Legal Road Work: Driving Accessible, Affordable and Legal Ingenuity To You
Santa Barbara News-Press Features the Mobile Law Center as its Life Section Headliner
Lawyer on the go
Attorney brings his Mobile Law Center to Santa Barbara
“August 2, 2017 12:56 AM
Stephen Stern drives an American classic — a 1978 Airstream Argosy.
Sunlight reflects off the silver, aluminum motor home, and passers-by smile upon seeing the airplane-like body when it’s parked. One time, tourists surrounded the vehicle at a Morro Bay gas station and took photos.
But Mr. Stern’s 24-foot-long Airstream is more than a piece of Americana. Look inside.
It’s a law office.
A copier/printer is on a counter next to a short bookcase filled with law books. Mr. Stern, a Shell Beach attorney, has Wi-Fi and a laptop. He sits behind a small, white, curved desk in a room filled with natural light streaming in from the windows. The environment is casual and welcoming, and Mr. Stern said that’s the idea.
“After 18 years of practicing law, I just realized there’s a void of people needing legal help who couldn’t afford it or were intimidated by it. There was a population that was not being served or was being underserved,” the lawyer told the News-Press recently as he sat in the driver’s seat. Casually dressed — in a nice shirt, slacks and hat, but no suit — Mr. Stern made a stop in the newspaper’s lot before traveling to Ventura for a day of what he considers to be affordable consultations on Main Street.
He will park his Mobile Law Center from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Thursday in a Cabrillo Boulevard parking lot near East Beach.
He charges $45 for a 20-minute consultation and $90 for 40 minutes. RSVPs are recommended.
“There’s a segment of the population that can’t afford $300 an hour,” he said, referring to a more typical lawyer’s fee.
“For $45, they can sleep at night,” said Mr. Stern, who teaches business law part-time as an adjunct professor at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.
In his research, he has found no other private lawyer practicing law in a traveling motor home in the U.S. There was a niche he felt he could fill, and he started his mobile law center earlier this year.
“The whole concept was accessibility, to reach populations that may not have transportation. Some people can’t leave their home. I can go there. I can go to their neighborhood,” said Mr. Stern, who periodically makes stops in Santa Barbara, Ventura and San Luis Obispo counties. “Or I can go to an area of town that’s easy for them to reach.”
He parked in April and May outside the courthouse in Santa Maria, in May at the courthouse on Anacapa Street in Santa Barbara and in June at a Santa Barbara beach.
Mr. Stern, who closed his brick-and-mortar office that specialized in business law in San Luis Obispo at the end of last year, said he typically sees a half-dozen or so clients per visit.
He said they typically ask him about wills, trusts and debt, including student loans, and he explained the advice he gives them in 20 minutes is usually enough to help. “I give them background and options and instructions on how to take care of the issues themselves.”
Some clients call him later for follow-up help.
He said his Mobile Law Center clients tend to be in lower-class to middle-class incomes and that people find his office less intimidating than the usual setting.
“We’re out on the street. We’re with society, in the middle of it,” Mr. Stern said. “We’re not in some penthouse office with a waiting room and formalities, and everybody’s dressed a certain way. … I think there’s a disarming of the stress that is related to dealing with legal issues in a formal setting.”
Mr. Stern said people are surprised when they see his Mobile Law Center. “I get, ‘This is the greatest thing. I can’t believe someone is doing this!'”
The Mobile Law Center is the latest stop on the road for Mr. Stern’s career.
“My whole family’s in law: sisters, cousins. There’s a family tree of lawyers,” the West Orange, N.J., native said. “I tried to rebel against it, so I went into journalism.”
He earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff in 1985. Afterward, he wrote for in-house publications at a Redondo Beach finance company before returning to Northern Arizona University, where he worked in the media relations office, taught journalism classes and became an assistant to the university president.
Ironically, his interest in journalism led him to law.
“I got hooked with the freedom of media rights,” said Mr. Stern, who earned a master’s degree in education at Northern Arizona in 1992. “That led me to the First Amendment, which sucked me into the legal world I was trying to avoid.”
He earned a law degree at Washburn University in Topeka, Kan., in 1998.
He practiced law in Flagstaff, then moved to Shell Beach in 2002 and started his law practice in San Luis Obispo.
He felt the time was right to give back. He closed his brick-and-mortar office last year after realizing he had built his flow of clients and that he could serve them and others with a mobile office.
“I didn’t enter the practice of law to become rich. It’s about helping people,” Mr. Stern said.
He said he doesn’t believe there are enough organizations or government agencies to help people needing affordable legal consultations.
When Mr. Stern made plans for his Mobile Law Center, he considered a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter but thought the luxury van wouldn’t portray him as an affordable lawyer.
He finally settled on an Airstream Argosy as the right symbol.
“It was a little like me — older, and it had some history,” Mr. Stern said with a chuckle.
He bought the Airstream from a woman in Los Oso. He had the interior remodeled into an office by Innovative Spaces in Santa Barbara.
Mr. Stern said he paid about $70,000 for the purchase, renovation and other work but kept vintage features such as an eight-track player.
“I still have the eight-track tape that was in there. It’s by the Village People, he said.
He sings along to classic rock bands such as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers as he drives his American classic.
The Mobile Law Center logo, created by a San Luis Obispo designer, prominently features a drawing of the Airstream. A San Luis Obispo signage company attached the vinyl logo to the motor home.
Mr. Stern said some people are interested in his Mobile Law Center mainly because it’s an Airstream Argosy. “They appreciate it. They know the history.”
Airstreams continue to have a cult following today. Mr. Stern said he plans to enter his Mobile Law Center in an Airstream show next year in Pismo Beach.
“There’s a whole culture attached to Airstreams.”
email: email@example.com IF YOU GO
Stephen Stern will park his Mobile Law Center from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Thursday in a Cabrillo Boulevard parking lot near East Beach. Consultations cost $45 for 20 minutes and $90 for 40 minutes.
For an appointment, call Mr. Stern at 543-LAWS(5297). For more information, go to www.mobilelawcenter.com.”
DAVE MASON, NEWS-PRESS STAFF WRITER