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Lawyer runs practice out of his barber shop in Conn.

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POSTED September 8, 2013 7:32 p.m.

NEW BRITAIN, Conn. (AP) — Donald E. Howard II had no trouble passing the state’s bar exam in 2012, but he hasn’t yet gone after his barber’s license.

That means Howard, who cut hair throughout college in Mississippi and law school in Wyoming, can’t cut hair at his barbershop Legal Cuts in New Britain. But he can give legal advice at his mahogany desk in the back room.

A Chicago native, Howard bounced through Mississippi and Georgia before moving to Wyoming and then Connecticut in 2011. He opened his hybrid barber and legal shop in April near the courthouse downtown.

Inside the storefront at 93 Main St. are pale gray walls and four barber chairs flanked by full-length mirrors. Howard meets clients beyond a gray archway at the back of the shop. A sign, Howard Law Firm, designates the space. A whiteboard hangs on the wall, listing flat fee legal services in black marker: $4 a page for notarizing documents, $75 to file court documents, $150 for a will, $795 for a first drunken driving offense.

Howard said his inspiration came from Legal Grind, a coffee shop that offers legal advice over lattes in Santa Monica, Calif. He’s never been there, but heard about it and liked the concept. Rather than a stark and imposing law office, Howard said, his barbershop exudes comfort, a place where clients can be at ease.

“People trust their barbers,” Howard said. “It seemed like the perfect idea to put them together.”

Barbershop customers chat about needing to work out how to pay child support or how to open their own business, or even just ask questions about daily news. Howard said his legal knowledge can help them, even if they aren’t coming for legal services. He said he explained stand your ground laws when George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch member in Florida who shot and killed Trayvon Martin, was on trial.

“The barbershop in my opinion has always been somewhere where you learn about the community. It was a way for me to mentor people, to mentor kids or anyone who needs help,” he said.

Leslie Levin, associate dean for academic affairs and professor at UConn Law School, said the concept of lawyers mixing real other businesses with legal services isn’t new, but those business often involve real estate or lobbying.

“It’s enterprising,” she said of Howard’s business. “I give him credit for trying to build a business that way.”

Levin said there should be no legal or ethical problems as long as Howard is not in partnership with barbers in sharing profits from law or paying them to refer business to him. Howard said he set up the businesses as Legal Cuts and Howard Law Firm to keep the two separate.

Howard works full time for the Superior Courts as a public defender and as a clerk in Rockville Superior Court. On a recent day, while working on a case in New Britain Superior Court, he stopped in at the barbershop at lunchtime to greet customers. Howard said he tries to swing in at least twice a week and then spends his weekends there cleaning up and tending to business.

Wednesday evening, as soon as his sole legal client left, Howard set to work cleaning the bathroom and taking out the trash.

“I’m not making the money I want to make yet, it is still budding,” he said.

His rates aren’t cut rate, but reasonable.

“The biggest thing I have learned working at the courthouse is people say they have to miss work to file papers,” Howard said.

To help fill that niche he has a collection of all the most common forms you would find at the court service center at the back of the shop: custody applications, foreclosure worksheets, eviction papers, small claims forms.

Howard said he will help clients fill out the forms for free and then charge them $75 to take them to the courthouse and file them on time so the client doesn’t have to miss work. “You come, I help you draft it, you pay me to deliver it to the court for you,” he said.

In California, Jeffrey Hughes, who founded Legal Grind in 1996, said his business was not meant to make a novelty out of practicing law, but to grow accessibility.

“I was trying to figure out a way to use my law degree without actually practicing law,” Hughes said.

When he opened Hughes worked alone, but seven other attorneys soon offered to help. Now more than 20 attorneys are a part of a referral service.

Hughes said he has changed his business model recently and after renovating his office he doesn’t plan to serve food — its reputation is enough to get customers through the door.

“Legal Grind has got a great reputation as an actual resource center where people can find affordable legal expertise,” Hughes said.

According to Legal Grind’s website, a 20-minute consultation costs $45.

Mark Dubois, president-elect of the Connecticut Bar Association and a practicing attorney of 36 years, said he sees Howard’s venture as a viable.

“One of the challenges for lawyers is to figure out how to make themselves and all their services accessible to the public,” said Dubois, of Haddam. “In England you can go to the equivalent of a Wal-Mart and there are lawyers, just like they have banks in stores.”

Dubois said he doubts there are many lawyers who had a vision of practicing in a barber shop, “but the smart ones realize that they have got to find a new way of doing things.”

As for the barber’s license, Howard said he may start night school so he can cut hair himself and give advice sometimes out front. He’s got a few years before he’ll need it.

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