An upcoming report from a leading legal ethics group could add significant momentum to the growing movement to bridge the chronic legal services gap for middle-class and poorer citizens.
The study from the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers likely will make concrete suggestions, including rule changes, to spur states to increase access to legal services, according to leaders of the group.
This could include suggested changes to Rule 5.4 to open law firm ownership to nonlawyers, alterations that could redefine who can practice law, and reforms to make cross-state border representations easier.
APRL is relatively small when compared with the American Bar Association, but its recommendations in issues like lawyer advertising have carried weight. The group’s access to justice report could be released as soon as August. Both groups have been meeting over the last several days in Austin, Texas.
The timing could be key: The ABA and the Conference of Chief Justices—following the cues of several state and big-city bar groups—have been moving in recent months toward recommending changes designed to address the near-consensus notion that the country is facing an access to justice crisis.
“We are filling a void by looking at the big picture,” said Art Lachman, a Seattle-based ethics and professional responsibility lawyer who is co-chair of APRL’s Future of Lawyering Committee. “The idea is to try to change the way people think about these issues globally.”
The APRL report will include data from state bar disciplinary offices that look at how often current law firm ownership regulations have been violated.
Lachman and committee co-chair Jan Jacobowitz had originally aimed for an earlier release date, but are now glad for the delay, they say, so that they can incorporate lessons learned by the three states experimenting with possible rule changes—California, Utah, and Arizona. They will use the report to address long-standing concerns of some within the ABA, and their own group, about the need to protect lawyer independence and legal services consumers.
The Conference of Chief Justices also recently weighed in on the debate, echoing the ABA’s proposed call for more state-level innovation. The group, which addresses administration of justice issues in the United States on behalf of the top justices in each state’s court sysytem, urged its members Feb. 5 “to consider regulatory innovations that have the potential to improve the accessibility, affordability and quality of civil legal services, while ensuring necessary and appropriate protections for the public.”
If enough states adopt such reforms, it could grant the Big Four accountancies and other alternative legal service providers regulatory latitude to compete directly with the largest U.S. law firms.
“We saw what happened” when the ABA’s Center for Innovation recently released Resolution 115, said Jacobowitz. That proposal, which encourages jurisdictions to consider “innovative approaches” toward increasing access to justice while also ensuring ethics protections aren’t diminished, sparked concerns in the form of a Jan. 30 letter from six state bar presidents and others that argued that the proposal risks hurting the industry’s “critical values.” The opponents said that nonlawyer ownership could lead to compromises in lawyers’ independent professional judgments. Other critics have expressed concerns about the possibility of diminished legal representation.
The list of 20 signers to that letter included at least one APRL member, Tom Wilkinson. And at least one other member of both APRL and the ABA, Dennis Rendleman, has expressed similar concerns.
Jacobowitz, APRL’s current president, and Lachman said they plan to include the views of all sides, including reform critics, as they put together their report. “We want to dispel some of these fears,” Jacobowitz said.
APRL reports on other issues have made their marks before. Most recently, in 2015 and 2016, the group suggested that lawyer advertising rules be streamlined to better focus on reducing false and misleading claims.
The ABA eventually followed suit with its own suggestions—but not before Virginia became the first jurisdiction to embrace the substance of APRL’s suggestions.