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Tripped up

To beat inflated gas prices, lawyers opt for smaller vehicles, search for bargains, pick up telephones

April Wilkerson//June 10, 2011//

Tripped up

To beat inflated gas prices, lawyers opt for smaller vehicles, search for bargains, pick up telephones

April Wilkerson//June 10, 2011//

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In 1972, when he began practicing law, Michael Kemp drove a 1972 Monte Carlo, paid 35 cents a gallon for gas and felt like king of the hill.

Today, the Mount Holly attorney gets around in a Honda Accord and pays at least $3.35 a gallon for gas. The rising price of fuel has taken its toll on attorneys, particularly those who must travel to multiple courthouses, and many have adjusted their driving habits and vehicles to compensate.

“We all have cars that get a lot better gas mileage than they did when I started practicing law because nobody thought about it then,” Kemp said.

Kemp hasn’t been hit as hard by gas prices as others have – he lives a mile from his office and 15 minutes from the courthouse – but he knows that others are hurting.

Some attorneys have come up with creative solutions to their gas cost woes. Andy Neisler, who practices in King’s Mountain, occasionally makes the six-mile hop across the state line to Grover, S.C., on his way to the county courthouse in Shelby. On the south side of the Carolinas, gas is always 10 cents to 15 cents cheaper, he said.

“I had never done that before, but it finally works out to your benefit,” he said.

He also represents convenience stores owners, who sometimes let him know about their introductory low-price promotions.

“One guy goes 20 cents under what anybody else is selling it for,” he said.

Beyond those options, Neisler thinks more carefully about how he organizes his trips, he said. If he can push back an appointment to a day when he is already headed in that direction, he opts to do that.

Often, the choice to move an appointment just isn’t there. R. Keith Johnson, a bankruptcy specialist based in Stanley, in southeast Lincoln County, helps clients in a wide jurisdiction. The U.S. Bankruptcy Court, Western District of North Carolina, has divisions in Charlotte, Wilkesboro, Shelby and Asheville. Depending on where the bankruptcy case is filed, Johnson finds himself on the road for the proceedings in one of those cities.

“I moved my office (to Stanley) in January 2008 from Charlotte, and to be frank, I’m driving a hell of a lot more than I thought I would,” he said. “I’m going to all of those different places. It’s just increased my costs. Since these are trips to court, I have to go when the court says I have to be there.”

With other costs going up, from utilities to copier maintenance to health insurance, Johnson said he’s feeling the pain. He switched to a more fuel-efficient car, a Honda Element, which helps.

“The operating costs on it are a lot less than those fancy cars,” he said. “It serves the purpose; it gets me where I need to go. And I’m old enough that my ego is not a problem.”

Gas prices and the troubled economy have affected the Elizabeth City firm of Teague and Glover in several ways. Attorney Danny Glover said his firm’s jurisdiction covers seven counties and a big expanse because it encompasses the Outer Banks.

Lawyers in the firm still make the trek to Manteo, Edenton or Gatesville as necessary, but they have tried to do more initial consultations by phone. That’s more for the benefit of clients, who have a hard time making the trip to see them.

Many of the firm’s clients are tourists who may need help if they have an accident or get in trouble, Glover said. Those clients too have difficulty making it back after their vacations, especially if they live out of state. A misdemeanor or a driving-while-impaired charge often means up to six trips to court.

But the economy has played a role in that client base as well: People are vacationing less, and his firm has seen fewer tourist clients, Glover said.

No matter how they’re dealing with high gas prices, attorneys agree on one thing: They can’t pass along the costs to their clients.

“It’s not even practical to try to pass that on,” Glover said. “People can hardly afford attorneys as it is, much less if attorney fees go up because of gas.”

Johnson agrees, particularly for his clientele.

“You can’t just raise your prices – most people who file bankruptcy, by definition, don’t have a lot of money,” he said. “You can’t say, ‘I’m going to charge you another $200 because it costs a lot for the gas.'”

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