Is there any room in the provision of legal services for nonlawyers?

The immediate answer given by UPL attorneys is usually a cautious, “No, but.”

And that makes sense. No one (well, almost no one) wants legal advice dispensed by people who are not trained and admitted to do it. The results could be disastrous.

But the “but,” even among UPL attorneys, comes from their awareness that certain self-help centers, some even sited in courthouses, fill an important unmet need. As the category of Americans who cannot afford a lawyer grows, centers like those provide crucial assistance (though it is arguably nowhere near the quality you could achieve by consulting with a lawyer).

The current Consumer Reports, though, fails to make a distinction between subpar legal online dispensaries and resources like those. And that has upset a reliable and trustworthy advocate for access to justice.

Richard Zorza calls out Consumer Reports and its article “Legal DIY Websites Are No Match for a Pro,” dismayed by the magazine’s failure to distinguish between the resources. As he says, the article “failed completely to tell consumers of the wide availability of free non-profit information and forms on the Internet, accessible directly through LawHelp and others, and the courts themselves.”

Here is the complete article, so you can decide for yourself if the publication should have added a few lines about the legal value to be derived from sources other than lawyers.

I found the article pretty helpful in its review of various legal products. My biggest surprise (and here I may get in trouble with some law schools) was whom the editors selected as its judges and reviewers. For an article whose purpose was to discover which company delivered the best product in practice, they didn’t turn to people in practice. Instead, they turned to … law professors.

In its analysis of offerings from Nolo, LegalZoom and RocketLawyer, editors asked the academy for law practice answers:

“Using their online worksheets or downloads, we created a will, a car bill of sale for a seller, a home lease for a small landlord, and a promissory note. We then asked three law professors—Gerry W. Beyer of Texas Tech University School of Law, who specializes in estates and trusts; Richard K. Neumann of Hofstra University, a contract specialist; and Norman Silber, an expert in consumer and commercial law at Hofstra and Yale—to review in a blind test the processes and resulting documents.”

Excellent legal minds all, I’m certain. But in my years as a lawyer, active and inactive, it has never occurred to me to refer someone with a legal need to a law professor. How about, instead, asking lawyers who write these legal documents every day to review the products? Even better, ask lawyers who are actually Certified Specialists in those areas, rather than profs who (lowercase) “specialize.”

It occurred to me that the magazine editors may be nonlawyers themselves and therefore were unaware that it would help to turn to lawyers for this task.

Given the subject matter, ironic, don’t you think?

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