorneys to represent them for entire cases, they’d ask for input and guidance at major crossroads in the litigation and pay only on an as-needed basis.
Services would range from the basic—instruction on how to dress for court or address a judge—to more complicated tasks like preparing responses.
A similar New York program, called Court Navigator, assists unrepresented litigants in landlord-tenant and consumer-debt cases by providing general information, written materials, help completing court forms and other guidance.
“While the case itself may have a lot at stake, very few hearings and motions have the entire case hanging in the balance,” Ice said. “With unbundling, if you do have a hearing that is complex or has a lot at stake, such as a summary judgment hearing, you can bring in the attorney for that one piece.”
Some lawyers see potential pitfalls, including the prospect of getting paid for one aspect of a case and being pulled into the wider litigation. While case law makes it clear that an attorney can accompany a client being questioned at a deposition without making an appearance in the case, the lines are blurred when it comes to taking depositions.
“Unbundling is fine, but giving advice in a vacuum is a bad thing,” said Glen Waldman, managing partner of Heller Waldman in Miami. “The good lawyers in this world, the ones that are really good, usually make practical decisions based on a thorough understanding of what’s going on in the case. If you’re looking at something in one area—which is what unbundling is—you usually don’t have a broad understanding of the issue.”
But supporters say the plan offers a viable alternative to clients whose only option would likely have been appearing without any professional assistance.
Under the proposed program, they would use free and low-cost services intended for litigants who earn too much to qualify for legal aid but too little to afford traditional private attorneys.
The target market—which Ice calls “the big middle” because he says it represents about 80 percent of all litigants—typically ends up abandoning litigation or going into lawsuits unprepared and unrepresented.
“You get inundated with mailings,” said Dale Dangremond, a health consultant who said a sudden loss of a longtime public contract with Pennsylvania left her struggling to make payments on her million-dollar Wellington home.
Dangremond picked up smaller jobs but none remotely close to the major state contract she’d held for about five years while also serving as the primary caregiver for her ailing mother. With her income dwindling, she tried to sell the house in February, but buyers looking to scoop up distressed property weren’t in the market for a plush equestrian estate with a $1 million price tag.
By May, Dangremond was facing foreclosure on two mortgages from Bank of America N.A. and NASA Federal Credit Union.
“When we got hit with the foreclosure actions being stepped up, it was challenging,” she said. “What I appreciate about Ice Legal is I went in with the mindset, ‘I can’t deal with this right now. Just do the full representation.’ ”
But Dangremond said she got a surprising response from the law firm. Instead of the $1,000 retainer and hefty hourly rates she’d been charged by other firms, she said an Ice Legal consulting attorney presented a plan to pay a $125 retainer and $75 monthly fee on each case for guidance through the early stages with the option to augment services at additional cost as the case progressed.
Dangremond estimated she paid about $1,225 to date for advice on the two lawsuits—fees that covered monitoring dockets, drafting motions to dismiss the foreclosures, responding to discovery requests and preparation for hearings.
“As far as I’m concerned, it’s almost like full representation at this point,” she said. “Compared to potentially what would have been other costs here, it’s a tremendous value for the services we’re getting.”