So, Who Needs a Lawyer Anyway?
My father, Shep Lesser, of blessed memory, used to tell clients that they “could pull out their own tooth, but it’s probably a better idea to let the dentist do it.” He was referring to what we now call “greater access to legal services,” which is a major priority for The Florida Bar this year.
People generally understand they need a doctor, the professional best equipped to get the best outcome for a serious medical issue. But increasingly, however, people don’t understand that lawyers can best guide them through legal challenges for a better outcome.
The issue of available, affordable legal services is not just a Florida issue, but a national issue. And it’s not a new problem, but rather a decades old problem that has become far more acute over the last few years. And it will be in Florida where we turn the corner and provide pragmatic, realistic solutions that will significantly move the needle so more Floridians will have access to legal services.
We have some interesting data to consider. Eighty percent of low-income individuals don’t know if they can afford legal assistance, and up to 60% of the middle-class respondents have their legal needs going unmet depending on the issue. On the other hand, there are surveys that show that 91% believe that retaining a lawyer would help protect their rights or interests, and 84% believe that hiring a lawyer results in a better or more equitable outcome.
So, on the one hand, people are increasingly not hiring lawyers, but on the other hand, people realize the great benefit of hiring a lawyer to protect themselves and their families. There is a serious disconnect between the legal profession and the general public, and that will be the focus of our efforts going forward.
First, The Florida Bar will be launching a public education campaign called “Life Legal Moments,” which focuses on when people really need a lawyer for significant life moments. There will be articles, short videos, a robust internet presence, and more to educate the public about the benefit of hiring a lawyer versus the dangers of going without. The program will stress the importance of hiring a lawyer to make sure people have a properly prepared will or trust, having legal guidance when they buy or sell a home, and other life challenges that greatly affect someone and their family if they don’t have representation. And this legal representation needs to be more accessible and affordable.
This connects directly to the issue of greater access to legal services. A few months ago, at the request of the Florida Supreme Court, the Special Committee on Greater Public Access to Legal Services was appointed by me and then President Michael Tanner, and they are hard at work.
Past efforts over the years have focused on studying these issues from a 30,000-foot perspective. Where we need to be, however, is in the trenches, looking at real solutions that will improve access for pro se litigants, and look at ways of expanding the availability of pro bono and legal aid services, which are so helpful for so many Floridians. Previous suggestions to share fees with non-lawyers and allow non-lawyer ownership of law firms is a one-way street to the end of the independence of the legal profession and the ethical rules we follow to protect our clients and the public at large.
These are longstanding problems that don’t have an “easy fix.” But in the short term, the issue of affordable legal services can be addressed in many ways, including unbundled legal services, prepaid service plans, increased use of certified legal interns, and other tools so lawyers can provide legal services their clients can afford to pay.
In the long term, we should be looking at broader changes that could improve how the legal system serves the general public, as that’s our primary job. In the years ahead, we should evaluate how law schools prepare law students for the actual practice of law, and to consider a more formal internship program, which could indeed expand the pool of legal professionals that are able to help people with legal challenges in their lives. But that is beyond the purview of the special committee’s work.
We look forward to sending our recommendations to the Florida Supreme Court by the end of this calendar year, and we look forward to working with the court to implement real solutions so more Floridians and their families will have greater access to affordable and accessible legal services.