Many middle-income people seeking a divorce can’t afford to hire a lawyer but aren’t poor enough to qualify for legal aid. Michael and Shelia Manely hope to fill this gap with a new kind of family law firm, the Justice Café.

Located a block from the Fulton County Superior Courthouse, the Justice Café will charge $75 an hour for a la carte help in divorces and other family law matters, with no retainer up front, unlike most family law firms.

The storefront space at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and Peachtree Street will take walk-in clients who want to handle their divorce themselves but need some guidance from a lawyer. Clients can pay for either general advice or specific tasks, such as drafting an answer to a complaint or representation at a 30-day hearing.

The typical client will engage a Justice Café lawyer for 10 or fewer hours, said Michael Manely.

“If they need more than 10 hours of help, then they probably need a full-service approach,” said Manely, whose Marietta-based practice, The Manely Firm, has specialized in full-service family law for about a decade.

Firms offering walk-in, a la carte family law services have sprung up in other parts of the country, but Manely said this is a first for Georgia.

The lawyers staffing the Justice Café will work on contract and collect half the $75 hourly fee. The other half will cover overhead. At $37.50 an hour, a lawyer billing 30 hours per week can earn an annual gross salary of about $55,000.

The Manelys think this arrangement will attract both new law school graduates seeking work and experienced lawyers who don’t want the hassle of running their own shops.

“It’s a way to serve people on Main Street,” said Michael Manely. “There is no reason a working man or woman should not have access to legal services.”

The need is there. The majority of people seeking divorces in Georgia do so without a lawyer—and the number has increased with the recession.

In about 60 percent of the state’s family law cases the litigants are pro se, according to research from the Georgia Superior Court Clerks’ Cooperative Authority. And in 2010, 60 percent of civil cases filed in Georgia superior courts were family law matters—177,816 cases, according to an American Bar Association study.

Meanwhile, there are plenty of lawyers who need work. The Manelys hope to put the two together.

In the wake of the recession, said Shelia Manely, who is the Manely Firm’s business manager, she andher husband see too many lawyers chasing too few jobs serving the “1 percent”—wealthy individuals and corporations—while regular people can’t find affordable lawyers.

They want to bridge the gap. “We want to get real attorneys back on Main Street helping real people,” she said.

Affordable lawyers

The idea for the Justice Café has been brewing for several years.

Shelia Manely’s goal as The Manely Firm’s business manager is to keep costs down and offer affordable legal help to middle-income clients.

She said the firm does a volume practice rather than targeting wealthy individuals. Clients are charged a $3,650 retainer—compared with the $7,500 to $20,000 that other local family law firms require up front.

But she said many prospective clients still can’t afford The Manely Firm, while there are more pro se divorce litigants in court than ever since the recession hit in 2008.

Meanwhile, she started working on a law degree in 2009 at Georgia State University, also her husband’s alma mater, and learned about “unbundled” legal services in a seminar on making family law services accessible.

The idea caught her attention.

By offering unbundled services, where lawyers provide general advice or perform specific tasks instead of handling a case from start to finish, she realized she and her husband could make family law more affordable for more people.

They initially tried offering a la carte services at The Manely Firm. It didn’t work, they said, because the firm’s lawyers, used to providing full service, were not comfortable with performing a more limited role.

“The unbundled service concept turns on its head the notion that the lawyer is in charge,” said Michael Manely. Instead the client decides what he or she needs help with.

“One client might feel comfortable talking to a judicial officer in court but is not comfortable doing discovery or writing an answer,” he said. Another might want a lawyer to do the talking for her in court.

“It was such a radical paradigm shift that it was hard to do,” said Shelia Manely, who expects to finish law school in the spring.

And so they decided that they needed a separate space for a la carte family law.

The Manelys opened a downtown branch of their firm a couple of years ago in the Capitol City Bank Building at 121 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive S.E. They decided to lease the building’s vacant storefront for the Justice Café.

They recruited Luis Velez, a 2010 GSU Law graduate, as the Justice Café’s executive director. Although Velez is a new lawyer, he has more than 20 years of experience working for nonprofits, foundations and government programs assisting low-income people and children in the court system.

He graduated fifth in his law school class and has an undergraduate degree from Princeton, a pedigree that would make him attractive to corporate firms.

Asked why he’s chosen to join the Manely’s fledgling enterprise instead, Velez said, “I grew up in the South Bronx. My mission is to give back.”

The Manelys said they considered making the Justice Café a nonprofit, but decided that a firm serving middle-income people should be a viable capitalist enterprise.

They want to prove that a law firm catering to non-wealthy people can at the very least break even or, even better, make money—and that it’s a model that can be replicated.

“If the only way for regular people to get a lawyer is through a charity, then the system is broken,” said Shelia Manely.

Unbundling legal services

One of the earliest advocates for unbundling was Forrest “Woody” Mosten, a Los Angeles family lawyer and mediator. Mosten wrote a seminal book on the topic, Unbundling Legal Services: A Guide to Delivering Legal Services a la Carte, which the ABA published in 2000.

California led the way in officially allowing unbundled services and other states, including Georgia, soon followed. The State Bar of Georgia adopted Rule 1.2(c) to explicitly permit unbundled legal services in 2001. Paula Frederick, the state bar’s general counsel, said the rule was updated last year to clarify that a lawyer may limit the scope of representation if there is informed consent from the client.

Frederick expressed qualified support for unbundled legal services and said her main concern is that the client understands what he or she is signing up for. “The lawyer shouldn’t leave the client high and dry and in the lurch,” she said.

“Generally, I think it has been a positive thing. It is a way of dealing with the fact that most people can’t afford to hire a lawyer,” she added. “It can be helpful when the alternative is people not getting advice or representation at all.”

Frederick said there have been only two cases before the state bar’s disciplinary board in 11 years over unbundled matters. In both cases, the limitation on the engagement was unreasonable, which left the client stranded.

The chief judge for Fulton Superior Court’s family law division, Gail Tusan, said having a lawyer provide even limited assistance could be “very worthwhile,” if it better prepares the people who appear in her courtroom.

Like Fredericks, Tusan said her main concern is “making sure that the court and the client are clear on what services are being provided and that the termination of the services doesn’t adversely affect the court’s ability to move the case along and finalize it.”

She noted that Fulton Superior Court has a Family Law Information Center to help pro se litigants prepare their cases, and it annually receives about 1,100 walk-in visitors and a similar number of phone calls. The center offers information and forms for various causes of action filed in the family law division as well as a free consultation with a lawyer.

It uses contract lawyers who offer general guidance but do not perform specific tasks. Consultations, which must be scheduled in advance, are limited to a half hour.

“Despite all the information that’s available, the average self-represented litigant comes to court anxious about not having a lawyer,” said Tusan. “They have not necessarily completed the required documents at all, or correctly, and are often unable to communicate well with the other side.”

For example, parties without counsel often don’t prepare mandatory discovery forms before appearing in court, she said. “If a lawyer can help clients with this, that’s good.”

Community center

The storefront space for the Justice Café still has mirrors and changing cubicles from its days as a dress shop selling fancy suits and hats to well-dressed church ladies.

The Manelys and Velez plan to have it ready to open for walk-in business in December.

Michael Manely said they’ve started recruiting lawyers and have developed a training program for new lawyers, so they are prepared to advise clients.

To be eligible, prospective hires must first acquire at least 18 hours of hands-on client and courtroom experience from a law school clinic, an externship or by volunteering with pro bono groups, such as Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation’s Safe Families program at Fulton Superior Court.

Michael Manely and his firm’s other four lawyers will serve as backup advisers. He said they’ll bill their consultation time to the Justice Café, and payment will come from its half of the $75 per hour paid by its clients.

To develop clients, the Manelys are sending mailers to people filing family law cases pro se in Fulton Superior Court. “We’ve done the math. If we can get the volume we need, it can work,” said Shelia Manely.

The Manelys want the Justice Café to be a gathering spot for the legal community as well as a walk-in law firm. The back half of the space will have soundproof cubicles where lawyers can see clients, and they plan to furnish the front half of the shop like a coffeehouse, with free coffee and Wi-Fi for lawyers and law students. There will be sandwiches for sale from Ida’s Restaurant next door.

Shelia Manely gestured toward a small stage at the side of the room and said it could be a performance space for lawyers who play music with a tip jar for contributions to pro bono groups. She envisions lawyer-artists hanging their art for display from the walls.

“There is a place in the cafe for all of them,” she said.