Dolores Park Cafe?a raucous San Francisco hub of peasant-skirted yoginis, tattooed lesbian mothers, and pierced hipsters sporting laptops?seems an unlikely place to seek legal advice. And yet, in her Hawaiian shirt and army-green cargo pants, sole practitioner Anne E. Thorkelson looks right at home in her eccentric legal quarters. Four afternoons a week at a small table in the back, Thorkelson counsels people who might otherwise fall through the legal system's cracks.
"People just want to talk to a lawyer for a minute without it costing a fortune," she says. Talking to her for a minute at the casual clinic, called Legal Grounds (www.legalgroundssf.com), costs just one dollar?though Thorkelson admits most people need at least five minutes. Nine months in, word of mouth now brings a weekly stream of DUI cases, landlord/tenant disputes, and family-law advice seekers. Clients register on a heavily disclaimered sign-up sheet, which calls to mind Lucy's psychiatrist booth in the Peanuts comic strip. "Do You Need Legal Advice?" it asks. "The Lawyer Is IN."
In a fit of disenchantment with "the culture of lawyering," Thorkelson started Legal Grounds?not to be confused with the chain of Legal Grind cafes Jeff Hughes launched in Southern California in the mid-1990s?at a neighborhood cafe happy to have the extra business she draws. She continues her solo practice, because only "a fraction" of her income comes from the cafe counseling. "I got in this to do good, not to do well," the 51-year-old says.
"The people without lawyers are the middle class," comments L.A. attorney and legal-ethics expert Diane Karpman. " 'Tall-building' lawyers are not really accessible to lay consumers, as they tend to represent the wealthy. Legal aid takes care of some of the needs for the poor. Thorkelson is providing that type of ready access to the middle class."
Certainly it's an ongoing need: Many of the same concerns inspired two legal-aid attorneys to found Berkeley's Nolo in 1971. But if Thorkelson has her way, the Legal Grounds blend of cafe access to legal counseling will eventually expand into a full roster of attorneys providing "low bono" advice in a variety of practice areas. Already this fall, she began offering services in a second San Francisco location.
In the meantime, Thorkelson says, "I'm having a blast."