Editorial: Modest Means Doesn't Mean Modest Needs

, The Connecticut Law Tribune

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Mark Dubois
Mark Dubois

Some bar associations are trying to reconnect lawyers with modest means clients. By offering supported practice environments and making things like legal research and work space available at greatly reduced rates, they hope to put many new lawyers into the game.

Many lawyers and judges, awed by the way the public has refused to use lawyers' services and transformed the world of "do-it-yourself" law in a few short years, wonder where it is all going to end. I really don't know.

I am not sure which was the chicken and which the egg in the development of this brushfire. Did lawyers price themselves out of the market, forcing courts to adopt "rule-based" ("be your own lawyer") fill-in-the-blanks systems to accommodate the self-reps who flooded in? Or did the advent of quick and easy information on the Internet make it too easy for folks to get a foot in the courthouse door, driving the "service center" model in response? I suppose it may be a little (or a lot) of both. In any event, the phenomenon of self-represented parties has mushroomed from a negligible percentage just a few years ago to a situation where, in some courts, the represented client is a distinct minority.

A fascinating aspect of all this is that many of these folks going without lawyers are not without means. Yes, the legal service agencies continue to be unable to offer free services to many of the truly poor, and the pro bono bar continues to fall well short of filling the gap, and so many of the unrepresented are indigent. But many more fit into the class of working poor or lower middle class, who don't qualify for free services but who still have much to lose, like houses, jobs, income and assets. They might not have a lot, but they are far from destitute.

A colleague who labors in these vineyards describes seeing folks work their way out of poverty and onto the low rungs of the ladder, only to face a reversal such as an illness or an injury or a job loss and find themselves back in the welfare system. When I began practicing law, these folks were the "bread-and-butter" clients many of us in the solo and small-firm world made our livings serving. A lawyer could do OK on closings, Part B criminal, divorce, collections and small personal injury cases. Then slowly, gradually, it all seemed to melt away.

Increasing specialization and complexity made it more and more difficult for "generalists" to work across many practice areas. The simplest cases seemed to require more and more court visits. Overhead ballooned as did the fee structure. And suddenly, clients decided they could muddle along without lawyers.

Some bar associations, such as Chicago and New York, are trying to reconnect lawyers with modest means clients. By offering supported practice environments and making things like legal research and work space available for free or at greatly reduced rates, they hope to put many new and unemployed lawyers into the game.

With the advent of the cloud, virtual practice and e-filing, a lawyer can pretty much operate from any place with robust wifi and a steady supply of coffee. I was recently speaking with one of the young, entrepreneurial, lawyers who has left big law and is enjoying practicing on his own. He described using a space-sharing service to establish an office in Stamford. I told him I used to have offices in Brooklyn (Connecticut, not New York) where we rented space in a coffee shop, Danielson (in a real estate office), on Route 12 north of Willimantic (a table at a McDonald's), and East Hampton (a doughnut shop on Route 66). You get the idea—go to the clients and meet them in a friendly and known environment.

I think that if we devote some resources to this, we might have a chance to save the profession. Otherwise, I can easily see a world where courts, fed up with self-reps, license paralegals and others to offer limited services directly to the public at affordable prices. It is not a pipe dream. Washington state has already begun to license non-lawyers to serve the public, and I understand California and some other large states are studying the model.

We have all worked with paralegals who are really expert in limited areas such as residential real estate. They don't need to know about the Magna Carta, the rule against perpetuities, or statutory construction to download closing docs from secure websites, have them executed, and handle the wires in and out. And they don't need three (or two or four) years of law school to learn their craft.

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