California, Illinois, New Mexico, and Utah are all considering legislative changes that would allow non-lawyers to practice law and own law firms. The feeling behind these trade deals is that they will open up access to legal services to people who could not normally afford them. But research shows that the practice does not actually improve access to legal representation for disadvantaged people in jurisdictions where it is allowed.
The District of Columbia, Australia, and the United Kingdom have rules that currently allow ownership of such law firms, but a recent study found that these alternative business structures did not provide any measurable improvement in access to legal services for poor and low-income populations. Frankly, there is little evidence that reforms to non-lawyer law firm ownership, fee sharing and entity regulation, if implemented, would increase access to justice in jurisdictions. States considering it.
Legal work should be monitored
One of the biggest problems with non-lawyer firms is that they have little or no oversight to make sure their clients and the public are protected, while lawyers have to respond to questions. various state bar licensing bodies. Instead, I see these profit-driven businesses with little to no consumer protection.
Throughout history there have been a number of initiatives promoted to help underserved communities which have had unintended consequences. For example, payday loans were positioned as a pro-consumer product that required less regulation and oversight to allow access to loans to people who traditionally could not access lenders. Today, the payday loan industry is regularly denounced by consumer advocates as predatory and abusive.
Without the same oversight that lawyers, large corporations, large accounting firms, and tech companies could tailor legal services to the people and entities most likely to minimize investment risk while avoiding the expense incurred through traditional legal providers. Reigning in large corporations and tech companies has already proven difficult due to their size and influence – empowering them to provide legal services will only increase the difficulty.
Pro bono work could suffer
The volunteer work that most law firms currently subsidize could also be at risk, as entities not owned by lawyers would have little or no incentive to continue the practice, as they would not be subject to the same state licenses. and ethical standards as lawyers. Currently, most law firms subsidize the pro bono work of their lawyers by allowing or even requiring lawyers to meet their billable requirements through pro bono representation of disadvantaged clients. In addition, some states follow lawyers pro bono work to encourage lawyers to perform pro bono work.
Entities not owned by lawyers would have little incentive to do so, as they would not be subject to the same ethical and professional standards to which members of the various state bars are subject. Combine this with reduced market share for traditional law firms that would have to compete with those non-lawyer firms, and the pro bono work that actually makes a difference in providing legal services to disadvantaged people could be at serious risk. .
As a result, DRI draws a line in the sand on this issue: If we allow non-lawyers to practice law, the separation between business and client protection disappears. Customers will suffer; the justice system as a whole will suffer.
Dean Martinez is CEO of DRI (www.dri.org), the leading organization of defense lawyers and in-house legal advisers.