Inspired by her desire to help families solve difficulties efficiently and affordably, attorney Nicole Billings is pioneering new answers to ageold problems.
Billings began her career as a child welfare social worker, primarily working with mothers with methamphetamine addictions. She repeatedly observed that clients were more apt to listen to their attorneys’ advice about seeking treatment than her own. “They didn’t want to follow the advice of the social worker who took away their children. But I saw how skilled attorneys could actually help, and it sparked my interest in law school.”
A single mother, Billings packed up her then 4-year-old daughter, Anna, and took her along to classes at William Mitchell College of Law. Billings obtained her law degree and built her practice while also fighting reoccurrences of cancer for almost six years. “Being a single mother and a cancer survivor gave me an advantage in law school. Every day, I went home to my daughter and encouraged her to try her hardest in school and live each day to its fullest. I had no choice but to do the same.” She graduated in 2009 and then acquired several years of valuable experience inside a respected family law firm. “I benefited from wonderful mentorship there with some great attorneys, and I was able to establish myself in the family law community.”
But it was also the height of the Great Recession, and Billings found that while she was helping people resolve family law matters, the resulting legal bills often left them in precarious financial circumstances. That reality motivated her to begin her own law firm in 2014, Solution-Focused Family Law LLC, offering income-based legal representation in a wide array of family issues.
However, it was Billings’ ultimate aim to create a nonprofit model funded partially through client contributions. In 2016, she established Legal Representation Organization, a nonprofit legal organization (wholly separate from her law firm) dedicated to serving low to moderate income clients in the expedited child support process. In March of this year, Billings began taking her first clients.
“During my time of exploration, I read about the federal mandate directing states to enact laws aimed at right-size child support. Child support obligations are to be set in an amount that encourages regular, on-time payments, increases the number of noncustodial parents working and supporting their children, and reduces the accumulation of unpaid child support arrears.
“The expedited child support process is set up in a way that anyone is supposed to be able to walk in and effectively represent themselves and achieve the outcome of a right-sized child support order. But in my opinion, that’s not always the case. Many people still need someone to tell them what information to gather and how to present that information to the child support magistrate. My mission is to act as a bridge between my client and the other players in the expedited child support process, ideally resolving cases before they go to a hearing whenever possible.”
Billings is not only filling an underserved need, as many legal aid organizations do not take child support cases, she is also offering a solution she hopes promotes goodwill between separated parents, contributing to a more productive co-parenting relationship going forward.
“Often people have child support orders that are set too high or too low. I’ve seen so many child support orders where the magistrate didn’t have vital pieces of information when determining the amount of child support to be paid, leading one or sometimes both parties feeling as though the process is unfair or biased. By establishing the right information, I can help to correct or avoid situations where someone is either in arrears and has no desire to pay any more, or where child support is set too low so that kids are living in one home where there is an immense financial need that is not being met – and could be met – with right-sized child support.”
Billings represents parents on both sides of the issue. “It’s incredibly rewarding. I do more than just help people adjust the amount of support they are paying or receiving. I also explain to people why they are paying or receiving that amount. I find many people simply do not understand their child support orders. I also work hard to get the obligor’s buy-in and commitment to pay. When we can come up with a practical solution that makes sense to everyone, I hope it is helpful to everyone involved. I hope we can keep people employed and reduce some of the public benefits that people might otherwise need to access.”
Billings wants to help the “working poor,” people who make too much money to qualify for other types of legal aid, but don’t make enough money to afford a traditional attorney. Her model serves families whose income is up to 400 percent above the federal poverty line. For instance, a parent with one child can earn up to $64,960 and still qualify for services. Clients pay a flat fee (roughly $450-$600) plus court costs, based upon qualifying income. All clients pay something for representation, but they know the total cost ahead of time. Billings believes that “having skin in the game” leads to more active participation in the process and greater satisfaction with the result.
“I feel like parents have great pride in the fact that they are paying clients. They hired me; they chose me.”
Family law attorneys can refer expedited child support process cases to LRO with the assurance that they will receive guidance that is both expert and affordable. “There are special rules for the expedited process, and many private attorneys are not well-versed with them, since they don’t practice there. And if a lawyer is not comfortable with the fee they will have to charge to get someone $100 more or less child support every month, I can do it and charge a fee that is justifiable for the result.”
By focusing on solutions, Billings is helping her clients become the architects of their own futures. “I recently helped a dad who had accumulated over $30,000 in arrears, was homeless, and living like a fugitive. In the end, he and the mother made a joint decision for their child that encouraged dad to keep his job and work his way out of the hole he was in. They came together, they were pleasant to each other, and they felt empowered. It’s beautiful when that moment happens and you feel people moving forward. By right-sizing child support, this piece of a custody case can be less of a dividing factor.”