In November 2014, the California State Bar Board of Trustees approved the creation and appointment of the Civil Justice Strategies Task Force. The charge of the task force was to analyze the reasons for the state’s justice gap: the conundrum of how there are so many lawyers yet so many Americans have unmet legal needs and cannot afford or access legal help. Specifically, the task force intended to study creative solutions and innovative strategies in use by other states and other countries that have the potential to greatly improve access to justice in California.
Responsive Law sent an array of innovative and creative solutions to the Civil Justice Strategies Task Force. We advised the task force to allow for alternative business structures to address the justice gap. Alternative business structures entail permitting outside investors to provide capital to legal service companies or allowing non-legal companies to partner and share fees with a legal organization. Both the United Kingdom and Australia have allowed legal entities to accept outside investment from non-lawyers; yet no state in the U.S has done so due to unfounded concerns that outside investment will lead to an increase in unethical violations by lawyers.
We specifically recommended that California allow outside investments in the growing number of legal startups that already exist in their state. We highlighted the fact that pro-bono services and legal aid literally do not have the capacity to provide even half of the unmet need for legal services. Thus, California needs to invest in creating a larger array of affordable legal services via outside investment in legal startups.
We also recommended allowing more non-lawyers to provide legal help to consumers. We cited the launch of limited license legal technicians (a regulated profession of non-lawyers who provide document preparation and other legal assistance) in Washington state. We also recommended the proven strategy of limiting the breadth of unauthorized practice of law claims (UPL). Research has shown that UPL cases are brought mostly by lawyers, for anti-competitive reasons, as opposed to a dissatisfied customer. As Responsive Law has noted before, such aggressive UPL enforcement chills legal innovation. Specifically we proposed that the task force create a safe harbor provision for document preparation similar to the one in Texas that has helped to provide many Texans with access to self-help tools. We also encouraged the task force to again look to the United Kingdom where non-lawyers referred to as McKenzie friends have operated for the past 50 years providing court navigation help, moral support, case paper management and advice on courtroom conduct for free or for a small fee.
Lastly, we encouraged the task force to take the lead (as opposed to waiting for other states) by launching a compact with other states to allow for multi-jurisdictional practice similar to what exists in Canada. In Canada, a lawyer can practice in any province; allowing multi-jurisdictional practice allows for greater competition in the provision legal services and more lawyers and law firms to reach economies of scale. Thus the strategy of multi-jurisdictional practice could provide Californians with unprecedented access to lawyers. We believe California is off to a good start of addressing their growing access to justice gap; the strategies and solutions we have recommended will supercharge California’s potential to actually close the justice gap.
You can read our comments to the California Bar here.
As we reported previously, Responsive Law joined in an amicus brief in the U.S. Supreme Court case of North Carolina Board of Dental Examiners v. Federal Trade Commission (hereinafter referred to as the Dental Examiners case). In the amicus brief, we brought to the Supreme Court’s attention the access to justice gap in America that is caused by over-regulation of the legal market and high barriers to entry that benefit lawyers at the expense of the public interest. We encouraged the Court to rule in favor of the FTC to ensure that regulations protect consumers, not market participants. The decision, handed down on Feb 25th, 2015, did just that
In the Dental Examiners decision, the Supreme Court opinion that state regulatory agencies, if controlled by members of the professions they oversee and operating without any active supervision by the state, violate antitrust laws. The defendants in the Dental Examiners case were not lawyers. They were dentists. The Supreme Court recognized that allowing any body of professionals to regulate themselves creates a tangible threat of antitrust violations by acting in ways that further their own interests. In the realm of the law we have seen that state bars’ enforcement of unauthorized practice of law restrictions increases prices to the detriment of consumers while decreasing consumer choice.
State supreme court oversight is an improvement over no oversight at all, but for the oversight to be most effective, it needs to come from the elected branches of government. The legislative and executive branches are best positioned to provide oversight over these agencies so that they are not policing themselves. Nevertheless, the decision, as we hoped, is already having broader ramifications on the legal profession.
As reported in the Michigan Law Journal, a number of state bars are currently working with their legislatures and state attorneys to analyze if they are in compliance with the Dental Examiners decision. Currently, the North Carolina legislature is considering a bill that would further define the practice of law and establish a method of active supervision. The bill would additionally establish the attorney general, as opposed to the state bar, as the body that must first respond to unauthorized practice of law claims. Other states have plans to create an “umbrella authority” over their regulatory and licensing boards as a mechanism to comply specifically with the “active supervision” requirement.
In contrast, the State Bar of Michigan believes that it already has safeguards in place to avoid an antitrust claim; specifically they claim that their regulations are drastically different from the regulation described in the Dental Examiners decision. The Michigan bar argues that, for starters, it has limited statutory authority to investigate and prosecute unauthorized practice of law allegations. Additionally, its limited investigation and prosecution power are currently supervised by the Michigan Supreme Court. Lastly, Michigan claims that their enforcement of unauthorized practice of law claims only happen through the judicial process where those who are accused of violating the UPL have due process rights afforded to them. But not everyone in Michigan believes that the State Bar is in compliance with the Dental Examiners decision. Some note that Michigan does not currently have in place the “active supervision” necessary to comply with the Dental Examiners decision. Additionally, Michigan also lacks a formal definition that clearly articulates what the practice of law is. Neither the Supreme Court of Michigan nor the Michigan legislature has provided a clear definition of the practice of law.
State bars are not the only entities responding to the Dental Examiners case. Public interest organizations are also jumping into action to put pressure on states to comply with the decision. Three public interest consumer organizations have called on all 50 state attorneys general to enforce the high court’s ruling. These organizations have even specifically referenced enforcement within the legal profession by stating the following in their letter:
“[S]tate bars, now comprise majorities — even supermajorities — of licensed professionals in the very economic tribal grouping with an economic interest in restraints of trade benefiting them… State bars controlled by attorneys rarely discipline for excessive billing or intellectual dishonesty…Few require any demonstration whatever of competence in the actual practice area of law relied upon by clients. Few require malpractice insurance, or in any way ameliorate the harm from attorney incompetence. The point is, each of the many agencies within your state is empowered to carve out momentous exceptions from federal antitrust law, and those decisions in particular require a level of independence from the implicit focus of current practitioners.”
Responsive Law is very excited about the developments made so far; we will continue to monitor these developments and push for real oversight of the legal industry that makes it responsive to the people, not only to itself.
The World Justice Project has released its 2015 Rule of Law Index, a comprehensive ranking of countries based on how their public experiences the rule of law. We've reported on the Rule of Law Index before, and sadly the story remains the same for the United States. While we rank among the world's leaders in most areas, we continue to bring up the rear among our peers in accessiblity and affordability of civil justice.
The WJP rated countries on 44 factors across eight categories, including open government, absence of corruption, civil justice, and criminal justice. The U.S. was ranked 19th of 102 countries overall, and was in the middle of the pack overall among its geographic and income-level peers. However, the story is very different when it comes to the Civil Justice category of "Accessiblity and affordability." Here, the U.S. was in a tie for 65th with countries including Pakistan, Tanzania, and Uzbekistan.
When compared to its peer countries for accessibility an affordability, the U.S. is even more dismal. We were next to last among 31 high income countries, narrowly edging out the United Arab Emirates to avoid a dead-last raniking. Even among upper-middle income countries, only four of 31 scored lower than the U.S. in this category. And our score in this category was far below any other country in North America and Western Europe.
What's most disappointing about the U.S.'s low ranking is that it comes despite our relative prosperity. For Americans of average means, legal help is less available than it is for those of average means in far poorer countries. This isn't due to a shortage of lawyers, but due to the inability of the American system to match people who need help with those who can provide it, brought on by the economic protectionism of bar associations. Eliminating antiquated rules that prevent mass-market consumer legal services—doing for legal help what H&R Block does for taxes—is one way to fix this problem. Rolling back restrictions on the unauthorized practice of law—allowing competent non-lawyers to provide basic legal assistance—is another. Reforming these areas is a must if the U.S. wants a justice system more accesible than that of an impoverished nation.
Currently, California is one of the many states in this country that has issues providing access to adequate and affordable legal services. Legal document assistants, or “LDAs”, assist self-representing parties in preparing legal documents. They help to reduce the issue of expensive or inaccessible legal representation, as they can act to provide limited legal assistance to parties that either do not need to hire an attorney or cannot afford to do so.
The problem remains, however, that LDAs are encumbered by regulations that burden their work: specifically, LDAs must register in each separate county they provide services in. The process of registering in each county becomes expensive, and the consumer ultimately winds up subsidizing the incurred costs. This regulation is also problematic in that it deters LDAs from offering their services in multiple counties, which restricts consumers’ access to this service. Moreover, these regulations are purposeless; they do not serve to protect the consumer.
Responsive Law’s recently submitted testimony in support of California Assembly Bill 285, which would eliminate this burden, thus facilitating greater consumer choice among LDAs. The provision of AB 285 that will be most helpful to consumers provides for statewide—as opposed to county-by-county—registration for LDAs. Not only would AB 285 eliminate this costly and time-consuming limitation on LDAs, but it would also enable them to branch out and provide services throughout the state. In short, AB 285 would benefit the consumer in the long term by allowing greater access to a legitimate, cost-effective legal service.
On May 26th, AB 285 passed the California Assembly and is awaiting consideration by the Senate.
Emily Iannucci is a Responsive Law intern.
A District of Columbia bar committee has proposed several rule changes that will facilitate the provision of limited scope legal representation. Limited scope representation makes legal services more affordable to low- and moderate-income individuals, by allowing them to use a lawyer for smaller tasks such a one-time consultation or help with preparing a document. For example, you could agree with a lawyer to pay a flat rate amount simply for review of a contract. Or you could pay another flat rate amount to have an experienced attorney represent you in court on one or several dates (as opposed to throughout your entire case).
Responsive Law sent two recommendations to the DC Bar in response to its proposal. We advised the committee that they should offer an exception to the written requirement for telephone consultations and online consultations. There are a slew of online Q&A sites and legal aid hotlines that offer quick and easy access to any legal inquires you may have. We believe it is impractical for a lawyer to acquire a written agreement if you are speaking on the phone with them or are asking your questions via an online site. We also recommended that the DC Bar set, as a default, that important court documents should be served on the client and not the attorney. The concern here is that if someone pays an attorney to review a document or attend one case only, the attorney, rather than the client, may end up receiving important documents from opposing counsel. To decrease the possibility of clients not receiving important documents, the DC Bar should require that opposing counsel serve documents on the client unless specifically told otherwise.
You can read our comments to the D.C. Bar here.