Billie Tarascio is a lawyer of the new millennium, a legal pioneer whose vision for changing the legal landscape includes increasing access to justice by lowering costs and preserving a profitable business model for attorneys. Sound impossible? She is proving that if attorneys are willing to leverage technology and alter their practice approach, it is possible for everyone to get what they want.
Tarascio earned her Juris Doctor from the University of Oregon, School of Law and began her legal career in Eugene, Oregon. Her early legal experience was well rounded, including a clerkship for the Lane County Juvenile Court, working for the Department of Justice, family law division and several family law firms including Gardner, Honsowetz, Potter & Budge. During her immersion in the family law sector, she quickly realized that many people needed help, but few could afford legal representation.
“It seemed an obvious, fundamental problem,” Tarascio recalled, “but also an opportunity for attorneys who were willing to find a solution outside the traditional legal model.”
Tarascio became involved in the limited scope movement, one that was controversial at the time and has gained momentum since. “If someone comes in with $1000, that doesn’t mean you have to turn the potential client away, it may just mean that you can’t become the attorney of record and take on full responsibility for the case,” she said.
In 2009, her husband’s employment brought them to Arizona. Tarascio spent some time navigating the regulatory requirements necessary for her to transfer her pay-as-you-go, limited scope practice model to the state. Today her practice, Modern Law, is aptly named as she offers customized legal solutions to clients with varying needs. The result is a hybrid law firm, where clients can choose from a menu of services which include document preparation and mediation alongside flat flees and traditional, hourly rate representation.
It took Tarascio some time to achieve the right balance of client solutions. “As I experimented with the pay-as-you-go method, I found that it was still too ex- pensive for some clients,” she said. “On the other hand, I also needed to have a profitable law firm to keep talented attorneys and offer proper compensation. So my mission has been to figure out how to serve those needs at the same time. In addition to offering both limited scope and full scope, I began looking at legal technology. I wanted to find a way to bring down costs without sacrificing the hourly rate of attorneys.”
She began exploring and investing in technology in order to remove the need for lawyers to trade their time for dollars and use document automation to increase efficiency.
“Services like Legal Zoom work very well for transactional matters,” she explained, “but not as well for litigation. One problem with family law is that family court documents are specific to their local jurisdictions, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Also, even if people are willing to do their own legal work, they may still need assistance, guidance and coaching. Maricopa County self-help center has done a fantastic job of providing information to the public, but it is almost too much. There are thousands of pages to weed through to figure out what is relevant. In the end, people still have questions.”
Together with a team of coders and developers, Tarascio has designed a cloud-based, document automation system called Access Legal, a software and certified legal document preparation entity. Access Legal is designed for use by do-it-yourself individuals, as well as by attorneys who may use the system to lower the cost of services while increasing efficiency. The system contains a customized library of documents for Maricopa County family court actions. With every document purchase, the individual user receives a half-hour consultation with a certified legal document preparer. Basic procedural questions are answered, and if the document preparer determines the client needs legal advice, he can refer them to a local licensed attorney for consultation.
Currently, Modern Law is using the Access Legal system, along with several other area firms who have agreed to participate in the beta test. “Clients begin with a questionnaire online,” Tarascio said. “Answers they provide auto-populate into any form needed for the case. We can finish all 10 documents of a divorce petition in about a half an hour. We then charge a flat fee for drafting the documents. This is one way the system helps us decrease workload and increase profitability. There are also documents available like interrogatories and self-adding affidavits of financial information that are just not available anywhere else. Direct consumers are coming from law firms who turn away clients every day due to an inability to pay. By directing those potential clients to Access Legal, we do not lose them. Many come back to the firm later for legal advice, creating a winwin for the potential client and the firm.”
According to Tarascio, there is no denying that the industry as a whole is changing. “Consumers today are smarter,” she said. “Companies have driven down the cost of legal services, but in the consumer sector, people don’t have the power to collect, collaborate and drive down costs. More than 80 percent of people in the family court system in Maricopa County are unrepresented. It is a clear sign that the industry has failed to adapt to the market. Consumers will seek guidance somewhere, so lawyers can create the solution that meets consumer needs while benefiting attorneys, or we turn the industry over to non-lawyers. I want lawyers to be a part of the solution.”
Tarascio’s legal team is made up of people who share her vision and her passion for advancing the practice into a new era. Managing attorney Steph Harper Easterling and of counsel attorney Ryan McPhie offer years of expertise in the areas of family, criminal and personal injury law. The firm is looking for new lawyers to join the growing team.
Two years ago, legal document preparer Doug Nevel approached Tarascio with an article previously published about her firm. “He had retired from his job teaching, and after reading the article, he went to school to become a paralegal and certified document preparer so that he could come to work for my firm,” she said. “I hired him on the spot. He is now the lead document preparer working for Access Legal. Our group is banded together by a cause we all believe in – to increase access to justice.”
The culture at Modern Law is one where clients are encouraged to talk openly and honestly about budget. In this way, Tarascio and her team can determine the best way to achieve each client’s objectives with the resources available to them. “We are honest in giving them our feedback,” she said. “It is important to have a good working relationship so the client feels they can trust us. If we are not a good fit, we will not represent them.”
During the next 3-5 years, Tarascio plans to partner with local law firms to expand the reach of Access Legal beyond family law and Maricopa County. In the future, firms in other practice areas will be able to automate their practices and create their own document libraries. They will also have personal dashboards, allowing them exclusive access to proprietary client files.
Tarascio explained the broader business and social context of Access Legal, “What I’d like to do is help attorneys monetize the clients they are currently turning away. By increasing efficiency, we can do a better job, resulting in better outcomes and increased satisfaction with the system. That translates into healthier relationships between couples and their children.”
Tarascio’s own family is comprised of her husband and their three boys, “We live in a great neighborhood and have wonderful friends that we enjoy spending time with. Everything I do is possible because I am surrounded by a great team – my amazing husband and support at home and my terrific team at work. I am truly blessed.”
“I think everybody who goes to law school is somewhat idealistic,” she said. “We want things to be fair. As adults, we know that is not always possible. As experts in the legal system, we have to adjust our expectations to getting the right results most of the time. If we are to increase access to justice, we must realize that we are stronger working together.”