Written by Tom Gordon
Responsive Law has just released its Report Card on Barriers to Affordable Legal Help. The report card grades all 50 states and the District of Columbia on how their regulations regarding the practice of law restrict consumer access to the legal system. Unfortunately, the news is not good, with no state receiving a grade higher than a C.
The report card graded three areas:
Barriers to Affordable Lawyer Help
The first area the report card graded was Barriers to Affordable Lawyer Help.
Non-Lawyer Ownership of Law Firms
Most of this grade was determined by whether the state allows non-lawyer ownership. Non-lawyer ownership of law practices would allow innovation and economies of scale that don't exist in the current law firm model. Nearly all consumer law firms—those that offer services in areas such as estate planning, family law, housing, employment, and consumer disputes—consist of fewer than ten lawyers. At this scale, legal services are still very individualized. Furthermore, lawyers in such a small firm have to spend much of their time on marketing and management, rather than on the practice of law.
Allowing non-lawyer ownership would permit the creation of mass-market consumer law firms that could use their scale to mechanize much of the most common legal work. They could also keep lawyers out of both rote legal matters and management and marketing, reserving their high-cost labor for legal oversight and review and for thornier legal questions. All of this would significantly reduce the price of a lawyer.
Unfortunately, with only a couple of very minor exceptions, non-lawyers are not allowed to have an ownership interest in a law firm in the U.S. On the other hand, in England and Australia, non-lawyer ownership is permitted and regulated to protect consumers from any potentially adverse impact on clients. As a result, people in those countries have access to a wider range of reasonably-priced consumer legal services, on Main Street or in the mall.
Other Regulations Affecting Affordable Lawyer Help
The other areas making up the Barriers to Affordable Lawyer Help grade were what type of advertising restrictions are placed on lawyers, whether consumers can hire lawyers from other states, and whether consumers are allowed to use "unbundled" legal services (hiring a lawyer for just part of their legal matter).
Restrictions on lawyer advertising often leave consumers with limited ways to find out about lawyer services. In a Yelp economy, they leave consumers stuck with an archaic model where the bar's recommended way to find a lawyer was to ask for a referral from a friend at the country club.
Restrictions on multijurisdictional practice unnecessarily restrict consumers' options based on an outdated notion that being admitted to the bar in a state has a high correlation with knowledge of that state's law. In a national economy where much of the law is identical from state to state—and where lawyers' skill is as much in finding the law as in knowing it off the top of their heads—it's irrational to prevent a Tennessee lawyer from handling a legal matter in New Jersey, particularly if the Tennessee lawyer is an expert in the particular area of law at issue. Canada has taken a much more progressive approach to multijurisdictional practice by adopting a National Mobility Compact, which allows a lawyer admitted to practice in one province to practice fairly easily in another province.
One area that most states do fairly well in is in allowing limited scope, or "unbundled" legal services. For example, in most states, a person can prepare their own documents for a court appearance while hiring a lawyer just to represent them in court. Our report card analyzed whether states provided enough assurance to lawyers that they could offer these unbundled services without getting dragged into representing the client on a wider basis. Fear of getting dragged beyond the agreed-upon scope of representation is one of the reasons lawyers don't offer unbundled services more frequently.
Because of the great weight given to whether states allow non-lawyer ownership of law firms, almost every jurisdiction received a grade of D. (The lone exception was the District of Columbia, which allows non-lawyer ownership under extremely limited circumstances, and which received a C.) If England and Australia were states, they would have received grades of A due to their more progressive approach to non-lawyer ownership.
Barriers to Affordable Non-Lawyer Help
The second area the report card graded was Barriers to Affordable Non-Lawyer Help. In other words, does the state allow consumers to use service providers other than lawyers to help them with matters that may be considered legal in nature?
Laws Restricting Non-Lawyer Help and Enforcement of Those Laws
First, we analyzed what the state's law says about the types of services that require a lawyer. Specifically, we looked at various ways in which competent non-lawyers could provide help (such as document preparation, financial advice, real estate closings, contract negotiations, and free advice from friends and family) and researched whether state law allowed or prohibited people from getting non-lawyer help for such activities. State laws range from draconian prohibitions to ambiguity, with few laws specifically allowing non-lawyer activity. The ambiguity in these laws is almost as bad as a prohibition, as a service provider is unlikely to offer a service that exists in a legal gray area.
Second, we analyzed the level of enforcement of unauthorized practice of law (UPL) restrictions. In other words, how often does the state prosecute this offense, what resources do they put towards prosecutions, and who is doing the prosecuting? States in which the attorney general has sole responsibility for prosecuting UPL were graded more harshly than those in which the state bar plays a significant role. In the former situation, UPL prosecutions are more likely to be undertaken in the public interest; in the latter they are more likely to be undertaken for anticompetitive reasons.
Grades in this area ranged from a B for Washington and 16 other states to an F for Florida, North Carolina, and Ohio. Washington is noteworthy in that it has just issued the first licenses for limited license legal technicians, or LLLTs. LLLTs are individuals with paralegal training who are licensed by the state to provide information and advice in family law matters, akin to the role of a nurse practitioner in medicine.
The states with the lowest grades earned them on the basis of overly aggressive UPL enforcement by the bar. For example, Florida has a $1.8 million budget for UPL enforcement that it has used for activities such as pursuing charges against a senior citizen who helped a fellow parishioner complete workers compensation forms.
Again, the low grades that most states received stand in stark comparison to more consumer-friendly countries. England, which licenses a wide range of non-lawyer service providers, would have received an A in this category. Australia would have ranked behind only Washington.
Treatment of Self-Represented Litigants
The third area the report card graded was court treatment of self-represented litigants. In other words, we wanted to know how easy it was for people to resolve disputes without a lawyer. We based grades in this area on the Justice Index, published by the National Center for Access to Justice at Fordham Law School. This grade took into account whether court forms and procedures are understandable to the average person, whether judges and court staff are trained to assist self-represented litigants, and whether courts have internal processes to monitor and review their treatment of such litigants. Hawaii was first in this category with an A grade; Mississippi was last with an F.
State Bars Have Yet To Comply with the Supreme Court's Dental Examiners Decision
Most of the obstacles to better access to the legal system stem from the fact that state bars frequently create rules governing the delivery of legal services without adequate oversight from the elected branches of government. When any group of professionals sets its own governing rules for the profession, its tendency is to favor itself at the expense of outsiders. Thus, established lawyers are likely to set rules that favor lawyers operating according to the status quo over outsider lawyers who may have revolutionary ideas about how to innovate the profession. And lawyers are likely to set rules that block competition from non-lawyers, no matter how competent their services and how much the public needs them.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled earlier this year in North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners v. FTC that professionals are not exempt from antitrust laws when they act without adequate oversight to limit competition. We hope that our report card will shine some light on state bars' continued reluctance to adhere to this principle. We also hope that it will demonstrate the desperate need of most Americans for affordable legal help and the failure of the organized bar to allow them to receive it.
Tom Gordon is Executive Director of Responsive Law.