Are Non-Lawyers Becoming Necessary for Legal Help?

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With encouragement from the legal establishment, a movement is under way in at least three states to create a class of non-lawyer legal practitioners who would compete with licensed attorneys to serve those who ostensibly cannot otherwise afford legal counsel.

As reported in various stories on the Access for Justice blog (

  • The Washington state Supreme Court has approved a rule creating non-lawyer legal technicians, but not authorizing specific areas of legal technician work, that will come after an initial assessment period. These technicians must have paralegal training and can do such things as inform clients about procedures and anticipated course of a legal proceeding, provide clients with self-help materials, and review or explain legal documents.

  • A task force of the New York State Bar has recommended implementation of a pilot program to permit appropriately trained non-lawyer advocates to provide out-of-court assistance in specific substantive areas of the law to low-income New Yorkers who have current or potential legal problems.

  • In California, the state bar's board of trustees has expressed interest in examining a limited-practice licensing program that would create a new class of professionals who could give legal advice to the public while allowing law students and others who haven't passed the bar to put their skills to use.

All of these efforts' stated purpose is to make legal services more available and affordable to those who need assistance. Of course, this begs the question of all the other low-cost avenues for such assistance now available, from court-appointed lawyers to pro bono programs by firms and legal access groups to legal clinics staffed by law school students. But the larger issue is deciding when or to what extent legal fees are too high to be affordable.

An attorney in any given area of practice, at any given firm, can charge for services at an hourly rate, a flat fee, a contingency fee, or a mixture of those and other billing methods.

The amount of those charges, of course, can vary widely. The only requirement, according to Rule of Professional Conduct 1.5, is that "a lawyer shall not make an agreement for, charge, or collect an unreasonable fee."

The code defines "reasonableness" by such factors as the time and labor required, the novelty and difficulty of the questions involved, and the skill requisite to perform the legal service properly.

For the average client, there is little price sensitivity in choosing an attorney. Most lawyer-client relationships result from referrals from trusted friends or from other factors, such as the perception of legal ability. Typically, when it comes to the most urgent and important matters, price does not matter. The client's options are limited and the perception of need is high. When matters are serious and the client's family, finances or freedom are at stake, the client will choose the one he thinks will do the best job.

Given all these considerations, the creation of an entirely new class of legal service providers seems unnecessary. If clients know what is at stake in their legal matter, the Internet or the phone book can provide access to a lawyer who will handle it.

Creating non-lawyers to do the same job would seem to invite trouble for both clients and for the profession.

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