No, Avvo Bro: Solution to Legal Access Gap Isn’t Dropping Unauthorized Practice of Law Restrictions

Alright. I have yet another reason to dislike Avvo.

Earlier this week, at some LegalTech conference (it really seems like there is another one every week, doesn’t it), the Avvo founder Mark Britton got on stage and set forth the solution to all of the legal access to justice issues out there: drop unauthorized practice of law rules!

What would this mean to the everyday Joe? Instead of having lawyers practice law, there would be lawyers, legal technicians, paralegals, and your Aunt Sally all portraying themselves as legal experts. Or, in (I’m predicting here) Avvo’s case, a new legal services delivery model that they can profit off of: selling legal services at cut rate prices delivered by non-lawyers.

The Problem: Access to Justice

One of the panelists at the LegalTech conference was a Los Angeles Superior Court judge — Presiding Judge Carolyn Kuhl. Judge Kuhl told the all-too-familiar tales of pro per woe: lines around the block, 80 percent self-representation rate in Family Law, etc.

Let’s repeat that in bold: eight out of ten family law litigants in Los Angeles don’t have a lawyer.

These are problems. Big ones. On a scale of 1 to 10, I’d personally place any legal issues involving family or children near the top, right next to death. (A wee bit ironic that Family Law litigants and death row inmates are two of the most underserved populations, no?) If we should be prioritizing access to justice, family and life should come first.

Why do these people not have lawyers? They can’t afford them. It really is that simple. People don’t wake up and go, “Hmm … DIY law just seems like the right route to take. After all, we’re only talking about custody and support here … NBD!”

No, they call a few lawyers, hear the prevailing rates, and think, “Feed child or feed lawyer? Child.”

The Proposed Solution: UPL by Layfolks

I get the temptation here by Avvo and Mark Britton. I’m a geek. I think tech is the solution to a lot of our problems. And as much as the word disruption is becoming the new “synergy” or “thought leader” in the pantheon of annoyingly overused words, the legal system could use a little bit of it — we can’t even e-file in California yet.

(SIDE RANT: WHAT THE HELL, CALIFORNIA? YOU HAVE SILICON FREAKING VALLEY! HEY AVVO, FIX THE E-FILING PROBLEM. PAPER FILING AND LONG LINES NEED DISRUPTING.)

The thought is this: allow corporations and better trained paralegals to help out the poor folks who can’t afford a real lawyer. Maybe then they’ll get some legal advice, which is better than nothing.

The obstacle to such a solution are the restrictions found in every state against the unauthorized practice of law. (Some states are experimenting with legal technicians — non-lawyers trained in one subspecialty for this exact purpose.) The reason for these restrictions is two-fold: it keeps us lawyers employed in our happy monopoly AND (far more importantly) it provides some level of protection for clients against unlicensed nobodies who have no idea what they are doing from screwing clients out of their money and running. Plus, lawyers have training and generally are better at this whole practicing law thing than non-lawyers. It’s true. It’s kind of like how a doctor is better at doing a triple bypass than the dude at Jiffy Lube.

You know what you’ll get if you drop UPL restrictions? A few months back, we had a client come into our office and ask for help with a custody dispute with her ex-husband. Except, as we discovered an hour later, she wasn’t divorced. You see, she went to a legal doc prep joint, which filled out the crappiest template paperwork I’ve ever seen, then she tried to self-file it. Eventually the case was dropped for failing to see it through. Meanwhile, the drug-addicted ex-husband, who allegedly liked to beat his women, had gone on to get remarried and divorced, all while calling and threatening the crying woman in our waiting room — a woman who thought she was divorced, but instead, was still married to her worst nightmare.

Yes, that’s one story. But ask around and you’ll hear stories of “immigration consultants” who prey on recent immigrants. Or doc prep mills. Or even the occasional bad apple lawyer who fleeces clients.

At least in that last instance, there’s a state bar to complain to and maybe, just maybe, a malpractice insurance carrier.

The Real Solution: Make Practicing Cheaper

I don’t think anyone can argue, with a straight face, that were the cost equal or close to it, that it would be better to go pro per/DIY over having a lawyer. But therein lies the problem: we cost too damn much.

Here is just a sampling of why I cost so much: $2k to get my California bar license. $150k sticker cost for a law degree. (I got boned by my undergrad on student loans, not law school, but in the end, I’m still paying somebody.). Malpractice insurance at $3k/yr for most folks. Legal research platform at $300 to $500/month. Office space. Incidentals. The cost of rehab after you get your first student loan repayment bill and go on a bender. (Kidding.)

(Another side rant: I just took the Missouri Bar. It was somewhere in the ballpark of $2k as well, after background checks, test, etc. If I pass, my Uniform Bar Exam score is transferrable. Yay. Except Kansas would want $1,200 just to transfer the score and admit me. No test. Just a ***-load of money. And yes, if you’re practicing in Kansas City, you pretty much always need both bar licenses. So much for the UBE providing portability. If I have to pay $1.2k per state, plus maintain CLE requirements in each state, that bar test isn’t very portable, now is it?)

And that’s the bare minimum. If you want the luxuries, like a practice management platform ($50/month), document generation software ($500/year), etc., the additional overhead just piles on.

Marketing? Don’t even get me started on the cost of marketing. And notice I haven’t mentioned a paralegal, phone system, office equipment, or any of those frills.

This is why solos charge a few hundred per hour. This is why it costs so much to retain a lawyer. This is why there is an access to justice gap and 80% self-representation rate.

Is the goal to close the access to justice gap? Start by shrinking the cost to be an actual lawyer. Lower our overhead and we’ll lower our rates. Take California for example: CEB is the state-owned publisher. It has practice guides, caselaw, document generation, and damn near everything you’d need to practice. It also costs hundreds, if not thousands, to get the materials — just as much as the private legal publishing companies. Or Georgia — those dicks actually copyrighted their annotated statutes so that other companies besides LexisNexis can’t publish them.

We have a large mass of unemployed and underemployed recent graduates. When law schools charge less and the state bars start lowering the cost of their own CLE programs, legal research tools, and if they want to get really crazy — make their own low-cost malpractice coverage, they’ll close that access to justice gap and lawyers will charge $50 to $100 an hour.

Of course, we know that won’t happen. But if it doesn’t, and UPL rules get eliminated instead, then where will we be? An overpriced industry without a monopoly. Which is pretty much no industry at all.

Avvo won’t mind though. They’ll be pushing documents and $10/hr online advice to the masses. That’s probably good enough for run-of-the-mill divorce cases. But give ’em a complicated case — one with a breach of fiduciary duties or a self-employed spouse who hides income — and we’ll see how what the UPL legal technicians stand up.

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