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Non-lawyers owning firms, providing legal services poses threat to N.J. legal system, NJSBA task force finds

The New Jersey State Bar Association reaffirmed its steadfast opposition to non-lawyers providing legal services and owning law firms in a position paper that disputed the concept’s purported goal of expanding access.

Opening the practice of law and firm ownership to non-lawyers – a trend seen in some states and abroad – raises serious concerns that attorneys will be stripped of their professional independence and forced to place corporate motives above their legal and ethical obligations to serve their clients’ best interests, the paper states.

“The threat posed to the public and individual clients by non-lawyers practicing law and performing legal work outweighs the potential for good. Although the NJSBA remains mindful of the needs throughout New Jersey for affordable and low-cost legal services, inviting non-lawyers to practice law is not the solution,” according to the paper.

The paper was prepared by two dozen attorneys on the NJSBA’s Task Force on the Future of the Legal Profession, who were tapped to study the risks of law practices being taken over by financial institutions and programs that have non-lawyers to provide legal advice in lower-level matters. The Board of Trustees adopted it as official NJSBA policy in July. Advocates for this direction argue that it’s the best way to foster competition and innovation in the profession – to provide access to justice at lower cost for people who otherwise couldn’t afford an attorney.

Numerous studies, research and evidence reviewed by the task force, however, point to the opposite conclusion, according to NJSBA Treasurer Norberto Garcia, who co-chaired the task force.

“This position to expand the practice of law to non-lawyers is being promoted by interests outside the legal profession. It is our position that these groups do not have the legal profession and the clients they serve at heart when they promote these positions,” Garcia said. “These interest groups are not going to serve the areas of the law that are underserved and less financially viable. They will target the profit centers. They will encroach on a population which is already served by the legal community without providing any substantive or needed legal services to the underserved populations of our state. We as lawyers should not support changes that will drain us financially while doing nothing to address unmet legal needs.”

In New Jersey, the negative effects of legal services provided by non-lawyers stretch across many practice areas, according to the paper. Divorces have been delayed and made more costly because of improperly prepared paperwork by low-cost non-attorney divorce services. Families navigating the Medicaid eligibility maze can risk losing eligibility by receiving poor guidance from non-lawyer advisers. Poorly drafted contracts, wills and promissory notes also create huge burdens on the courts when errors lead to litigation, the task force found.

Perhaps the most glaring and consequential missteps by non-lawyers occur in immigration law, according to the task force. Many immigrants have had their legal status endangered by untrained notaries, commonly referred to as notarios, who present themselves as attorneys familiar with the immigration procedures when they are not, in fact, lawyers. Notarios often convince members of immigrant communities to pay exorbitant fees for the application of immigration benefits for which they were never eligible, which often triggers the deportation process. The errors are not only financially devastating, but also break up families and take parents away from their natural-born U.S. citizen children, the position paper noted.

Proponents of expanding non-lawyer legal services point to how cost-prohibitive quality legal services are to low-income clients, the lack of attorneys to fill the justice gap and those who might benefit from limited-scope legal assistance. But programs in the few states that allow non-lawyers to provide legal services in specific areas of the law have either failed or lack data on their efficacy, the paper states. The task forces noted that Washington – the first state to regulate, license and authorize non-lawyers to practice law – was forced to reverse course after its limited license legal technician program failed to garner enough interest or consumers. Other states such as Florida and California have explored similar programs and voted to reject or suspend them in favor of alternatives.

One of the best ways to help clients who fail to qualify for state legal services but cannot afford private counsel is to match them with lawyers willing to work pro bono or at a reduced rate, the task force found.

“The NJSBA recognizes that there is a segment of the public that need legal representation but cannot afford to hire an attorney. Many of these litigants have a difficult choice to make: abandon the legal matter or attempt to navigate the legal system on their own,” the paper states.

Technology platforms like Legal Edge, proprietary software developed by the NJSBA, are able connect attorneys willing to work at lower rates with members of the public who cannot afford the market rates of attorneys. The effort matches the access to justice measures undertaken by bar associations across the country to provide legal service and pro bono programs to underserved populations.

The task force also suggested developing and enhancing existing referral services in the state, supporting significant contributions of law firm pro bono efforts and recruiting New Jersey’s law schools, the NJSBA and other bar associations for clinics.

Though not a panacea, the task force believes these efforts can go long way in closing the justice gap for those unable to afford legal counsel and thwarting the encroachment of online legal services in the profession.

“The NJSBA is committed to continually exploring new and innovative ways to make affordable and accessible attorney-provided legal information, guidance and representation available to individuals unable to afford it otherwise,” according to the task force.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
August 7, 2023
Contact: Thomas Nobile
Director of Communications
Tel: 732-937-7527
[email protected]

Contact: NJSBA Communications Department
Tel: 732-937-7527
Email: [email protected]

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