What If Anyone Could Give Legal Advice? (Part 2)

Last week I speculated about what might happen if all Unauthorized Practice of Law statutes disappeared overnight, thus allowing anyone to give legal advice. The focus last week was on the likely effect of such a change on people who can’t afford to hire a lawyer. Today let’s look at people who can, or who think they can.

How many folks who need legal advice with typical problems (e.g., family law, real estate, insurance, debt, estate planning, landlord-tenant, minor criminal offenses) and who could afford to hire a lawyer would instead consider not just anyone, but a non-lawyer expert? In my view, quite a few.

Would (Just) Anyone Get Hired?

Most people in the purportedly shrinking middle class who can afford to drop $1500 or more up-front to get a lawyer to start work on a typical case are probably smart enough to understand that there are lots of people out there who know a lot about a particular area of law and could offer good advice without the benefit of a law degree.

Americans generally don’t believe they always need an expert to solve a complex problem. Many middle-class people sell their own homes—a complex transaction. People start new business all the time without consulting a lawyer. They trust software to do their taxes. The growth of online legal document services continues, despite controversy.

Why would these very same people, when facing a legal issue that they know lots of people have faced before, not at least check out the alternatives to lawyers? Experienced paralegals, court clerks, and legal secretaries could do a lot of this work well. These non-lawyer experts would also know when to refer potential clients to a lawyer. I am also convinced that high-quality advertising and marketing could effectively deliver the message that expertise gained through experience is more valuable than a law degree.

And, as with those who can’t afford to even consider hiring a lawyer, middle class people (particularly in the age of constant connection and communication) would spread the word quickly about which non-lawyer experts did good work. Referrals are everything, especially in a buyers’ market. This would likely quickly weed out low-quality “predatory” providers, or at least reduce their numbers down to relative insignificance.

Next week: the effect on the wealthy and large organizations.

(photo: http://flickr.com/photos/45126397@N06/4990557451/)

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  • Ashley

    You negotiate vendor contracts for a bank. Try actually practicing for a year. I did what you do before I ever even took the LSAT.

    Your arguments are invalid. You should probably give your degree back.

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

      How do you know what Andy did before he started this job? According to his bio, Andy has worked as a judicial law clerk, and had a solo practice.

  • http://www.passthebaton.biz/ Susan Gainen

    The trickiest part of this is hoping that the non-lawyer “experts” would know when to call in a lawyer. Having an unlicensed provider winging it just beyond her competence is a frightening proposition.

    Every first year student has had the cocktail party experience of being asked a “quick question” and knowing that the answer is either a case of first impression or an incredibly complex problem that might require a squad of expert and thousands of hours of work.

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/andymergendahl/ Andy Mergendahl

      A valid concern. But I don’t see how it’s more frightening for a client to trust an “unlicensed provider winging it just beyond her competence” than trusting a licensed attorney with zero experience winging it utterly beyond her competence. Every lawyer knows that a law license alone bestows no competence to do anything. But we continue to insist that it does.

  • http://sidebarforplaintiffs.naomifein.net Naomi Fein

    As a non-lawyer who does offer paralegal advice — advice that always leads to retaining a lawyer — I personally would never consult with a non-lawyer about a legal problem. The notion that recommendations from other laymen about who did a good job brings this whole question down to the Angie’s List level, and I don’t use Angie’s List, either. In my experience, people who “recommend” contractors, doctors, lawyers don’t know enough to evaluate the services they received. The ignorant kvetch factor rules. We seem to be living in an age in which the experts in complex matters are under assault, while in ascendance is the philosophy I call “I got a great idea, Mickey! Let’s us kids put on a show in the barn!”
    Me, I go only to professionals.

  • http://www.skipassets.com Peter Pitorri

    Any person who can read cites, case law, statutes, state codes, etc. can provide legal information; this is quoting of legal fact, or the sharing of information already in the public domain. Police officers do it all the time.

    Legal advice, on the other hand, comprises a formal opinion regarding substantive law, application of legal principles, and counsel or guidance as to how these principles and procedures can be applied to (the client’s) specific matter; this would include a recommendation to litigate, or to not litigate. Courts consider these advisements to be within the domain of officers of the court — lawyers who have the education, training, and in most cases, the experience to bring the matter forward in accordance with court procedures, and in many matters, applying the Federal Rules of Evidence, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, et al.

    You cannot seriously believe that a lay person would be able to bring these skills, knowledge, and abilities to a client’s table?

    • Andy Mergendahl

      You provide a definition of an experienced attorney, then categorize everyone who does not meet that definition as a layperson, meaning they have nothing to offer other than the ability to read. I see legal knowledge as a spectrum that runs from none to a whole lot. People who are well above the halfway point of the spectrum in a specific legal area might be helpful in that area, but are not allowed to be. You refer to “lawyers, who have…in most cases, the experience to bring the matter forward.” That goes directly to my point that licensure alone does nothing to make one competent to bring any matter forward. If we all agree that the licensure system does not ensure competence, perhaps we should thoughtfully consider what might result if a license were not required in order to attempt to be helpful.

  • Oliver Meehan

    Can I step in here and point out what normally pops up on LinkedIn when someone jumps on and asks a question like ‘can I do a will myself ?’.

    The answers are yes, you can, but eventually someone will note that getting a lawyer involved will not only (hopefully) mean proper advice is given, but that the client can rely on the lawyer’s professional indemnity insurance if it turns out the lawyer was incompetent. If a clerk etc gives incorrect advice then the ‘client’ may be stuck.

  • Oliver Meehan

    Also (sorry), a client who gets bad advice from a lawyer can normally make a complaint to the relevant bar association / law society, who may take disciplinary action. If a clerk gives bad advice and the ‘client’ makes a complaint, one possible outcome is the clerk’s manager banning the giving of advice in future to minimise liability.

    At government departments I deal with that have over-the-counter lodgement facilities you normally see signs like ‘staff are not authorised to give legal advice about form preparation.’ The policy behind those signs is sound.

  • http://www.PAinjurycase.com Dave S

    I definitely see a split between people who think they can go it without a lawyer (often we see them after the fact when their agreement, deal, transaction went bad) and others who will say they felt they did not want to deal/transact/contract without consulting a lawyer.
    Also, I do think that a lawyer can educate himself/herself in a new area of law and handle it competently- nothing wrong with that. Just need to know where to draw the line. The problem is ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’. I’ve always admired Solos but never envied them. I’ve liked the benefit of practicing in the same firm with other lawyers to be able to share and use the institutional knowledge of the firm.

  • Paul Schneider

    In Illinois which has a reputation for being one of the most corrupt, if not the most corrupt state in these United States of America our Cook, St. Clair, Sagamon, Madison, Williamson and Christian county circuit courts are in fact ongoing criminal enterprises judicial racketeering hellholes as definded in the media and as has been proven in our courts of law. Being a lisensed lawyer does not mean one is competent or an honest provider of legal services. Lawyers all over this nation are criminally practicing law with law licenses which is common knowledge. Good lawyers know the law and great lawyers know (payoff) the judges. Google “operation greylord” and judicial corruption.