Mar 16, 2008

Wisconsin's State Bar Plans to Cut Access to Affordable Legal Services

[The following is an op-ed piece by James Turner (Executive Director of HALT), published in the Madison Capitol Times on March 13, 2008.]

The Wisconsin Supreme Court is considering a new definition of the practice of law that could force consumers to hire a lawyer to deal with even the most routine legal needs. If the court approves this State Bar proposal, instead of being able to use an affordable legal document assistant, an income tax preparer, or a real estate agent, Wisconsinites would have to shell out the hundreds of dollars an hour that lawyers charge.

HALT (Help Abolish Legal Tyranny), the nation's largest and oldest legal reform organization, is urging the court to reject the lawyers' naked power grab and, instead, encourage the development of innovative ways to expand the availability of affordable legal help. Our view is supported by the U.S. Justice Department, which also opposes the proposed rule. After complaints about their original proposal were filed with the Supreme Court by consumer advocates like HALT and many Wisconsin businesses, the State Bar added an exception for service providers that are licensed by the state.

We agree with the Justice Department that this new exception "would still prohibit non-lawyers from performing services for which legal expertise is unnecessary" and believe that it would only confuse consumers and deter meaningful competition from non-lawyers.

How do the lawyers defend their monopolistic proposal? They say it is really to protect the public from scam artists, particularly "notarios" who falsely claim to be attorneys and prey on the Latino community. But after two years of beating the bushes, the State Bar could produce only six complaints by consumers about non-lawyer legal service providers. During this same time frame, consumers filed over 2,000 complaints against Wisconsin attorneys.

What makes the lawyers' proposal all the more appalling is that it comes in the midst of a legal access crisis in Wisconsin. As a blue-ribbon panel found just last year, more than "half a million Wisconsinites -- people with families, many of whom have jobs, own homes, and pay taxes -- must contend with significant legal troubles without any legal help because they cannot afford the professional legal help they need." Instead of responding to this access crisis, Wisconsin's organized State Bar wants a new rule that would make it all but impossible for consumers to get help when they can't afford to hire a lawyer.

There is a better way to both serve and protect legal consumers. For many years HALT has argued that the unauthorized practice of law is claiming to be a lawyer when you're not. We believe that the defining characteristic of the practice of law is the establishment of an attorney-client relationship. In recent years, the U.S. Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission have endorsed this common-sense view. The Wisconsin Supreme Court should too, by defining the practice of law as only including activities that require specialized legal skills where an attorney-client relationship is present.

James C. Turner is the executive director of HALT (Help Abolish Legal Tyranny), www.halt.org, a nonprofit public interest group dedicated to promoting simple, affordable and accountable justice for all.