Law Store: a 'supermarket' approach to cheap legal aid

Here in a rambling suburban mall -- right between Mogo's Mongolian Barbecue and the Fabric Workshop -- shoppers can get themselves a bargain on a little instant law.

At the Law Store -- a low-cost, fast-service, and fast-growing chain started by two Los Angeles attorneys -- self-help kits range from $35 for a simple will and $85 for a name change or adoption to $137.50 for an uncontested divorce.

And there's something more, a bonus not offered by other such do-it-yourself kits: unlimited telephone consultation with a fully qualified attorney, who also fills out all legal paper work required for the case at no extra charge.

Blair Melvin, of the lawyers who opened the store on Law Day (May 1) 1978, likes to think of his business as a supermarket for law, where shoppers can buy "a can of pleadings, a can of uncontested divorce, whatever.

"We decided to try to bring law to the people. so we brought it to shopping centers," he says. "It's based on the old country-store concept, where you get a buck's worth of service for your dollar."

The idea, he explains, is to keep the average individual out of a lawyer's office, where he may pay as much as $100 an hour for consultation on a problem he may have been able to handle himself.

An estimated 85 percent of all legal problems, Mr. Melvin says, can be solved by legal advice, or by a lawyer making a phone call or writing a letter on a person's behalf.

So far, supermarket law is a concept that appears to be catching on: An estimated 17,000 "clients" -- including college students, businessmen, teachers, and even millionaires -- have been served since the store first opened, Mr. Melvin says.

In addition, four new outlets, including two in a department store chain, have opened in the Los Angeles and San Diego areas. And, under a merger taking place with a company that will manage and finance the Law Store operations, another 14 locations are being planned for metropolitan Los Angeles.

The concept has even caught the fancy of other lawyers who drop in on their way to lunch at Mogo's, says Tamara Buck, who works in the Sherman Oaks store. "they think it's a good idea," she says, adding that attorneys from as far away as Toronto have written to find out how to set up similar operations of their own.

For a customer who is not sure whether he actually needs a lawyer, $10 -- payable in cash, check, or charge card -- covers the cost of stepping into a private room, picking up a "law phone," and talking to one of eight attorneys, each of whom is a specialist and a member of the California bar.

The lawyer will explain whether the matter can be handled by a Law Store packet, or in a small claims court, or by a governmental agency.

If an attorney is needed, the customer will be told what price he should expect to pay for the service he needs, or, for $15, a Law Store attorney will write a letter or make a phone call to solve minor problems.

The key to the low cost of the business is telephone consultation, Mr. Melvin explains. An office visit that might take up a costly hour -- what with small talk and other formalities -- can be handled much quicker, and cheaper, over the phone. It is a method that attorney Melvin predicts will eventually force other lawyers to cut their own fees to be more competitive.

For $84, a fee that includes a free will, Law Store customers can sign up for a year's worth of legal advice. The cost -- which covers the customer's entire family -- includes unlimited telephone consultation; a seven- day-a-week, 24 -hour emergency hot line; and a letter-writing service. If an attorney is needed, clients receive a 25 percent discount on the legal fees.

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