February 21, 2024
Los Angeles, CA, Tuesday, March 2, 2021 - An exterior of the California State Bar headquarters building downtown.  (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

The California State Bar is working to develop low-cost quality legal services. But California lawmakers may shut down the possibility. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Each year, millions of Californians face civil legal problems — with healthcare, personal finances, employment, housing, family disputes or estates — but never get help from a lawyer.

Many of them earn too much to qualify for free legal services for the poor, but too little to afford a lawyer’s typical rate of $400 an hour. People concerned about this lack of access to justice have been working to develop new ways to offer quality legal services at a lower cost. A group led by the State Bar, which regulates lawyers, is considering innovative approaches that could involve licensing paraprofessionals or developing online tools, similar to the way TurboTax makes it easier for people to file their taxes without hiring an accountant.

Unfortunately, their ideas may never become reality. California lawmakers are on the cusp of shutting down this important work by putting so many limitations on the research that it would be impossible to develop an innovative proposal for how online legal services might work. Each year, the Legislature passes perfunctory, technical legislation allowing the bar to collect annual licensing fees from attorneys. This year, the Assembly Judiciary Committee that wrote Assembly Bill 2958 is using the process to block the bar from exploring changes to laws that govern who’s allowed to own a law practice, the issue that lies at the crux of the fight over developing affordable legal options .

This would be a drastic mistake by lawmakers — and is not even necessary. Once the working group comes up with a formal proposal to allow online legal services, it would need approval from the State Bar’s board of directors, the Legislature and the Judicial Council that administers the courts. So any new type of service that might launch would undergo layers of scrutiny, each one providing an opportunity to improve or reject the plan.

State law has long held that only lawyers can own businesses that provide legal services. The State Bar’s working group wants to explore the possibility of allowing partnerships so that nonlawyers — such as software developers, accountants or investors — could own a minority stake in an online legal platform. This idea threatens the status quo and has triggered an onslaught of criticism from lawyers who say new online competitors would put consumers at risk of fraud.

There’s also tension over whether the bar’s exploration of new models must focus on serving indigent people — as the pending bill requires — or a broader range of Californians, including many who have jobs but not enough money to hire a lawyer, a constituency the bar argues is vastly underserved.

Publicly, Assemblyman Mark Stone (D-Scotts Valley) and state Sen. Tom Umberg (D-Orange), who chair the Legislature’s judiciary committees and are pushing to kill the project, say the bar needs to focus on disciplining bad attorneys and not spend resources innovating new business models. They point to the bar’s embarrassing failure to discipline attorney Tom Girardi, who evaded scrutiny while he bilked clients for years, as well as its questionable treatment of lawyers involved in seeking repairs for Armenian genocide victims. An audit earlier this year found that the bar failed to properly investigate attorneys who were the subjects of numerous complaints.

The bar recognizes that it must improve oversight of the lawyers it licenses and has taken steps to strengthen its procedures, including hiring a new leader for its disciplinary unit. But there is no reason the bar can’t do that work while exploring new ways to serve Californians who lack affordable access to the justice system.

Lawmakers should amend AB 2958 so that research can continue on developing new ways of helping Californians who can’t afford a lawyer. Then, once a proposal is complete, they can evaluate if it serves the public interest and is worthy of approval.

This story originally appeared in legal-online-services” data-ylk=”slk:Los Angeles Times” class=”link “>Los Angeles Times.

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