Over the past few years, the State Bar of California has looked into modifying its rules on who can practice law in an effort to provide legal services to those who cannot afford an attorney. It formed working groups, task forces, blue ribbon panels, and committees to study this issue. Skeptics questioned the motives of the people spearheading these efforts believing that they were more interested in automating the legal profession for financial gain and are not really interested in helping the truly indigent.
But the California State Legislature recently passed a bill which would severely limit the State Bar of California from exploring ways to allow nonlawyers to practice law in the state. First, it prohibits any entity of the state bar from using funds for this purpose, regardless of the source.
Second, the state bar shall report to the legislature on the total funding spent since 2018 to study the creation of a regulatory sandbox or the licensing of nonattorneys as paraprofessionals by January 15, 2023. The report shall also include who provided the funds, and what they were used for, which includes lobbying, salaries, travel, and food.
The bill’s language does not seem to prohibit the state bar from doing these activities so long as no money is spent. But virtual meetings done on Zoom’s free account can get very inconvenient if your meetings cannot last longer than 45 minutes. Sharing massive files can be impossible if your free cloud storage program is limited to two gigabytes.
Also, the requirement to disclose the source of the funding since 2018 could show whether a venture capital group, hedge fund, a major accounting firm, or some wealthy individual hoping to start artificialintelligencelawyer.com had a financial interest in allowing nonlawyers to practice law or to allow nonlawyers to control law firms. This could discourage entities from funding these efforts in the future unless they are willing to do it openly and risk potential backlash.
So what happened? Maybe the legislators knew that previous efforts to improve legal services to the poor either didn’t work or had very questionable results. Opening more law schools in the state didn’t help, although it did increase the number of jobless graduates. Allowing non-ABA accredited law schools in the state didn’t seem to help much either as most of their graduates were unable to pass the bar exam. And, recently, the bar exam pass score has been lowered, which will increase the number of lawyers although whether this will help improve access to justice is questionable at best. The lesson here seems to be that increasing the supply of lawyers will not reduce lawyer fees to $19.95 plus shipping and handling.
And of course, there are the costs of running a business. The rent, taxes, insurance, and utility bills will remain the same whether you are a lawyer, mediator, paralegal, document preparer, community advocate, or a limited license legal technician. While it is honorable to provide help to people who can’t afford to pay, your landlord is not likely to act honorably if you miss the rent payment because you can’t afford to pay.
In the way the current system is set up now, if certain people genuinely want to improve access to justice, they will need to work with the existing legal community. I don’t know the solution, but a good start is to find ways to make their jobs easier and more efficient so that they can pass on the savings to their clients. Or work with law schools to expand their low-income legal clinics. Or lobby for more generous student loan forgiveness provisions for those who primarily help underserved communities. But the legislators have made it clear that they do not want nonlawyers practicing in the state.
Steven Chung is a tax attorney in Los Angeles, California. He helps people with basic tax planning and resolve tax disputes. He is also sympathetic to people with large student loans. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or you can connect with him on Twitter (@stevenchung) and connect with him on LinkedIn.