Consumer Legal Services
A Modest Proposal
I've got it. We can solve this mess. I have no doubt it's expensive, time-consuming, and difficult to get through law school. And now, in this economy, it must be tough to find a position that justifies paying out all that money.
And, even worse, the DIY, self-help, consumer legal services pro se movement is alive and well. Citizens are increasingly taking the law into their own hands – legally. In general, legal services in Florida fall woefully short of serving the public.
Many consumers would rather not handle their legal matters themselves, but find they must help themselves or go without. Hiring an attorney has become a luxury reserved for the wealthy or desperate.
Costs for divorces can easily climb to $10,000 - for each side. Attorneys have a penchant for fanning the flames of dispute. Imagine.
I'm not here to bash attorneys. I'm sure some attorneys offer pro bono services; and offer helpful and reasonably priced consumer legal services. Others engage in public interest law. And, still others handle complicated litigation. All good, that's what we need them for.
All too often, however, the average consumer has a dispute, and so, seeks legal advice. And, also, all too often, the attorney advises during the free initial consultation, that if the consumer would like to retain him/her – sign on the bottom line to get things started; and write a retainer check for a $1500., $2500., or $5,000. No guarantees.
Often the consumer doesn't know how the attorney plans to earn the money, and doesn't know what to ask. So, our consumer either pays the money or goes away.
Small Claims & Family Law Mediation
Now my proposal. First, let's banish attorneys from certain consumer legal service arenas. Small claims for starters. Small claims court is supposed to be the people's court. Some jurisdictions around the country have already done this.
Let's also banish attorneys from all family law mediations. The parties are much more likely to come to an agreement in the best interests of their children without two attorneys present.
The banishment portion of my proposal is minor. I'm a good capitalist. I want the free market to dominate the consumer legal services marketplace, with as little or as much regulation as necessary to keep the process fair.
Let Free Market Forces Do The Work
The meat and potatoes of my proposal is borrowed from the tax preparation industry.
We have tiered choices regarding who prepares our annual tax returns. Consumers may
- prepare their own return, manually or software assisted;
- go to a franchise or independent tax preparation company, where they prepare the return manually or software assisted;
- go to an accountant for tax preparation services, taking advantage of and paying for the accountant's specialized knowledge;
- go to a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) for tax preparation services, taking advantage of and paying for the CPA's deep and detailed knowledge of taxes, finances, and accounting.
Which choice the consumer uses depends on his available funds; and the complexity of his tax return.
The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) does a good job of providing complex information to the public. DIY consumers and tax preparers can look up information online; go to a local office and ask a question; or call a toll free number to speak to a live person.
It may be time consuming to find tax information and answers, but it is far easier than finding answers to general legal questions.
Courts Struggle to Provide the Needs of the Public
There is no reliable free or low cost way for a consumer to find legal information. Legal information is widely available online; but difficult to sift through.
Many Circuits and Clerks have tried to enable the people they serve with websites, brochures, packets, and staff, but the results have been inconsistent and sometimes even more confusing.
Law libraries are reliable; but may not be user friendly. There is no one to go see; or call up and ask a question. Many consumers believe that the clerk of court's job is to help consumers file their legal pleadings. Not necessarily so.
A 2-tier System in a 3-tier World
Clerks of court are prohibited from answering legal questions. There is no one to ask, unless you are indigent and qualify for government funded legal services; or you have the money to pay an attorney. Once again, middle Americans, the 80% in that middle tier, are left out in the cold.
In the tax preparation industry, paid tax preparers do not need any special license or certificate to legally offer tax advice. Typically tax preparers pass a course, and then learn on the job.
Accountants complete various types of specialized education. And from what I understand the CPA test is much more difficult than the Bar Exam.
In the legal industry only attorneys may offer legal advice. I propose that legal document preparers be allowed to give limited legal advice. As long as the consumer knows the nonlawyer, whoever it is, is not an attorney. Why not? What's the harm?
Justice is Blind
The prohibition from nonlawyers giving legal advice is ostensibly based on consumer protection. But, aren't consumers harmed more by going without any consumer legal services help at all? Or worse, seeking legal remedies pro se, and ignorant. The blindfold on lady justice was not intended for the litigants!
It is conceivable that consumers could be given bad advice by a nonlawyer. It is also conceivable that consumers could be given bad advice by a lawyer. The latter could cause just as much if not more harm than the former.
I say, let the marketplace find the sweet spot. Let the marketplace decide. Let the customers/clients vote with their feet and dollars. If my auto mechanic happens to be knowledgeable about the law, why shouldn't I rely on him for legal advice? I'm an adult, shouldn't it be my choice – who I listen to, and to whom I don't?
Look where we are. This country is embroiled in the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Did the lawyers cause it? Probably not.
A Simple Solution Can Solve Many Needs
Could the consumers and citizens of America use some help solving the problems we face. Absolutely. Yes, please. We need sharp legal minds to unravel our country's problems.
Corruption is rampant. White collar crime is at an all time high. The wealth of Middle America is being systematically stolen by a corrupt banking system; lax regulators; indecipherable laws; and an elitist legal system. How can it be in this great country, that so-called “Robo-signing” could even exist?
How could fraudulent foreclosures even happen? Are you braced for the next wave? The wave of fraudulent law suits claiming deficiency judgments against people who have already lost their homes.
So, in my modest proposal, the lawyers can get to work, working for the people; and LDP's can handle the routine legal work. There are plenty of important disputes and guilty people to sue. Sue the banks, the mortgage brokers, and the scammers.
Lawyers can use their education and position in the marketplace to solve the big problems, not make them worse. Lawyers have maintained a stranglehold on the legal system, and look where we are. I'm saying loosen it up. Open up consumer legal service access to the people, by the people, and for the people. And let's all get out of this mess.
If you're not part of the solution – you're part of the problem.