Bar associations can play a major role helping or hindering the growth of the self-help law movement, and shlep hopes to cover developments within the organized bar that relate to achieving better access to justice and legal services for all Americans through self-help resources. As you can see from two of the links in our sidebar’s Self-Help Gateways collection (i.e., the ABA’s ProSe/Unbundling webpage and FindLegalHelp.org), the American Bar Association has been a positive force. But, we’re afraid the same cannot be said yet for many state and local bar associations.
For example, despite a few bright spots, ethicalEsq was pretty cranky back in August 2003, in a posting entitled “Finding Self-Help Info on Bar Ass’n Websites (Good Luck!).” Your Editor’s alter ego found that “It is rare to find a bar group that lets the public know about viable alternatives to hiring a lawyer for solving legal problems” and that the consistent Message from bar associations to consumers is “If you can afford a lawyer you should hire one. Only the indigent cannot afford a lawyer”. In numerous posts, ethicalEsq took bar groups — e.g., in Illinois and Maryland, New York and Ohio, Massachusetts — to task for obstructionist attitudes toward self-help law (including reform of small claims courts), while noting the occasional exception.
There are vast differences in approaches among bar associations across the nation (with unified bars apparently more amenable, in general, to self-help projects than their volunteer cousins). Thus, the California Bar presents a thoughtful discussion, in a divorce and separation pamphlet, on Do I Need a Lawyer? and Can I Handle My Divorce without a Lawyer?. However, the New York State Bar Association’s You and Your Lawyer e-pamplet opines:
Why you should not seek to handle your own legal affairs
A number of do-it-yourself “kits” are offered for sale from time to time. Kits are available for getting a divorce, declaring bankruptcy, or forming a business. It’s not illegal for you to use these for your own affairs; however, you risk paying the consequences. Kits may appear to save you money, but a minor detail, one that you might overlook but one that a lawyer is trained to notice, could result in a loss far greater than what you “save” by trying to be your own lawyer. After all, there’s an old saying, even for lawyers, that “he who represents himself has a fool for a client.” (emphasis added)
Similarly, although the Santa Clara County [CA] Bar Association has created an extensive Self-Help Law Center, the Public Resources sections of many other bar association websites have information limited to Grievance Procedures, the group’s own Lawyer Referral system, and pro bono resources (for the indigent and other disadvantaged groups).
As ethicalEsq pointed out last year, the President of one state bar association responded to an excellent report on the need to improve to access, through many types of pro se assistance, by writing an article asserting that self-represented litigants (plus judges and court employees) must be educated so they understand that every litigant needs a lawyer. He stated that a program would be established, that would match pro se litigants with attorneys who would charge them for their services (but, maybe a little less than usual, if necessary to get the business). The bar prez also complained that the self-represented got too much help at court, giving the “represented” clients the impression that they too might not need lawyers the next time they are at court.
There is much that bar groups can do to improve access to justice:
(1) Make unbundling an effective tool for making legal services cost-effective and allowing consumers a more central role in solving their own legal problems, by implementing needed changes in ethical rules and helping to educate the bar on the benefits and use of unbundling;
(3) Local bar groups could also recruit and train volunteers for hands-on assistance in programs similar to those in Duluth, MN, and Santa Clara, CA., where lawyers help persons with legal problems represent themselves. [Examples can be seen in the Dane County [WI] Bar Association’s Family Law Assistance Center, and the free divorce and custody clinics, and landlord-tenant resource center, sponsored by the D.C. Bar for persons wishing to represent themselves in such matters.]
(4) Conspicuously link to court-based programs in their jurisdictions from their association websites. [For example, there really should be an annotated link to this court Self-Help Center and its discussion on Deciding Whether to Represent Yourself on this state bar's Public Law Help page.] And,
(5) Lobby their legislature and judiciary for the funds and programs needed to make self-help a viable option for the public in as broad a spectrum of legal areas as possible.
Is your bar group a guide (helping to improve and expand self-help) or a guild (building walls against self-help and looking after the financial interests of lawyers first)? Please let shlep know what is happening in your bar association, and help make things happen yourself. [click to read more thoughts about the profession's guild mentality]
Which of the following symbols best represents the attitude of your bar group to the growth of self-help law?