Equal justice for all is a principle as American as apple pie, but it rarely plays out in court as nicely as it sounds in theory.
Attorney Michael Manely of The Manely Firm, P.C., is trying to change that, bringing a new concept of affordable legal services to Marietta called The Justice Cafe.
He and his wife, Shelia, recently bought the three-story, 14,000-square-foot office building at 211 Roswell Street, within walking distance of the Square. On the top floors of this building they plan to house their traditional family law practice along with the new Justice Cafe on the ground floor.
“We looked at four buildings, but this one fulfilled all of our needs,” said Michael Manely. “Our M.O. is to be very close to the courthouse.”
The Justice Cafe is set to open Aug. 1 with a smorgasbord of low-priced family law offerings ranging from divorce, custody or legitimization issues, estate planning, adoption, succession planning for mom-and-pop businesses and other issues.
Whereas typical fees for such services can range from $200 to $300 per hour, the Cafe approach seeks to limit overhead while not skimping on service. Its fee is $75 per hour.
Manely said the concept, launched more than a year ago at the firm’s Fulton County office, has been very successful so he is bringing it to Marietta in August and then Savannah in September. The plan is for other Manely offices in Canton and Lawrenceville to also eventually have a Justice Cafe.
Middle class clientele
The need is acute.
As middle class families got ravaged by the Great Recession, hiring a lawyer to fix a problem became a luxury they could no longer afford.
“The need for family law certainly didn’t go away in the recession,” Manely said.
People may have put off getting a divorce or some other pressing legal issue for a time, only to find the same issue sneaking up on them again later.
Manely said 60 to 80 percent of all people involved in family-related legal disputes will go before a judge without any legal representation.
“And we don’t have court-appointed attorneys for those who can’t afford them, like in criminal cases,” he said.
This not only leads to poor outcomes for the parties involved, it also leads to overworked judges.
“Attorneys know what is relevant to the case and what is not. They know the language of the court. So what with an attorney would take 10 minutes is now an hour being explained to a lay person,” Manely said. “What breaks my heart about this is, we are the third branch of government and if we have 70 percent of our population not having access to us, that hurts our democracy.”
As legal advice becomes more affordable, courts become more efficient and people get a more fair disposition of their case.
“I think this is the wave of the future,” Manely said. “The idea is to have a Justice Cafe with every one of our traditional practices.”
‘Bring me your unemployed’
The cafes will be staffed mainly with unemployed lawyers, some fresh out of law school.
“We have a lot of young attorneys looking for work, over 6,000 of them in Georgia alone, so it’s a real crisis,” Manely said.
Of the $75 an hour fee, half will go into the pockets of the staff attorney, the other half will go to the firm.
If the attorney works 30 hours a week, he or she will earn a $60,000 per year income, guaranteed, Manely said.
“So, for $75 an hour the needy public has a qualified attorney to handle their case with access to the more experienced attorneys upstairs,” he said. “It works flawlessly. The nice part for the public is they get very qualified legal help that is affordable.”
Manely has developed a close relationship with Georgia State University’s law school, which churns out graduates needing employment.
His wife runs the business side of the five-office firm while he oversees legal counsel. The firm grew so fast that it had to move its corporate headquarters in Atlanta several years ago.
“When we were up on the Square we were getting terribly squeezed,” Michael Manely said. “One of the more satisfying things is now we can move the headquarters back home to Marietta.”
Seek and ye shall find
The building on Roswell Street sits on .51 acres and had been vacant since the Moore Ingram Johnson & Steele law firm moved a few blocks down Roswell Street three years ago. The Manelys had been looking since January for a space in which to grow their traditional family law practice and also launch the Justice Café. While they were looking at first to lease a space, they found the location with the help of real estate broker Peter Tennis and decided it was perfect — near to the courthouse on the Square and large enough to accommodate growth. You walk up the staircase to the main offices and find yourself awash in light flooding through large windows and a dramatic atrium.
There is a large meeting room and a full kitchen.
“Both my wife and I like to do a lot of entertaining, so it suits us well,” he said.
His other passion, beside law, is environmental conservation.
The couple plans to plant a roof garden atop the structure.
“We want to go all green, possibly with LEED certification eventually and all LED lighting,” Michael Manely said. “In 2014, we hope to put in some solar panels.”