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ABA Takes First, Cautious Steps Towards Nonlawyer Legal Services

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on February 11, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

After contentious debate, the delegates to the ABA's midyear meeting adopted a modest proposal to give states a framework for considering regulation of "nontraditional legal service providers."

The resolution does not endorse nonlawyer legal services, nor does it call for the repeal of laws against practicing a law without a license. But it is radical in that it acknowledges that some states may consider allowing nonlawyers to perform certain legal tasks and creates guiding principles to help them get there.

Worse Than Flint or a Necessary Evolution?

The debate over the proposal, Resolution 105, was heated. Some delegates worried that it would take away business from attorneys who are already struggling. Others, that it would lead to the creation a lower tier of less-qualified legal providers, particularly for the poor. One attorney equated nonlawyer legal services for the indigent with the poisoning of Flint, Michigan's water.

Supporters, however, claimed the resolution was a necessary step towards helping improve access to justice and reducing the cost of simple legal services.

Opponents included the New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Nevada, and Texas bars, according to The American Lawyer, along with the ABA's litigation and solo and small firm sections. Backing the resolution were the South Carolina, Washington State, and San Francisco bars, along with the ABA's business law section.

Just What Does It Say?

Resolution 105 establishes 10 "model regulatory objections for the provisioning of legal services." Allowing nonlawyer legal services is not one of these. Instead, the objections are largely benign, covering things like "protection of the public," "meaningful access to justice," and "protection of privileged and confidential information."

The resolution urges states to apply those objectives "when they assess the court's existing regulatory framework and any other regulations that may choose to develop concerning non-traditional legal services providers." In other words, should you consider loosening the rules against unauthorized practice of law, let these points guide you.

However, opponents of nonlawyer legal services didn't lose out entirely. Before the resolution was adopted, they forced the addition of language stating that nothing in the resolution "abrogates in any manner any ABA policy prohibiting non lawyer ownership of law firms." So there's that.

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