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Considering Bankruptcy? Head to the Mall

AP

Where do you go when you're so broke you're considering bankruptcy?

Most people wouldn't say the mall, but attorney Melva Rozier is hoping to change their minds. In November, Rozier founded a new type of law firm — or rather, a law store — inside the Boynton Beach Mall near West Palm Beach, Fla. The Law Booth counsels walk-in clients on divorce, foreclosure and other legal topics at discounted rates from a kiosk planted between American Eagle Outfitters and Victoria's Secret shops.

"My first job was at a Foot Locker in Jacksonville," said Rozier, 40. "Now 25 years later I'm back in the mall."

While lawyers can play a crucial role in helping those in need, the cost of their services is out of reach for many Americans.

Free legal services, offered by nonprofit organizations, typically serve only those most destitute, while private law firms tend to charge expensive fees. A 2011 survey by the World Justice Project called the U.S. judicial system "inaccessible to disadvantaged groups," ranking it 52 out of 66 countries when it comes to "access to civil justice."

Rozier wanted to provide an affordable service and create an environment where people would feel comfortable asking basic questions. "Our entire society has become a place where we want things here and now," she said. "People can't take time off of work to see a lawyer. I wanted to be in a retail environment."

In Rozier's regular law office, clients schedule appointments in advance and pay an initial $125 fee for a consultation. At the Law Booth, they can walk in at, say, 8 p.m. on a Saturday, sit in a chair, eat a pretzel and consult her or one of her two partners for a fee that starts at $25. People can stop in for preparation of a will, advice about starting a business or questions about bankruptcy or a personal injury matter.

The idea for the Law Booth grew out of Rozier's experiences of working with clients affected by foreclosure. Palm Beach County has the fourth highest number of foreclosures of any county in Florida — a state that ranks among the ones with the highest counts, according to RealtyTrac, a foreclosure database. Rozier started her career by representing clients at real estate closings, only to see her business "dissolve" when the real estate downturn hit, she said. "I started realizing how much people were hungry for information."

Deonarine Ganesh, 53, tried twice on his own to obtain a loan modification for his house before visiting the Law Booth in December. The Guyana native, who works as a pest control technician, could not afford to pay the loans on his second home when his income dropped after a life-changing surgery.

"On Channel 5 they had something about [Rozier]," Ganesh said, "and about the Boynton Beach Mall and foreclosure. So I went over there." By chance, Ganesh was served foreclosure papers the very next day, according to Rozier.

"It's a good form of advertising," Ganesh said about the Law Booth's presence in the mall.

The Law Booth doesn't have any TV ads yet — "We're developing a strategy," Rozier said — but the unconventional setup has nevertheless caught people's attention. Many clients first learned about the Law Booth on Black Friday last November, when the lawyers opened at 4 a.m. along with the mall.

Fifty years ago, marketing any kind of legal service was considered taboo and an activity that some lawyers thought would taint their profession with a veneer of profit seeking. But after a Supreme Court decision defined legal advertising as free speech in 1977, hordes of firms began taking out ads, spending $428 million on TV ads in 2002, versus $366,000 in 1977, adjusted for inflation.

Retail might be the new frontier. The trend is catching on in the United Kingdom: Last April, bookstore WHSmith announced that it would open 500 legal "access points" in its stores. New legislation, nicknamed the "Tesco law" after the supermarket chain, allows non-lawyer investors to hold shares in British law firms, a change that is expected to make accessing legal services as easy as shopping at Tesco.

In America, doctors are also experimenting with providing services in stores. CVS , Duane Reade, Walgreens and Walmart all have walk-in clinics that let people consult a doctor or nurse while shopping. According to a study from Rand Corp.,the number of retail clinics increased tenfold from 2007 to 2009.

Some lawyers argue that the commercialization of legal services has changed the industry for the worse, causing a huge surge in claims and a culture of litigation as people try to sue for just about anything. Others say that marketing and advertising simply help disenfranchised people learn about services that they wouldn't otherwise know about.

"Allowing access [to lawyers] has been a great benefit for the community," said Richard Carey, 28, one of Rozier's two partners at the Law Booth. "We want to be where the people are. If people are shopping at 4 a.m., we want to make sure we're there."

One surprise for Carey and Rozier has been the diversity of the Law Booth's clients. "We thought that bankruptcy and foreclosure would be the main practice areas," Rozier said. "But it's much more of a cross-pollination, people who qualify for legal aid and people who can afford the regular market."

Open only four months, the Law Booth already has plans for expansion. Rozier is considering new locations at other nearby malls. A law student contacted her asking if he could open a franchise once he graduates.

But do malls really want people to be reminded of their looming debt while browsing at Victoria's Secret? The mall's owner, Simon Properties, thinks the Law Booth is a good concept, according to Rozier. "It wasn't difficult to convince them as long as we promised we wouldn't sue them for anything."

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