Most Americans probably could use a lawyer's services several times during their lives: when buying a house, writing a will, settling an estate, filing accident claims or law suits, rectifying consumer complaints, answering business-related questions or getting a divorce.
Statistics indicate, however, that most don't, usually because they don't know how to choose one or they fear a lawyer would be too expensive.
And most don't know about about the legal-services insurance plans that have been around since 1971, although there are indications the movement is beginning to take off.
At the end of 1984, about 13 million people were covered by some sort of legal-service plan -- 10 million more than in 1981.
According to attorney William Bolger, executive director of the National Resource Center for Consumers of Legal Services, "somewhere between 90 and 95 percent" of plan participants are in by virtue of their membership in a particular organization -- union, professional organization, business.
Prepaid legal-service plans are similar, in many ways, to auto insurance. For a fee, usually $75 to $150 a year, "you essentially have the equivalent of a lawyer on retainer all the time," according to Alec Schwartz, executive director of the American Pre-Paid Legal Services Institute in Chicago.
The services may include full coverage of such things as consultations, wills, real estate closings, review of legal documents and many other civil and criminal problems, except for felony charges.
There are generally two group plans available: automatic (members of the sponsoring group automatically are members of the plan, though they aren't required to use its services) and voluntary (members of the sponsoring organization elect to pay for the plan).
Individual enrollment plans include programs open to the general public, customers of a particular store, certain credit card holders.
One of the largest of all legal-services plans in the United States is offered locally by Greenbelt Cooperatives Inc. (the Scan people). All GCI members with at least $25 in their "member capital accounts," stock investment or a combination of both are automatically eligible. Currently 11,000 of the 100,000-plus GCI members qualify.
Also, two employer-paid programs are in place at Local 400 of the United Food & Commercial Workers (covering Giant, Safeway and other supermarkets), and Locals 23 and 25 of the Hotel & Restaurant Workers.
Montgomery Ward currently is test-marketing a program with its 1 million-plus credit card holders in Pennsylvania, Illinois and Colorado, and Carte Blanche and Diners Club have sent test mailings to their card holders.
A United Auto Workers-Ford plan has just been set up, similar to the ones implemented at Chrysler and General Motors.
While attorneys originally were not enthusiastic, they generally have come to realize that such plans open up a whole new clientele -- a potential market of 150 million, Bolger says.
And recent testimony shows the service can be invaluable. Joseph Ruth, a member of Hotel & Restaurant Workers Local 25, says his union's plan enabled him to successfully prevent the sale of his house in an estate dispute. "Without the plan I would probably have lost the house even if I had won the case, because I would have had to sell the house to pay the lawyer."
Bolger says any group of 200 or more people can arrange its own legal-services program.
For more information:
* The National Resource Center for Consumers of Legal Services, 3254 Jones Court, Washington, D.C. 20007. (202) 338-0714.
* The American Pre-Paid Legal Services Institute, 750 N. Lake Shore Dr., Chicago, Ill. 60611. (312) 988-5751.
* HALT Inc., Suite 312, 201 Massachusetts Ave. NE, Washington, D.C. 20002. (202) 546-4258.
* Greenbelt Cooperative Inc., 8406 Greenwood Place, Savage, Md. (301) 953-2770.