Jan 02, 2008

Independent Paralegals Improve Access to Justice

Paralegals who directly help consumers prepare their own divorce, estate planning, name change, and guardianship papers have been around for a long time. Usually, these paralegals gain their expertise from having worked for lawyers or having attended formal paralegal schools. Yet many lawyers have sought to drive these independent paralegals out of business by charging them with "unauthorized practice of law"--a criminal offense in many states. While some of us believe that a thriving independent paralegal industry would vastly increase access to the justice system for the many millions of people who can't afford lawyers, others--especially many lawyers--believe that only lawyers can be trusted to help people with their legal problems.

In October 2007, a Massachusetts statewide commission examining barriers to access to justice recommended that independent paralegals be allowed to speak on behalf of low-income parties embroiled in certain civil matters. According to the Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, the Massachusetts Bar Association predictably shot the concept down, arguing that poor people deserve legal representation just the same as rich people and that non-lawyer paralegals could not be expected to deliver competent representation. Their answer to the access problem? More court-based assistance to self-represented litigants, more lawyers, and more pro-bono legal services.

This reminded me of an experience I had in California some 20 years ago. I was a member of an ad hoc California State Bar committee (called the Public Protection Committee) that was charged with investigating what role California independent paralegals might play in facilitating access to justice for people who couldn't afford lawyers. We held three public hearings in addition to collecting a ton of information from consumer protection agencies, courts, and other entities that could provide us with a factual basis for making recommendations.

At one of the hearings, a lawyer employed by the Los Angeles legal services program testified that under no circumstances should non-lawyers be allowed to help people fill out the paperwork necessary to fight their evictions. She went on to say that her agency turned away 40,000 eviction cases every year because there weren't enough lawyers to help. I asked her why it wouldn't be better to authorize independent paralegals to assist in these cases. With considerable passion she responded that allowing non-lawyers to help the poor would create a two-tier justice system--which was unacceptable to her--and that the only appropriate way to help the Los Angeles poor fight their evictions was to petition Congress to authorize more money to hire more lawyers. I was so shocked that to this day I vividly remember every detail of the encounter.

Our Committee--four lawyers and four non-lawyers--went on some months later to unanimously recommend the repeal of the California unauthorized practice laws and the creation of a system in which independent paralegals could help people with their legal paperwork. Not unexpectedly, the California State Bar president immediately showed up on local TV condemning our report and literally calling us "brain dead" for thinking the Bar association would ever agree to such a "cockamanie" scheme.

He wasn't far off the mark. It took another 10 years before the California legislature (with no help from the Bar Association) authorized independent paralegals to provide the same kind of assistance our committee had recommended earlier. There are now many hundreds of registered independent paralegals in California (called Legal Document Assistants) that help people prepare the forms they need to handle their own legal work. For more information about Legal Document Assistants, visit the California Association of Legal Document Assistants' website. Independent paralegals are also authorized to prepare legal forms in Arizona and Florida (and perhaps a couple of other states)

What's my point? That lawyers fight tooth and nail to maintain their monopoly and that legal consumers in Massachusetts probably will have a long and rocky road ahead before the Massachusetts powers-that-be finally accept the obvious facts: there are lots of legal tasks that don't require a law school education, and access to justice in Massachusetts would be vastly improved by bringing non-lawyers into the mix of legal service providers.