Increasing Access is a Professional Responsibility

I’ve long argued that increasing access to legal services is a professional responsibility that falls on all lawyers.  In other words, it’s the profession’s responsibility.  Let me back up a moment.

If you’re not aware, the sheer number of self-represented litigants is staggering.  In 2015, the Vermont Joint Commission on the Future of Legal Services issued this report.  Kudos to Dan Richardson for envisioning, creating, and shepherding the Commission to an end product.

I chaired the Commission’s Legal Education Committee.  Our section of the report referenced numbers from a study that Judge Davenport did in 20112.  On page 19 we wrote:

  • “In 2012, the Honorable Amy Davenport analyzed the number of self-represented litigants in cases in the Civil Division of the Vermont Superior Court. The numbers were staggering. Defendants in small claims cases represented themselves 94% of the time.21 In the Family Division, 84% of active parentage cases and 54% of active divorces involved at least one self-represented litigant. Ninety percent of the defendants in landlord-tenant cases were self-represented compared to only 24% of the plaintiffs. Defendants in collections and foreclosure cases fared marginally ‘better,’ respectively left to represent themselves 84% and 74% of the time. This ‘improvement’ was offset, if not rendered irrelevant, by the fact that 99% of
    foreclosure plaintiffs and 98% of collections plaintiffs had lawyers.”

I’m not aware of anything to suggest that more litigants are hiring lawyers.  Further, as an aside, I switched from a business track to poli sci during my sophomore year at UVM.  Still, it’s tough to imagine another industry that has such an untapped market.

Anyhow, occasionally, I hear “but Mike, the ethics rules make it tough to provide access.”  That’s a load of horse manure.  I’ve got an entire power point on how, in my view, the rules encourage lawyers to ensure access to legal services.

More specifically, I’ve blogged and spoken on two issues that, arguably, would increase access:

  1. Allowing nonlawyers to own, invest in, and manage law firms;
  2. Allowing nonlawyers to provide specified legal services that, for now, only lawyers can provide.

My posts on the nonlawyer ownership issue can be accessed here.  My post on allowing paralegals to do more was the third most-read post on this blog in 2017.  In the post, which is here, I argued against letting the perfect response to the access crisis serve as an enemy to a good response.

Neither idea has gained much traction in Vermont.  But each is back in the news nationally.

Two weeks ago, the State Bar of California authorized a 60-day public comment period on a series of  regulatory reforms “tentatively recommended” by the  Task Force on Access Through Innovation in Legal Services.  Per this press release from the Cal Bar:

  • “The Task Force’s 16 reform options under consideration represent a groundbreaking menu of possible changes to certain key regulatory issues, including:
    • Exceptions to current restrictions on the unauthorized practice of law;
    • The prospect of non-attorney ownership; and
    • Entity regulation.”

As Professor Bernabe notes on his Professional Responsibility Blog,

  • “The underlying force for these proposals is a concern that something needs to be done to provide more and more affordable access to legal services to people in need.  As you probably know, there are many studies that show that many (perhaps most) people with legal needs don’t have access to affordable representation.  Opening the door for some regulated provision of legal services by non-lawyers might help close the gap.  Yet, some argue this is not a good idea.  And so, the debate continues.”

Yes, the debate continues.  I expect to bring it to the Professional Responsibility Board at its September and December meetings.  In the meantime, many have weighed in, both for and against.  To learn more, check out posts from Above The Law, the ABA Journal, and the Legal Ethics Alert Blog.

No matter your position, keep in mind my theme when I speak on this topic: if increasing access is against the rules, we need to look again at the rules

Legal Ethics.

One thought on “Increasing Access is a Professional Responsibility

  1. I agree. Volunteering to help is a good thing to do. Can you provide some Vermont agencies that encourage and use volunteer legal services?

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