A woman was told by her landlord that rent had to be paid in cash due to COVID-19 because the landlord “couldn’t get to the bank.” The woman had always paid by check. She didn’t know what to do about her landlord, but she did know what to do about this legal matter she was now dealing with. She had access to justice that many consumers do not have. She had the ability to talk to an attorney regarding her legal question without charge. She had a legal plan membership and getting access to legal services cost her nothing beyond the monthly membership she was paying for. Using her A2J benefits, the woman called her law firm and spoke to an attorney who had experience in landlord/tenant law and she asked the attorney if the landlord could require her to pay by cash. The attorney told the woman that the landlord cannot require that and the woman could still pay by check. The attorney offered to send the landlord a letter from the law firm on the woman’s behalf (still for no charge) but she declined. She said she would talk to the landlord and report what her attorney said and if the letter was needed later she would call back. She knew it wouldn’t cost her anything to call the attorney again and it wouldn’t cost her for the letter if that was needed.
This story is not only true, but stories such as this happen many times a day at the law firm of Davis Miles McGuire Gardner, PLLC (“DMMG”). Even with the disruption to many law firms caused by COVID-19 and Shelter in Place, DMMG’s A2J department is continuing to help their clients without interruption.
Davis Miles McGuire Gardner is one of the state’s largest law firms with over sixty attorneys and a total employee count of over 140. The firm operates out of five offices in three states (AZ, NM, UT). One section of the firm, comprising almost half of the firm’s employees, are in the firm’s A2J department. DMMG contracted with LegalShield in 2004 to serve as one of the Oklahoma company’s provider law firms to service its nearly 40,000 LegalShield members in Arizona. The firm took on the New Mexico contract in 2006 to service nearly 15,000 members in that state as well.
DMMG’s LegalShield operation handles 300 to 500 inbound phone calls per day and the resulting 200 to 400 legal files per day that are generated by those calls. The DMMG LegalShield department has thirty attorneys and twenty-five support staff to keep up with the volume demand from Arizona and New Mexico members. The staff stays busy opening files and handling incoming calls, as well as handling incoming documents, outgoing referrals, client complaints, conflicts of interest checking at the rate of 200 to 400 per day, drafting wills, and preparing the demand letters for the attorneys (about 4,000 letters per year). The attorneys return client calls (about twenty to forty calls per day per attorney), as well as review outgoing letters and incoming documents, provide advice, do legal analysis, conduct research, and sometimes just support a client through a crisis. The team of attorneys covers fifty different practice areas and the attorneys range in experience from four or five years of practice to over thirty years of practice, and from all types of legal backgrounds. Some of the matters are worth less than $100 and can be easily handled by phone with one consultation, while others result in transactions or litigation with many thousands and even millions of dollars at stake that require the LegalShield clients to go outside the A2J department and retain “traditional” counsel for a discounted fee—and everything in between.
With this unique blend of a law firm and a call center in a fast-paced environment, the A2J department at Davis Miles McGuire Gardner has learned to take advantage of technology. That has caused the department and its employees to become very comfortable with staff and attorneys working remotely. Before COVID hit, seventy-one percent of the department’s employees were working remotely. The department already used three different methods of logging in remotely, a cloud-based phone system, procedures that lent themselves to not requiring human-to-human contact, and communication tools that were effective at helping the team work quickly and seamlessly together. When the COVID threat grew more severe, it took two days to move the remaining staff home, and then one week later it took two more days to move the final attorneys and management home. Along the way, inbound calls were handled timely, outbound calls from attorneys to clients were returned as usual, staff and attorney productivity remained high, and the team continued to communicate frequently and effectively. Without interruption the firm met its contractual commitments to LegalShield, and the individual LegalShield clients continued to receive the Access to Justice to which they were accustomed.
The firm is anxious for the COVID-19 threat to subside, but when that does happen, returning to business as usual won’t be that much different than what the A2J department at Davis Miles McGuire Gardner has been doing while the crisis raged.