There are over a million lawyers in the United States, yet paradoxically the cost of a lawyer is more than most people can afford. There are a number of policy changes that could allow those with legal needs to hire a lawyer at an affordable rate.
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(This is often referred to as “unbundling” or “limited scope representation.”)
Lots of people get upset by cable company charging them for a large bundle of channels when they would rather pay for just the channels they watch. A similar problem exists with lawyers.
Lawyers will often only represent a client for a large bundle of legal services, rather than agreeing to work on discrete tasks. However, many clients can’t afford to pay to have a lawyer take on a large matter, and would rather pay a lawyer just for the services they need the most, while taking care of other parts of their case by themselves. For example, a couple going through an uncontested divorce might want an attorney to draft a custody agreement, but be content to draft a division of property on their own using self-help forms.
Unbundling legal services can save clients money by allowing them only to pay a lawyer for the services they need. At the same time, lawyers who provide unbundled services can gain clients who would not have been able to afford them for full representation, but can afford to pay for partial representation.
Unfortunately, many states have lawyer ethics rules that make it difficult for lawyers to provide unbundled services. Responsive Law has fought for clearer rules around unbundling so that more lawyers can provide this cost-saving service to their clients.
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Over the last few decades, people’s lives have become more interconnected with other people and businesses around the country. Increasingly, people travel around the country, own property in other states, and do business with companies thousands of miles away. Yet, in an age of e-commerce and affordable air travel, the legal profession has retained a governing structure that is a relic from the early days of automobiles.
Most states make it very difficult for a person to get services from a lawyer based elsewhere. For example, a person in Virginia who owns a rental property in Florida may not be allowed to get advice about the rental property from a lawyer in Virginia unless that lawyer is admitted to the Florida bar. However, Virginia may not allow Florida lawyers to provide services to people in Virginia unless those lawyers are members of the Virginia bar. If you think that’s confusing, imagine the trouble that clients and lawyers have to go to in finding a lawyer who can serve them on issues like this!
States and bar associations need to make it easier for lawyers to practice across state lines. Once they’ve been admitted to the bar in one state, the only restrictions on practicing should be ones that protect consumers by ensuring that the lawyer is subject to state disciplinary authorities and by ensuring that the lawyer understands the state’s court procedures and ethics rules. Any other restrictions serve only to protect lawyers who are already practicing in the state from competition.
In most service industries, someone with a great idea on how to provide better services to customers can get help from outside investors to help turn their ideas into reality. The person with a great business idea doesn’t have to have money to launch a new service.
In law, prohibitions against lawyers sharing profits with non-lawyers prevent outside investment, inhibiting the growth of new service models that are needed for people to get affordable legal help.
There are numerous lawyers and non-lawyers who have ideas for improving the way legal services are delivered but lack access to sufficient capital to implement them. Without outside investment, Henry Ford would have been limited to producing a few Model Ts and FedEx would be operating a mom-and-pop delivery service out of Memphis.
An increasing number of law students are graduating with massive debt and no job prospects. Paradoxically, the glut of licensed lawyers has not led to more affordable legal services. Newly-minted lawyers have neither the skills nor the financial ability to provide legal services at rates that the middle class can afford. This leaves millions of Americans without assistance when facing common legal matters such as foreclosure, employment disputes, divorce, or creating a will.
Reducing the cost of the legal education required to serve customers would help lower the cost of legal services. This could take place in a couple of ways. The obvious one is that lowering the cost of a J.D. would allow recent law graduates to provide affordable services while still paying off their educational debt. A more innovative approach would allow limited licensure of people with fewer years of formal legal education. For example, a state could grant a license to perform simpler legal tasks based on testing and one or two years of law school. Or lawyers could be licensed to practice only in a specific field after taking the first-year legal curriculum plus a semester or two of course work in that area.
Although many people decry obnoxious advertisements on television, radio, or online, advertising is a valuable way for people to get information about products and services they might need. Legal services are no exception.
While people who most frequently use the legal system and who can afford high-priced lawyers can get lawyer recommendations from a friend or business associate, the rest of us have to rely on the same tools we use to find service providers in other professions. These tools include advertising and online recommendation sites.
Although outright bans on lawyer advertising were struck down by the Supreme Court in 1977, the legal profession continues to place broad restrictions on lawyer advertising. As new technology develops, the profession has been slow to catch up, often proposing impossible-to-follow rules governing the content of websites or other dynamic media.
Lawyers should not be restricted in their ability to provide truthful information to potential clients. The more information that consumers can gather about lawyers when they’re trying to decide whom to hire, the better they’ll be able to select a lawyer who is right for them.