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AZ 3D Law
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DISCLOSURES: NO MORE SURPRISES

While it makes for great drama in television shows, movies, and books about the legal system, the truth is there really aren't many surprises in court. Most of the time, the court has rules that require the people involved in a court case (the parties) to share information with each other shortly after a case gets filed. The courts do this because many legal matters are complicated, and it is hard to achieve justice when people are dealing with a never-ending roller coaster of surprises when they finally get into court. The way the court makes people share information with each other is through the disclosure process.

In the family law court (the majority of the cases AZ 3D Law handles are family law cases, so it makes for a good example), disclosure is mostly covered by Rule 49 of the Arizona Rules of Family Law Procedure. That rule tells us what kind of information the parties are required to exchange. The exact information the parties need to exchange depends on the case type - for instance, if people are trying to figure out whether someone is a child's father (a paternity case) they will need to exchange different information than people trying to figure out how to fairly divide their assets and debts so they can part ways (a divorce case). Often, the most important information the parties exchange is financial information - things like tax returns, pay stubs, and an affidavit of financial information - because it is very difficult to do math on the fly during a trial.

Usually, Rule 49 tells us that the disclosure process should be completed forty (40) days after a Response has been filed in a case. Considering how long it takes most cases to get into court for an initial hearing of some kind (to say nothing of the actual, final trial date) the forty-day mark might be one of the earliest major milestones in a case. The court can, of course, change that date as needed, and often does if a hearing won't take place for quite some time. Often (but not always) the court will require disclosures to be completed before the initial hearing takes place, and since that hearing might be more than forty days out, the parties sometimes end up with extra time to exchange their disclosures. The parties to a case should always pay attention to the orders the court enters, especially when those orders deal with important deadlines like the disclosure date. There are other rules that cover disclosures (Rule 91 comes to mind) under certain circumstances, such as when a person is trying to modify a court order, and those rules provide different time frames and different requirements. Disclosures are not unique to family law cases, so different case types will likely have similar (but different) requirements, time frames, and rule numbers.

A great way to use disclosures is to figure out whether there is anything the parties can agree on. By making agreements (settlements) the parties can narrow the number of issues that need to come before the court. This can help keep costs down, and it can also help the parties spend more time focusing on the issues they really disagree about. For that reason, it often pays off to get disclosures done quickly and thoroughly. If the disclosures are thorough enough, and the parties feel like they have enough information, it might even be possible to reach a settlement with just the information contained in the disclosures.

The disclosure process can be annoying - nobody likes gathering a bunch of documents - but it is an important part of a case and an important requirement that both parties need to comply with. While it can be a bit of a headache, spending the time to make good disclosures can pay off in the long run. If you are a party to a case and aren't sure what you need to disclose, or are running into trouble getting disclosures from the other side, you should talk to a lawyer (if you don't already have one) so you can get it done and do it right.
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YEAR IN REVIEW

It has been a year since AZ 3D Law officially got up-and-running and started helping low-to-middle income individuals afford attorney services. That first year of a charity's life is always crucial, and there were plenty of ups and downs for us, but overall it seems that the year turned out pretty well for us because we still exist. At our board meeting, roughly a week ago, we looked at our accomplishments this year and planned out what we hoped to accomplish next year. It turns out we have quit a bit to be proud of, and we wanted to share that with you, so here we are doing just that! We also want to let you know what to expect from us going forward, and hope it will excite you as much as it excites us!

This past year, AZ 3D Law helped 34 individuals who otherwise would not have been able to hire attorneys and would have instead been forced to represent themselves. In addition to helping people living in Maricopa County (especially Phoenix's West Valley, where we are based) we also helped people in La Paz, Mohave, Yavapai, and Pinal county. Helping people in Arizona's more rural counties, where there are fewer attorneys, is something we are very proud to do because it ties in strongly with our goal of helping people gain access to justice.

Still, helping 34 people is - realistically - a drop in bucket. A recent county bar section newsletter indicated that about 84% of all family law cases have both parties representing themselves, while around 12% have at least one party representing themselves. Similarly, about 31% of all probate cases have both parties representing themselves, while around 61% have at least one party representing themselves. When you consider the fact that these percentages were derived from around 4,000 cases each, the scope of the problem becomes obvious. Again, AZ 3D Law is proud to have helped as many people as we did, but next year we hope to accomplish more by assisting even more people. It would be fantastic if we were able to make even a 1% dent in the statistics we mentioned above.

How are we going to do that? We believe that one of our first tasks is to boost awareness. After all, if nobody knows we exist, we won't really be able to help anybody! To that end, we will be working to increase awareness of our charitable mission. While we seem to be doing an alright job of that, we think we can do better, and we think we can do that by looking to places other than the internet (which is how most people find us). This is something you can help us with! If you think we did a great job for someone, or if you just like our mission in general, please don't hesitate to let people know that we exist!

One of the other things we looked at recently was the services we provide, and the value the people we have helped derived from those services. Our average case involved someone living between 125% and 200% of the federal poverty guidelines (so, for a family of 4, someone with a household income of $48,600 per year or less). The vast majority of our cases were family law cases (and of those, about 2/3 were divorce cases, while the other 1/3 were almost all child custody cases). Realizing this, we are working on ways to help reduce some of the costs of administering these cases. We are looking at technology and automation as ways to help bring our costs down even further, and are looking at ways to help our clients achieve their goals through less-costly means (such as alternative dispute resolution) to lessen the financial sting of the court process. In the future, we also expect to use virtual services to help deliver more service at a lower price. Using technology will allow us to do a lot of good for a lot of people at a low cost, and we are excited by all the possibilities in front of us! Besides that, using technology - like document assembly and automation tools - will allow us to serve more people without our staff costs ballooning out of control.

Overall, we are very proud of what we have accomplished this year, but we know we have a lot more work to do if we want to make a huge difference in Arizona's legal landscape. To everyone who has joined us on our journey so far - thank you! To all the people we look forward to helping next year - we can't wait!
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IT PAYS TO PLAN

These past few weeks I received several calls from people dealing with probate issues. Probate is the technical term for the legal process that happens when a person passes away. It involves the court going through the deceased person's estate, paying their debts, and passing their things on to the next generation.

Too many people don't have a plan for the end of their life. That lack of planning makes things difficult for their loved ones because those same loved ones then find themselves trying to navigate the probate process. Grieving is hard enough, but it is even harder when you have to administer an estate (or, worse, when you have to fight your loved ones about administering an estate).

But what can a person do to prevent probate? Having a good estate plan helps. An estate plan doesn't necessarily make a person "probate proof" (and that is okay, probate isn't a bad thing to be feared and avoided at all costs), but it can make the probate process much simpler and much less painful to go through.

Let's take a moment and be honest with each other: everybody passes away eventually. So, if we know it is going to happen someday, why not prepare for it and make it that much easier on our loved ones? There are probably a lot of reasons: it takes time, it takes money, and "I don't really have anything anyway, so what is the point?" I want to tackle each of those excuses in turn.

First, time. It really doesn't take that long to make the most basic estate planning documents: a Will, a Financial Power of Attorney, a Healthcare Power of Attorney, and a Living Will. When I made AZ 3D Law I committed myself to using technology to simplify the process a lot. Our questionnaire can be completed on a computer or on a cell phone. Someone who wants to make those estate planning documents could do it, a few minutes at a time over the course of a few days, until the questionnaire was complete. We can also use technology to meet if we need to (via Skype or a similar service). We can even use technology to shuttle documents back and forth for clients to review. Not only that, but we make house calls and work weekends when we need to. Between the technology we can use and our flexible schedule, time isn't an issue anymore.

Well, what about cost? AZ 3D Law also has an answer to that. We priced our basic estate planning services (Will, both Powers of Attorney, and the Living Will) at $150 for a single person or $250 for a married couple (assuming there are no conflicts to prevent a dual representation). We are able to price our service that low because we are a charity, and we are not trying to make a profit. You probably won't find anything much lower than that, except "do it yourself" programs, and you are probably better off paying an attorney and getting actual legal advice instead of trying your best to puzzle your way through the forms. So, thanks to our charitable mission, cost is no longer an issue either.

Fine, but what about your stuff? If you don't have much stuff, who cares, right? Estate plans are just for rich people who own a lot of stuff! Not true - not even a little bit. An estate plan can do a lot of things for someone who doesn't own that much. It can speed your loved ones through the process of succession by affidavit. It can appoint a guardian for your children. It can make sure you don't have to track down distant relatives and go through a complex intestacy process. It can make sure your wishes are respected if you find yourself seriously injured (but do not pass away). It can help you manage your affairs if you find yourself mentally "slipping" before you pass away. It can help you pass your legacy on to people who otherwise might not receive anything under the intestacy statutes. It can do all of these things and more, all of which are equally appealing to a person with $500 and a person with $500,000. So, a lack of stuff isn't really an issue either because "dealing with your stuff" is just one of the many things an estate plan does.

So there you have it: time, money, and a lack of stuff are excuses, but they aren't good excuses. Estate plans are helpful to everyone (and, the more complicated your situation is, the more helpful they are). You owe it to yourself - and your loved ones - to give estate planning some serious consideration. If you decide to call us, we'll be happy to tell you how we can help!
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THE IMPORTANCE OF SYNERGY

You might have seen it several times out there in the legal world: a law firm website telling you that attorneys who only work in one practice area are the best, and therefore the only kind of attorney you should hire. Personally, I don't buy it. I think practicing only one kind of law is problematic for clients. Let me give you an example:

Suppose a client comes into my office for a divorce. I handle their divorce, no problem, but now there are other issues. That same client is having a hard time financially because their household income just got cut in half. They think they need a bankruptcy... and I tell them "well, you need to go somewhere else for that." They also want to update their estate plan... and I again tell them "well, you need to go somewhere else for that." Now this client is going to have to deal with 3 attorneys instead of 1. Finding an attorney is hard enough (finding an attorney you like and can afford is even harder), and this person needs to find 2 more, maybe more depending on the other issues they are going through. Beyond that, what if the divorce could have worked out better for the client if they had considered the potential need for bankruptcy and made that part of their divorce plan? Too bad - that is a missed opportunity because the divorce lawyer didn't know about bankruptcy and therefore did not bring it up.

Does that seem like something that works out well for a client? I don't think so. Why shouldn't a client be able to handle most of their issues through the same law firm? I think it benefits a client to hire a law firm with practice areas that go well together. Consider Immigration law - it goes well with Criminal law (since criminal law violations will have a significant impact on immigration status) and might also go well with Estate Planning (how do you plan for non-citizen spouses?). If you were a client, would you want to hire an Immigration firm that only handled Immigration, or would you feel more comfortable knowing the firm handled other (related) areas of law? I believe a firm that embraces multiple related practice areas - or even just the slivers of those practice areas that are related - could deliver much better service to a client than a firm that only practices one type of law. I think the ability to deliver more services is attractive to clients, and I think we will see more clients choosing law firms that can help them out with a multitude of related legal issues.

Some practice areas are not related, and I am certainly not suggesting that firms should just pick a number of random practice areas in an effort to service their clients. I am also not addressing hyper-specialized firms (for example: a firm that only handles child support appeals to the supreme court and nothing else) because those firms often fill an important niche by tackling subject matter that might have special or unique rules. What I am suggesting is that carefully selecting practice areas with synergy benefits clients. I tried to do that with this law firm; it was a happy coincidence that the three Ds are also areas that have a huge demand for affordable attorneys (and that demand is not being met, resulting in a lot of people choosing to represent themselves). I hope, as time goes on, that more attorneys will consider broadening their firm's practice base for the reasons I mentioned above.
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AN INTRODUCTION

Hello!

My name is David Mercer, and this is AZ 3D Law's very first blog post, so I thought it would be fitting to start with an introduction. I wanted to let people know why AZ 3D Law was founded, and why I chose to focus it on the "three Ds" instead of something else.

I knew I wanted to start my own law firm before I ever went to law school, but I wasn't really sure what I would do with it or how I would set it up. I would have probably followed in the footsteps of so many other lawyers - set up a PLLC, maximize profits/minimize expenses, try to rake in the cash - if I hadn't read an American Bar Association article about a law firm in Utah that set itself up as a sliding scale nonprofit law firm. That firm, Open Legal Services, was founded by people who were fresh out of law school and were determined to start a "legal revolution" by making basic legal services affordable to people that didn't qualify for free services. When I read that article I realized the brilliance of their idea and decided I needed to do something similar here in Arizona.

You see, in law school I had the chance to do a lot of volunteer work. I worked as an extern for the Probate Lawyers Assistance Project here in Maricopa County. The people that run the Probate Lawyers Assistance Project are great individuals and they manage to help a lot of people, but the program is geared toward providing 30 minute consultations with people that have issues related to probate, guardianship, conservatorship, or trust litigation. The lawyers are able to give the people who come to them some excellent guidance, but when that 30 minutes ends those people are on their own again. There are other, similar, programs in Maricopa County - for example, Modest Means offers a $75 one hour consultation, but while the project's lawyers can offer services after the consultation at that hourly rate it isn't expected of them. The Family Lawyers Assistance Project, Father Matters, the Bankruptcy Court Self Help Center - they are all designed to give people a brief consultation, but when the consultation ends it is up to those people to tough it out alone.

Now, some of the other volunteer work I did in law school was clinical in nature. I worked with the Arizona Summit Law School Family Law Clinic and the Arizona Summit Law School Bankruptcy and Consumer Debt Clinic. Those clinics went beyond consultations and gave law students a chance to practice law (under the supervision of their clinical law school instructors) and to offer full-scale representation to people that needed it. In other words, we didn't just give people consultations - we went to court and represented people. I felt like this was a really helpful program, because people needed full-scale legal representation, but the program was also very limited. We only offered limited services - for example, we offered family law help but didn't do probate - and only to a small number of people. Besides that, the clinics necessarily ended when a semester ended, which made it difficult to help people with legal issues that lasted longer than a semester (and the frequent staff turnover as students graduated didn't help either). There are some programs that offer full-scale representation (the Volunteer Lawyers Program of Arizona comes to mind) but those programs often serve only individuals falling below 125% of the federal poverty level, which means a lot of people that need help won't qualify for services.

So where did that leave us? There is a diverse array of services that offer consultations but don't go much beyond that, and there are programs and clinics that offer full-scale representation but only to a select few individuals that qualify. That just doesn't seem to work; there are still too many people representing themselves who would love to have legal representation but just can't afford $250-$350/hour with $5,000 upfront. Did you know that over 80% of the people in Maricopa County's family courts represent themselves? Well, now you know why!

Putting together my volunteer experience with the knowledge I gleamed from the American Bar Association article about Open Legal Services (and many articles that followed), I decided to found AZ 3D Law. I wanted to give people a chance to have full-scale legal representation for a price they could afford (based on their ability to pay). The only thing left to do was to decide which services I wanted to offer. I settled on the "three Ds" - death, divorce, and debt - because those are the three things that people have such a hard time dealing with. It is so easy to feel like you have lost control and can't do anything to make things better for yourself when you are dealing with death, or debt, or a divorce. You feel like you are at the mercy of a system you don't understand, and you don't know what you can do to keep your head above water. I get it, and that is why I decided to help with those three things. If I can help lighten someone's burden by handling all the legal aspects of one of the three Ds while they handle the rest of it - well, I'm happy to have done that.

So there you have it, in a nut shell: who we are, and why we came to be. I'm sure the articles that follow will be a bit more interesting, but I wanted to at least introduce ourselves before I got into the really interesting stuff. Thanks for reading!

Some helpful links to things I mentioned in this blog post:

Open Legal Services: http://openlegalservices.org/

Modest Means Project: https://www.azflse.org/modestmeans/

Father Matters: http://fathermatters.org/

Bankruptcy Court Self Help Center: http://www.azb.uscourts.gov/filing-without-attorney

Probate Lawyers Assistance Project: http://www.maricopabar.org/page/PLAP

Family Lawyers Assistance Project: http://www.clsaz.org/flap.html

Volunteer Lawyers Program of Arizona: http://www.clsaz.org/vlp.html
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