NJSBA Advocacy Successful at ABA Mid-Year Meeting to Protect Lawyers and Find Ways to Close Justice Gap

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For Immediate Release
Contact: Kate Coscarelli, Associate Executive Director, Communications

The New Jersey State Bar Association’s zealous efforts succeeded in clearing the way for innovations to help address the justice gap, while ensuring each state should pursue the path that is right for it and collect data to determine future plans. The NJSBA’s advocacy also reaffirmed that the model rules continue to oppose nonlawyer ownership of law firms and that there should be no erosion to rules governing the unauthorized practice of law. 

Over the past few weeks, the NJSBA had expressed strong opposition to Resolution 115 that the American Bar Association’s House of Delegates was scheduled to vote on at the Mid-Year Meeting in Austin on President’s Day. Thanks to the work of the delegation throughout the weekend, the resolution and its accompanying report were completely revised to address the concerns the NJSBA, and several other groups, had expressed. 

Importantly, the resolution that was nearly unanimously adopted noted that it should not be viewed as an endorsement to change any model rules that relate to nonlawyer ownership of firms or nonlawyers doing legal work. In addition, the report that accompanied the resolution said it is important to gather more data before determining if any regulatory changes should be considered about how legal services are delivered.

While the New Jersey delegation is not large in comparison to many other states, it is able to wield influence. In addition to NJSBA President Evelyn Padin and President-Elect Kimberly A. Yonta, the delegation is led by past NJSBA President Wayne Positan, includes a number of other past presidents and members with a long history of leadership in the ABA. Among them are past ABA President Paulette Brown, past NJSBA President Lynn F. Newsome, a current member of the ABA Board of Governors, past NJSBA President Karol Corbin Walker, who once led the National Conference of Bar Presidents. The chairs of two of the ABA’s largest divisions are also active NJSBA members and part of the New Jersey Delegation: Jonathan Wolfe leads the Section of Family Law and Rick DeMichele heads the Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division. Both groups were important in the effort to make the changes sought in Resolution 115 and its accompanying report.

The NJSBA is grateful to the entire New Jersey delegation for its outstanding work on behalf of our state.

Read the updated resolution here, and additional coverage here.

Prior to the meeting, the NJSBA outlined its concerns in a news alert sent to the membership last week.

Read the full position below.

NJSBA Opposes Plans to Allow Non-Lawyers to Offer Legal Services and Own Firms

The New Jersey State Bar Association takes tremendous pride in serving as the professional home of over 18,000 attorneys, judges, law students and other legal professionals. Looking out for your interests is the first goal of our mission for a reason. We take it seriously.

That is why it is important to update you today about an issue that is being debated on a national stage and what the NJSBA is doing to stand up for our members.

Once again, the issue of non-lawyer legal service providers and non-lawyer owned law firms will take centerstage when the American Bar Association meets next week for its Mid-Year Meeting in Austin. The ABA, which describes itself as the national voice of the legal profession, is using the noble concept of providing greater access to justice as a cloak that masks a war on attorneys.

At that meeting, the House of Delegates will consider Resolution 115 proposed by the ABA’s Center for Innovation that asks state regulators and bar associations to continue to explore regulatory changes that will loosen rules on who can do legal work. While the resolution appears innocuous, the report that accompanies it encourages authorization of new forms of legal service providers who are not lawyers and dismantling of regulations governing the unauthorized practice of law to allow these providers to practice law and to allow non-lawyer ownership of law firms. Those changes could cause significant harm, in particular, to the solo and small-firm attorneys who form the core of the New Jersey legal community.

The NJSBA vigorously opposes Resolution 115 with a group of like-minded states, and has asked its delegates to vote no when it is presented.

At the same meeting the ABA will give its Louis M. Brown Award for Legal Access, an award that borrows its name from a man who spent 60 years working to improve access to legal services for those of moderate incomes, to a robot. The award this year will go to DoNotPay, a legal app billed as the world’s first robot lawyer.

The claim is that these methods will open the doors of the courthouse to more people.

The reality is very different.

The corporate entities supporting these changes are doing so to make money in what they believe is a lucrative market.

Worse, for the public, any cost-savings realized through a legal service program where a lawyer is not involved in the analysis of the information nor the issuance of advice is not worth it, and, in fact, is a false promise. They lull the public into believing that these programs are a reliable alternative to attorneys, indeed a better alternative, when they are not backed by the knowledge, expertise and ethical safeguards that only an attorney can provide.

Indeed, many New Jersey practitioners report to us that they are routinely called upon in times of crisis because the legal help those providers gave turned out to be incorrect and must be fixed by an attorney whose is guided by their duty to clients to provide undivided loyalty, independent judgment, absolute confidence and avoidance of conflicts of interest.

The NJSBA recognizes there is an access to justice problem for many people. This is not just an issue for our poorest residents, but also many middle-income people who face legal issues and cannot afford the prevailing rate of private attorneys. There is no evidence whatsoever that these non-lawyer programs actually improve access to justice.

That’s exactly why the NJSBA is developing a technology platform that provides a way to match up attorneys who are willing to work at reduced rates with members of the public who qualify for reduced-fee legal services. Our ultimate goal is to make this program, called Legal Edge, a free statewide resource that county and affinity bars can also use to launch their own reduced-fee platforms.

We believe our program is a better solution than having corporate entities like Walmart owning law firms and non-lawyers practicing law. That is simply a money-making endeavor and danger to the public, rather than the panacea the supporters of these initiatives purport them to be.

That is why we oppose the measures being presented next week and will continue to do so on behalf of our members and on behalf of the residents of our state.