On Wednesday the North Carolina senate—under pressure from the state bar—backed off from voting on a bill that would have made it easier for people to get self-help legal materials from companies like LegalZoom.com Inc. The next day, the American Bar Association announced the winners of seven “catalyst grants” to connect new lawyers with lower income clients. State bar leaders in North Carolina claim they want to protect people from bad legal advice. The ABA said its new grants will “help nurture innovative programs” to address unmet legal needs.
In fact, the two unrelated developments both highlight the same issue: the legal profession’s failure to truly address the millions of Americans who need a lawyer but don’t have one.
The ABA grants, as well-intentioned as they are, will not be the solution. ABA President James Silkenat is right that we need innovative approaches to tackle the “justice gap” between the rich and poor. But there is no way that giving $15,000 to Legal Aid of Arkansas is going to make a dent in remedying the justice gap. The same is true of the $5,400 going to the Oakland County (Michigan) Bar Association.
A good chunk of the grants, which average $13,628, will fund “incubator programs,” in which freshly-minted lawyers set up shop at law schools and other supportive environments to start practices aimed at helping lower income people. These incubators sound like great ideas, but tiny programs staffed by novice lawyers can’t begin to tackle the enormity of the problem.
At the same time, the ABA and state bar associations continue to resist more sweeping measures that could make a real difference in expanding legal services to nearly everyone.
In North Carolina, the state bar is determined to make it harder for residents to turn to online companies for easy access to legal forms. The state senate’s judiciary committee passed a bill that would exempt companies offering self-help legal materials from prohibitions on the authorized practice of law. It was set for a vote by the state senate on July 9. But, after heavy lobbying by state bar leaders, the bill was pulled.
Catharine Arrowood, the president of the North Carolina Bar Association and a partner at Sharp, Michael, Graham & Baker in Kitty Hawk, explained why her group opposes the bill. “The bill in effect would strip the North Carolina State Bar of jurisdiction over the people who do this work and doesn’t offer a substitute remedy for consumers,” she said. (The North Carolina Bar Association is a voluntary membership group, while the State Bar of North Carolina licenses and regulates lawyers.) She insisted her group is not pursuing a protectionist agenda.
Whatever the state bar’s motives, I’m convinced that North Carolina residents would be better off having the option of choosing LegalZoom. It may not be perfect, but it’s much better than nothing, which is what most people are left with. LegalZoom vice president Kenneth Friedman points out that they’ve served more than 2 million customers since 2000 and have an A+ rating from the Better Business Bureau. “The only reason for the North Carolina State Bar or North Carolina Bar Association to oppose [this] legislation . . . is to protect lawyers at the expense of the general public and at the expense of access to the law,” he said.
While the ABA hasn’t attacked LegalZoom, it has resisted measures that would lead to real innovation to improve access to legal services. It’s refused to support changes like those made in the United Kingdom and Australia that have opened the market to competition and allowed non-lawyers to play a bigger role in investing in and providing legal services.
The legal profession’s approach in this country isn’t working for most people. It’s time for serious change.
Summary Judgment is American Lawyer senior writer Susan Beck’s regular opinion column for the Litigation Daily.