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Tripped up

By: April Wilkerson//June 10, 2011

Tripped up

By: April Wilkerson//June 10, 2011

Working as an attorney means time logged on the road, a reality that is tough to bear as gas prices have climbed higher.

South Carolina lawyers are dealing with the rising costs by consolidating appointments into one trip and, in some cases, picking up clients when they don’t have the money to make the drive.

And much of the time, attorneys just grin and bear the higher bills.

“The demands are what they are, and it’s one of those things where we’re just eating the costs,” said Joel Hamilton, an associate at Schiller Law Firm in Rock Hill. “I work quite a bit in our Lancaster office (about 60 miles round-trip) as well, so it’s more expensive for me, no question about that.”

Law is a profession in which face-to-face interaction with clients is prized. Gas prices have kept clients from coming to see him, said Mark Josephs, who practices with his brother in Loris. So he goes and visits them.

“We’ll go to the hospital or their home, wherever they’re at,” said Josephs, whose firm handles many personal injury and car accident cases. “They just don’t have the gas money to get to court. When people have bad injuries, they already have trouble getting to the doctor, and they value having a little bit of money in their pockets more than they value actually getting care, which is ridiculous.”

At Elrod Pope Law Firm in Rock Hill, gas prices have made the firm think more carefully about how it sends out its runners, said Chris Forbis, office manager. In the past, the firm didn’t think twice about sending people out to hand-deliver letters, he said. Now it’s more strategic, and plans are made for runners to combine several deliveries into one outing.

That’s becoming more important, he said, as gas hovers around $3.50, or more for premium.

“It hasn’t been a major impact on our business, but we definitely feel the squeeze. The travel rates are 51 cents a mile now, and it was 41 cents a mile when I started here a few years ago,” Forbis said, noting the increase in the IRS business mileage rates.

Runners are reimbursed for all firm-related travel, he said. Attorneys are reimbursed at the same rate, he said, but tend not to claim the miles unless they go out of the county.

Separately, Elrod Pope Law Firm had embarked on a plan to use more email and data transfer in its communication. That effort, though it takes some getting used to, has meant saved dollars when they’re needed the most, Forbis said.

However, some parts of practicing law are never going to fit today’s technology. His firm’s attorney of counsel, Charles B. Ridley Jr., probably spends the most time on the road meeting disputing parties, Forbis said.

“With mediation, you need to bring all the parties together in one room, but I think they make more effort to meet in a place closer to him to minimize some of his travel, and costs play a role in that decision,” he said.

R. Scott Joye, a partner in Joye, Nappier and Risher, LLC, in Murrells Inlet, said he has already been in the habit of catching multiple people on his trips, which include Horry and Georgetown counties, as well as federal work that takes him to Florence and Charleston. His county travels are 25 miles one way, and each federal one-way trip is 90 miles. That adds up, he said, but he hasn’t altered his life significantly.

“My job description didn’t change at all with the price of gasoline,” Joye said. “I’m probably not the greatest when it comes to the penny-pinching aspect of law, but I do think we may have to be more efficient as lawyers. But I think we do need to make sure that we don’t shortchange our clients when we’re worried about the price of fuel.”

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