Catalyst Law Institute provides community legal education and basic legal services to stabilize families, businesses, and communities.


Catalyst Law Institute is committed to helping close the gap between those who need legal services and those who can afford them.

Most low and moderate income Americans do not have access to needed legal services: Estimates are as many as 80% of Americans can’t access the legal services they need. But basic legal services can stabilize families and enterprises by protecting limited assets, preventing litigation, and formalizing important relationships. The use of simple legal tools can provide financial savings and other safeguards for those working to establish greater security for themselves, their families, and their communities.

Security is relative at a time when nearly 50% of Americans would have trouble finding $400 to cover an emergency expense. The middle class in America has been slowly disappearing for the last forty years, squeezed by growing poverty on one side and concentrated wealth on the other. And for the last 25 years Oregon’s median wage, adjusted for inflation, been nearly stagnant, growing just 4.6%. Between 2000 and 2010 poverty in Oregon grew faster than most states in the US.

What options do people have for legal services? The very poor have some access to free legal services through civil legal aid organizations. Persistent underfunding prevents the expansion of free legal services, and middle income families make too much to qualify for what limited free services do exist.   A do-it-yourself approach to legal services has limits and can cause unintended impacts and create unnecessary burdens on people, courts, and communities. Still, self-representation is on the rise in Oregon.

Community legal education could help. Data shows the public has insufficient knowledge about how to use legal tools and, moreover, people often do not recognize their problems as having legal solutions. Community legal education can 1) help people understand the basics of their legal issue, enabling them to purchase legal services more efficiently and effectively, 2) translate legalese into plain language, 3) identify “unbundled” legal service options, and 4) connect people to resources, like trusted online guides, nonprofit legal service providers, pro bono clinics, and Oregon’s modest means lawyer referral program.

Despite the huge need for legal help, un- and under-employment for new lawyers persists. Just 67% of 2015 law school graduates had jobs that required a license to practice law within 9 months of graduation, and 12% were not working at all. Offering three-year fellowships to new lawyers provides them with practical training and full-time employment, and builds the pipeline of lawyers able to serve people who currently don’t have access.

To match the need for legal services with the supply of new lawyers, many are experimenting with new models, including legal “incubators.” Borrowing the incubator concept from the business world, more than 60 nonprofit legal service incubators have been created since 2007, largely in the U.S.

Open Legal Services is a financially sustainable model based in Utah. Open Legal Services offers below-market-rate legal services for people living between 125-400% of the federal poverty level. By limiting clients to those of modest means they expand access to legal services for middle income people and they create modest wage jobs for lawyers at the same time. Fees for legal services fund the organization’s annual operational budget, making it a financially sustainable model not dependent on philanthropy.

Catalyst Law Institute is the first legal incubator in Oregon recognized by the American Bar Association. Like Open Legal Services, we will limit our fee-for-service offerings to those between 125-400% of the federal poverty level, or enterprises with annual budgets under $1 million. Our team believes nonprofit legal service organizations are replicable, scale-able, and can help protect a shrinking middle class from falling into poverty. We hope you will support us as we work to bring this concept to Oregon.

 

References

Report on the Future of Legal Services in the United States, Commission on the Future of Legal Services, American Bar Association, published 8/2016.

The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans, The Atlantic, Neil Gabler, published 5/2015.

The American Middle Class is Losing Ground, Pew, published 9/9/2015.

Wage Inequality in Oregon: The Widening Gap, State of Oregon Employment Department, published 10/24/2016.

Changes in Areas With Concentrated Poverty: 2000-2010, U.S. Census, Alemayehu Bishaw, published 6/2014.

A Modern Reality: Recession’s Ripple Effect Fuels Self-Representation, Oregon State Bar, Melody Finnemore, published 4/2015.

Employment Rate of New Law Grads Unchanged as Both the Number of Graduates and the Number of Jobs Found Decline, National Association for Law Placement, published 10/2016.

2016 Comprehensive Survey of Lawyer Incubators, American Bar Association, ABA Standing Committee on the Delivery of Legal Services, published 8/2016.

Welcome to the Revolution in Affordable Legal Services, Open Legal Services.