Chicago attorney Michael Helfand noticed a fundamental problem in American courtrooms: the average American can't afford proper legal representation.
While citizens can turn to public defenders or legal aid clinics if their income meets the government's criteria, they're usually in dire straits; most government-paid lawyers have so many clients they scarcely have the time to closely examine a case, and the quality of representation suffers. And even for those who earn too much to qualify, the cost of hiring a private attorney is often out of reach.
Determined to address this disparity, Helfand founded Funded Justice, a crowdfunding platform for people struggling to pay attorney fees. Targeting people who don’t qualify for government-subsidized legal support but can’t afford to pay out of pocket for a private attorney, Funded Justice allows users to call on friends, acquaintances, and strangers for financial contributions.
The platform is open to anyone within the U.S., and campaigns are approved or rejected after a review process (most are accepted according to the dictates of common ethics). Current campaigns center around such issues as elderly abuse (one campaigner in California is pursuing legal action regarding a caretaker who allegedly attacked and stole from his mother) and workplace discrimination (a small business owner in South Carolina claims that she was unjustly removed from her position as a farmer’s market vendor).
While many might consider starting a campaign on mainstream crowdfunding channels like Kickstarter or IndieGoGo, Helfand contends that Funded Justice offers a handful of unique advantages.
A still from a campaigner's video.
Campaigners have the option to recompense their backers, for example (“This is especially useful in divorce [because the campaigner gains] access to marital funds, [as well as] personal injury,” Helfand said). They can also pursue fundraising while their case is being litigated. Furthermore, Funded Justice claims to promote its campaigns, particularly via its social media accounts, as well as a few other methods upon which Helfand didn’t elaborate (“We are building out methods to help attract donors,” he said).
The startup's campaign roster is objectively small (its current total is nine); Helfand partially attributes this to the site's niche nature. However, he said this allows him to closely examine the progress of each case and take time to collect user feedback to apply to future features.
Much like other crowdfunding sites, the three-person startup collects revenue from funded causes -- in this case, a 5 to 8 percent cut, depending on the campaign type (flexible, meaning a campaigner can use the funds regardless of the goal, or all-or-nothing, meaning the campaigner can’t collect funds unless her goal is reached) and outcome.
By adopting an established crowdfunding revenue model, Helfand hopes to provide a viable alternative to traditional means of covering legal costs, which often do consumers more harm than good. Many would-be plaintiffs who can’t afford legal fees look to legal funding sites, which offer loans and cash advances, but incur substantial interest rates and fees that are vague, inscrutable, and onerous. With a crowdfunding option, Helfand aims to bring transparency and trust to the legal funding process and to minimize individuals’ dependency on corporate loans.
“I’ve talked to thousands of people over the years who would do well in court with the right attorney," he said. "I just want people to have a realistic, fair shot at the proper result in court."
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