A modest proposal that hints at opening the door to nonlawyers providing simple legal services faces a tough fight at the American Bar Association’s midyear meetings, which are currently underway in San Diego.
The ABA’s Litigation Section, as well as the bar associations of Illinois, Nevada, New York, New Jersey and Texas, are all on record opposing Resolution 105, which was submitted by the Commission on the Future of Legal Services and five other ABA divisions. The commission was formed in August 2014 by then-incoming ABA president William Hubbard, who has been vocal about the need to improve access to justice. Under the leadership of former Northrop Grumman Corporation lawyer Judy Perry Martinez, the commission has explored new ways to improve the delivery of civil legal services to the public, especially to those who can’t afford a lawyer or are confused by the legal system.
While the 30-member commission has considered many possible solutions—from technological innovations to allowing nonlawyers to provide limited legal services—Resolution 105 doesn’t propose any specific changes to the status quo. Instead, it asks the ABA to adopt “Model Regulatory Objectives for the Provision of Legal Services” that are guided by such benign principles as protection of the public and meaningful access to justice. It also urges each state’s highest court to be guided by these objectives if it is considering new rules to allow activity by “nontraditional legal service providers.”
While the resolution doesn’t advocate for such changes, the mere mention of “nontraditional legal service providers” raises hackles for some in the ABA. The Texas state bar board, for example, has asked Texas delegates to withhold their support for Resolution 105. State bar president-elect Frank Stevenson II of Locke Lord said the board opposes the proposal because it seems to presume there’s a place for nonlawyers to provide legal services. He added that Texas’ chief justice has already set up a commission to study how lawyers can reach more of the public, and his group wants to wait for that group to finish its work.
“Our position shouldn’t be interpreted as rigidly opposed to innovation in the provision of legal services,” Stevenson said. But he added, “We feel lawyers are not fungible with nonlawyers.”
The New Jersey State Bar Association’s board of trustees voted unanimously to oppose the resolution, also because it envisions new categories of legal service providers. The ABA’s Litigation Section voted 17-8 against it.
Philadelphia lawyer Lawrence Fox of Drinker Biddle & Reath, who has long crusaded against allowing nonlawyers to provide legal services, sent a Jan. 29 email to all delegates with the subject line “Save Our Profession.” He implored them to reject Resolution 105: “If we are going to show leadership, it ought to be in opposing the unauthorized practice of law, wherever it rears its ugly head,” he wrote.
The resolution does have some organized support, including from the South Carolina Bar Association, the ABA’s Business Law Section, the Bar Association of San Francisco and the Washington State Bar Association. (In Washington state, licensed nonlawyers already provide some legal services.)
ABA President Paulette Brown declined to comment on the resolution or the work of the commission.
The commission will hold a roundtable discussion in San Diego on Saturday and will meet again on Sunday. The ABA’s House of Delegates will consider the resolution on Monday.
A simple majority vote is needed to adopt a resolution. The ABA has 560 delegates, but it’s not clear how many will be present Monday.
Over the past year and a half, the Commission on the Future of Legal Services has sought new ideas to improve the public’s access to legal solutions. In May of last year it held a National Summit on Innovation in Legal Services at Stanford Law School that drew 200 participants, including 12 state court chief justices, the CEO of LegalZoom, a Microsoft Corp. in-house lawyer and numerous academics.
The following month, in a podcast on the Legal Talk Network, commission chairman Martinez sounded optimistic that the profession might change. “There’s room in this space to think differently about how we provide legal services,” she said. “This has the potential for sea change.”
Some of the profession’s rules, she said, serve as barriers that don’t protect the public. “We’re making sure that lawyers understand what services aren’t needed to be delivered by a lawyer and can in fact be delivered by somebody else.”
Martinez also noted that some lawyers might have trouble adjusting to a new model: “[There] will be some pain for those not alert and ready for change.”
Martinez could not be reached for comment.
The United Kingdom has already allowed some of the changes that are being fought over in the United States. In 2007 it passed the Legal Services Act, which permits so-called alternative business structures in the practice of law. The U.K. law breaks down many of the barriers that prevented nonlawyers from providing legal services or supplying capital to legal service providers.
Stanford Law School professor Deborah Rhode, who co-chaired last year’s summit and who directs the Center on the Legal Profession at Stanford University, called the May gathering an “extraordinary show of support for innovation” by ABA leadership. Four past, current and future ABA presidents attended, she noted.
“The major challenge for the ABA is how to get the rank and file behind some of these innovative initiatives,” she said. “A lot of lawyers feel very threatened.”
Rhode criticized the organized opposition against Resolution 105. “It’s such a mindless reflexive response,” she said. “This [change] is coming whether the bar likes it or not. Sticking their heads in the sand and trying to block even such an unobjectionable compromise position [in Resolution 105] seems a step in the wrong direction.”
She added, “This is why I titled my book ‘The Trouble with Lawyers,’” referring to her 2015 book critiquing the profession.
“I don’t think it’s fair to say that everyone who has concerns is sticking their heads in the sand,” said Locke Lord’s Stevenson, the Texas bar president. “A lot of criticism has been very nuanced and raises some issues that need to be addressed.”