If we all woke up one day and found that statues prohibiting the Unauthorized Practice of Law (UPLs) had simply disappeared, making it legal for anyone to give legal advice, what would happen?
But how would lawyers react? Would they jump off tall buildings? Riot in the streets? Occupy courthouses coast-to-coast? Or just become better and more efficient at their jobs? And if they couldn’t do that, would they just go do something else for a living?
As we discussed earlier, successful lawyers working for wealthy clients would not find their lives changed much. Their clients are able and willing to pay for the degree from the prestigious law school, the fancy office, the sky-high fees, etc.
For lawyers representing the poor, it’s a fascinating question. Legal aid organizations would still exist, as they are well-established and generally considered effective. But if they could deliver their services by employing non-lawyer experts for the simpler tasks, they could stretch their budgets further and do more good. Public defender organizations, whose budgets are an easy bipartisan target for cuts, could do likewise.
Lawyers who work for poor clients on contingency fees would have nothing to fear from this change either, as their clients pay the lawyer only after a settlement or judgment. These attorneys could advertise their “traditional” lawyer status and presumably continue to do well.
But what of that large group of lawyers that serve the middle class and largely are paid by the hour? They’d face real challenges.
Over the years, state bar associations and the ABA snatched out-of-court legal services that had been performed by non-lawyer experts, and got them reserved to lawyers only. If legal practice were deregulated, it would be that previously non-lawyer work, like advising people on the state of the law and assisting them in preparing and filing documents, that would again be offered by non-lawyers. Those clients could ultimately be pro se if the matter were litigated, but of course they could lawyer-up at any time. If UPLs disappeared I don’t imagine a lot of non-lawyers would attempt to become courtroom attorneys. That work requires mastery of not only of statutes but of case law, court rules and procedures, as well as some skill at public speaking.
So lawyers who do only out-of-court work would be the most likely to lose middle-class clients. These attorneys currently work in areas like property law, insurance, contracts, wills and estate planning, and advising small businesses and non-profits. There would be downward pressure on fees, and lawyers would have to determine how to distinguish themselves from not only other lawyers but from non-lawyer experts as well.
Law firms that currently serve business clients might also face competition from accounting firms, management consulting firms, insurance agencies and other non-lawyer experts currently restricted from providing legal advice in the areas where they are experts.
This would make a tough economy even tougher on some attorneys, but it would provide consumers with lower costs and more choices. I’m convinced that most consumers would prefer that to the current system.
Next week: Effect on Law Schools