Serving Clients in New Ways

This morning, a panel spoke about the urgent need for lawyers to provide alternatives to full legal representation, as well as the pitfalls that can occur if the attorney doesn’t attend to details.

The panel, titled “Unlocking the Door to Justice,” kicked off with Nancy Greenlee talking about the ethical rules that are implicated when you engage in representation on discrete elements of a client’s matter. One of the important elements that the Ethics Committee member highlighted was the need to have a written fee agreement even in pro bono or limited-representation matters. “It will remind the client, clarify the issues, and make sure they understand.”

There was also a conversation on the panel and among the audience about the propriety of “ghostwriting” pleadings and other paperwork for a client who wishes to represent herself. Greenlee said that there was nothing ethically requiring a lawyer to disclose to everyone that she was assisting on the papers. Although it might be nice to know, “It may be better for a pro per to get some guidance,” even if unacknowledged, than to get nne at all.

Some raised the question of whether lawyers who assist pro pers right up to the courthouse door are leading them to the brink of disaster when the pro per then tries a case himself.

Lawyer Diane Drain said that she recommends to those people that they sit through a court proceeding that is similar to their own case. After they see that, she said, many opt to retain competent counsel.

Drain then spoke about the balancing act bankruptcy courts must do, as more and more people seek to represent themselves. She said that 20 percent of the filings this year are pro se, and the number is expected to rise.

“We’re a cowboy-type society in Arizona,” Drain said, “and people have a right to file on their own.” But judges and others warn litigants that the self-representation path is a dangerous one.

Drain described some efforts by the bankruptcy bar and the courts to help litigants, and to help the lawyers who want to assist those people. A DigiCounsel video serves as a primer on bankruptcy law, primarily Chapters 7 and 13 of the Internal Revenue Code. Litigants who would like to meet with a bankruptcy attorney for 20 minutes at no charge must first view the video and complete a questionnaire.

Self-help may only go so far, though. Drain said that former Bankruptcy Chief Judge Redfield Baum used to open public seminars on the topic with a simple phrase: “Go get an attorney.”

More information is on the Web at the court’s website.

Also presented was information about the Native Education Legal Line (NELL) and other media that provides legal information to an Indian audience. At last count, NELL provides more than 100 recordings in various legal areas.

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