Commission on the Future of Legal Services

In August 2014, the American Bar Association Board of Governors created the Commission on the Future of Legal Services.  According to a February 2015 ABA article titled, Lots of ideas, but no single theme at Commission on the Future of Legal Services’ public hearing, the Commission held a public hearing during the ABA’s 2015 Midyear Meeting in Houston, Texas, in the hopes of eliciting ideas on how to improve access to justice for consumers with low to moderate income.  A number of people spoke, including attorneys, judges, academics, and representatives of private legal service providers (including Legal Zoom). Unfortunately, the hearing failed to identify an easy fix to the problem.

Picture courtesy of UpstateNYer via wikipedia.org

Picture courtesy of UpstateNYer via wikipedia.org

The Commission’s chair, Judy Perry Martinez, commented on the problem after the hearing:

‘I think there’s an acknowledgement that change has to happen, . . .  Lawyers realize we’re not meeting the needs of the public, and there needs to be a combination of solutions. But what’s the priority, lawyers or the public? I think those interests align. The interest of the client, the interest of the public, has got to be the guiding light.’

According to the ABA article, the Commission will hold a National Summit on Innovation in Legal Services on May 2-4, 2015 at Stanford University.

While the February hearing did not identify any silver bullet, we at LPR are encouraged that the American Bar Association admits there is a problem and are taking steps to resolve it.  Hopefully, judges, lawyers and bar associations across the country will join in and work together to effect legal reform.

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Limited License Legal Technicians

In 2012, the Supreme Court of Washington state enacted a rule allowing non-lawyers to practice law in a limited capacity after specialized training.  According to a March 13, 2015 Washington Post article titled Who says you need a law degree to practice law?, twenty-nine of Washington’s colleges offer the requisite courses in civil procedure, legal research, contracts and family law.  Once the training is completed and they pass a licensing exam, the graduates apprentice with an attorney for 3,000 hours before they can practice on their own.

waCourtsLogo‘They’re highly trained in a specific field of law,’ says Steve Crossland, who chairs the LLLT [Limited License Legal Technician] board. ‘In some ways, it’s more intensive training than what a lawyer gets.’

Washington’s program provides legal services to poor and middle class people who cannot afford traditional legal services, people who would otherwise have to represent themselves – sometimes with dire consequences.

‘The consequences can be failure to understand or enforce an order that can prevent ongoing violence or protect the safety of kids. It can mean losing the right to continue to live in one’s home.’

*     *     *

‘We have people come in who relied on a friend who thought he knew how to fill out paperwork, . . . Then they’d go to court and get creamed. They’ll come to us, and we’ll look at their paperwork and it’s a disaster.’

Given the reduction in funds for legal aid, Washington’s LLLT program is filling a void for the legal services industry.  And, California, Oregon, Colorado and New Mexico are reportedly considering similar programs.

‘We need to take a leaf from the medical profession, which has long recognized that people with health problems can be helped by a range of assistance providers with far less training than licensed physicians,’ New York Court of Appeals Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman said in his 2014 state of the judiciary report. ‘We all accept that. Why not the same in the law?’

Why not indeed.

 

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Pro Bono Requirement For Law Students Can Benefit Everyone

New York has done it, and now California is considering it too.  According to a March 14, 2015 Los Angeles Times article, titled State bar considers requiring all law students to do free legal work, the State Bar of California is considering a proposal to require all law students to complete 50 hours of free legal work or legal work at low rates during law school or within one year of receiving their law license.  The proposal is reportedly in response to the growing number of Californians who need an attorney but cannot afford one.

CalBarSealThere is no denying that there is a vast need for pro bono and low-cost legal services, and the program could be a win-win for the California law schools, law students, law firms and legal consumers.

In 2012, the [California] state bar formed a task force to examine ways to better prepare lawyers for a successful transition into the profession.

Driving the agenda were concerns that law school students needed more hands-on experience in an era of economic belt-tightening. Many large law firms and government agencies spend less money on training new legal recruits, and more than half of newly admitted lawyers work for small practices that lack the resources to provide much training.

Providing free legal work to those who can’t afford attorneys would give young lawyers the experience they need while also addressing a major gap in services to the poor, the task force decided.

But the biggest hurdle seems to be funding.

The Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, one of the largest of about 100 legal aid organizations in the state, accepts only about 10% of law students who apply to volunteer because it is unable to accommodate more, said Phong Wong, the organization’s pro bono director.

“The need is definitely there. We turn away so many low-income clients because we don’t have the support, the resources to help them,” Wong said. “At the same time, there are all these law students who can be put to use. We just need to figure out how to make it work for the clients that we serve.”

Hopefully, the California bar, law firms and law schools will work with the legal aid community to pass and implement this initiative.  It would be a win-win for everyone, especially for legal consumers.

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Justice Entrepreneurs Project

If you live in Chicago and have a low to moderate income, now you have an option for obtaining “reliable and affordable legal assistance.”  The Justice Entrepreneurs Project (JEP) is one of a number of initiatives the Chicago Bar Foundation (CBF) has undertaken to provide the community with “equal access to justice.”

JEP logo

JEP logo

The CBF, through the JEP program, pairs new lawyers who want to serve the community with legal consumers who don’t qualify for free legal aid and who can’t afford traditional law firm rates.  The lawyers are chosen through a “competitive selection process,” and they “are technologically savvy,” “welcome innovation,” and “understand the need to reinvent the traditional law practice.”  The JEB website gives the following description of the program and services offered:

The Justice Entrepreneurs Project (JEP) is a network of independent lawyers who are committed to making quality legal services accessible and affordable for regular people. Lawyers in the JEP offer fixed fees and flexible representation options (like unbundled, a la carte services) to help accomplish this. Their practices seek to be client-centered and emphasize approachability and collaboration between the attorney and client.

Lawyers in the JEP currently assist clients in the following areas:

  • Family Law – including divorce, spousal support, child support, custody, visitation and orders of protection
  • Landlord/Tenant – including eviction proceedings and security deposit claims
  • Consumer Law – including debt collection issues, consumer disputes and Chapter 7 bankruptcy
  • Estate Law – including wills, probate and guardianships
  • Employment Law – including discrimination and wage claims
  • Small Business/Non-profit – including business formation, contracts and intellectual property issues
  • Real Property Law – including foreclosure proceedings and real estate purchase/sale
  • Criminal misdemeanors, traffic tickets, license suspensions and ordinance violations
  • Immigration Law – including visas, residency, naturalization and asylum

LPR applauds the CBF and all of the JEP lawyers who serve their community.  While it is unfortunate that so many people are priced out of traditional law firm assistance, the good news is that there is now what appears to be a great option for that demographic.

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Suing For Emotional Distress? You May Have To Submit To An IPE

So you plan to bring a civil suit against someone or some entity to obtain retribution for some wrong, and as part of your lawsuit, you plan to allege intentional or negligent infliction of emotional distress.  In deciding whether to allege emotional distress, you should consider that you may be required to submit to an independent psychiatric exam (IPE) and you may be required to produce documents and information regarding any counseling or other mental health care (including medication) you have received . . . ever.

Attorney Deidre Clark, a plaintiff in a sexual harassment and retaliatory discharge case against her law firm, just learned this the hard way.  Ms. Clark claimed that the firm fired her in retaliation for complaining about a partner’s unwanted sexual advances using her online posting of her erotic novel as a pretext.  According to a February 23, 2015 abajournal.com article titled Steamy novel writer will have to get psych exam in wrongful firing suit against BigLaw firm, Ms. Clark was ordered to undergo a psychiatric exam because her $15 million claim for intentional infliction of “severe” emotional distress brought her mental state into controversy.  Ms. Clark unsuccessfully argued that although she suffers from suicidal thoughts, anxiety, depression, and related reactions as a result of the defendants’ actions, she is not alleging that the defendants’ actions caused any diagnosed psychiatric condition and does not plan on presenting expert testimony to support her emotional distress claim.  The court ordered the IPE, reasoning that due to the severity of the emotional distress claim, the exam would allow the law firm to defend against the claim.  An appellate court agreed.

Legal consumers contemplating an emotional distress claim should heed this cautionary tale.  Not only is fighting a motion for an independent psychiatric exam itself emotionally draining, it can be quite expensive as well.  The decision to include an emotional distress claim should be an informed one.

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A Bit Of Comic Relief

We wanted to share a bit of comic relief this week.  As you can see from the imbedded YouTube video, 80-year old Dolores Sheinis was before the court on a bond hearing for resisting arrest and violating a protective order to stay away from her ex-husband.  The exchange between Ms. Sheinis and Boward County, Florida Judge John Hurley is entertaining, and his response is an excellent example of good judicial temperament.

Screen shot 2015-02-21 at 3.33.07 PMMs. Sheinis got quite familiar with the judge, who rather than admonish her, chose to see the humor in her comments.  In fact, toward the end of their banter, the judge asked how he had done as a judge.  Ms. Sheinis response: “Not bad, but you could do better.”

LPR applauds Judge Hurley for having the kindness and humility to treat Ms. Sheinis with respect.  We hope judges everywhere are watching.

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New Technology For Legal Consumers

Imagine if you could go to the iTunes store and download a free app that would allow you to prepare a living will, designate a health care proxy, and transmit it to your healthcare provider or to a hospital.  Well, if you are a Massachusetts resident, you can.  Massachusetts attorney William Palin developed an app called PaperHealth that does just that, and it is available for free on iTunes.  The app is described as follows:

screen568x568

PaperHealth on iTunes

With PaperHealth anyone can quickly and efficiently assign a HealthCare Proxy or create a ‘Living Will’ in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The app allows you to fill out, sign, save and share your important documents directly from your iPhone or iTouch.

PaperHealth is a powerful yet simple tool for the residents of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. In addition if you are connected to a AirPrint enabled printer you can print your documents directly from the device.

Mr. Palin, with his PaperHealth app, was the winner of the first ABA Journal Hackcess to Justice Event in 2014.  According to the ABA Journal, a second such event will be held in New Orleans on March 21-22, sponsored by the ABA Journal and the Louisiana State Bar Association.  The event is expected to attract legal advocates, including legal aid representatives, to develop technological solutions to help legal consumers as they navigate the justice system.

LPR applauds Mr. Palin, the ABA and the Louisiana Bar Association for their efforts to make the legal system more accessible to legal consumers.  This could be a giant step for legal reform.

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Pulling Back The Curtain On BigLaw – And Many Smaller Firms Too

We’ve all seen or heard about the high-end law firms, the ones with the well-appointed offices and the high billable hour fees.  Large or small, some of these firms are harboring a secret – one that can affect how they treat and bill their clients.  Now, Edwin Reeser, a California business lawyer, has pulled back the curtain in his February 4, 2015 article for the ABA Journal titled, 9 ways to change the carnivorous partnership model and save BigLaw firms.

Edwin B. Reeser

Edwin B. Reeser

In his article, Mr. Reeser poignantly describes what really goes on in some law firms.  He touches on incoming associates’ “blind faith” in the system, the “competitive” nature of making partner, the “attrition” problem that inevitably follows, and the costs to the firms of this supposed “search for excellence,” including the loss of some of the “best and brightest.”

For legal consumers, the article provides a peek into what really goes on behind those law firm doors.  And while that information is enlightening, Mr. Reeser is also disclosing who really pays for this “game” – the clients.  It is the clients who “subsidize” this industry practice in the form of inflated fees.  After all, when the cost of doing business is “unnecessarily” high, the cost of the products and services will be too.

Hopefully those law firms will heed Mr. Reeser’s advice and change the decades-old “carnivorous partnership model.”  It would be a win for the partners, a win for the associates, and most importantly, a win for the clients.

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Have Or Need A Will? Here’s A Great Resource

We were looking through the ABA Journal’s 8th Annual Blawg 100, in which 100 legal blogs are highlighted, and a blog called Wills, Trusts & Estates Prof Blog caught our eye. Gerry W. Beyer, the Governor Preston E. Smith Regents Professor of Law at Texas Tech University School of Law, is the blog’s editor and frequent contributor.

Gerry W. Beyer

Gerry W. Beyer

The blog addresses a number of issues facing trust and estate attorneys, including ethical and legal issues that arise.  These postings can be very enlightening for legal consumers who have or need a will.  Recent posts include information about powers of attorney, competency issues, gift tax issues, young adult estate planning, and an estate planning to-do list, to name a few.  A pull down menu reveals a number of relevant categories of blog posts, including Estate Administration, Estate Tax, and Non-Probate Assets.

There are also posts imparting cautionary tales from current events, and posts about “green burials and cremations” – biodegradable coffins, organic flagstone grave markers, and no embalming fluids or concrete fortresses.  There is even a post titled “Finding Forever After Death” – apparently you can have your ashes pressed into a vinyl record, made into a diamond, or mixed with seeds and planted to become a tree.

There is a wealth of information for legal consumers who plan to go it alone or hire an attorney.  And when it comes to wills, trusts and estates, Professor Beyer’s blog is a great resource.

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Attorney Tip #11 – Lessons From An Attorney Who Coaches Beauty Queens

The ABA Journal recently ran a story about an Alabama attorney who moonlights coaching beauty queens and others needing interview preparation.  In an December 1, 2014 article titled, Want to be the next Miss America? Then you might want to hire this lawyer, Lauren Etter wrote about Bill Alverson of Alverson & Alverson in Andalusia, Alabama and his unusual consulting practice.

56Attorneys could learn quite a bit from the theories behind Mr. Alverson’s consulting practice, including the following gem:

When you prepare a client for court, you’re supposed to anticipate what the other side will do. In any legal situation we have that logical analysis. You have to always be relatable not only to your client but to a judge. The key thing for pageants, and also for being a successful attorney, is you have to develop trust.  They’ve got to know that you can do the job.

You have to take those burdens off of them.

But it’s the last question and answer that we believe all lawyers should take to heart.  Ms. Etter asked Mr. Alverson what he learned in law school that he has found most useful. This was his response:

Pride cometh before a fall.  An arrogant person is subject to defeat by the exercise of his or her own self-made superiority.

So our tip to attorneys is to heed the lessons of this beauty queen consultant.  Develop your client’s trust, and don’t fall victim to your own arrogance.  Wise words indeed.

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