1/19/12

What Are They Thinking?

Image [cc] Woody H1
Up-Front Disclosures: I volunteer for the Texas Access to Justice Commission (TAJC). Formerly, I worked with the Utah Access to Justice Planning Council and served as President of the Board of the Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake.
Crazy Times in Texas
The TAJC, in an obvious power grab, is driving an effort to offer forms to pro se litigants. In conjunction with the Uniform Forms Task Force, they want to make divorce filing documents readily available to those who cannot afford them. This is obviously an evil plan to take over the world.
In the other corner is the Family Law Section of the State Bar of Texas, “which oppose the forms and claim their use: could hurt the interest of people who use them; will not be limited to low-income Texans; could harm the livelihoods of … lawyers; and may expand to other practice areas besides family law.”
At least they were honest enough to add in the part about harming lawyers’ income. Where do I begin on the insanity of this …?
The basic argument of the Section is that it is better for people to have no access to justice, than allow for the potential of possible risk to them. Yeah - I get that they are representing the financial interests of their section membership here, but this doesn’t pass the ole smell test. Claiming to protect someone’s interest by leaving them out in the cold is just plain bad.
And why can I say this so directly? Ten years ago in Utah, a combined effort of the Court, the Bar, the legal services community AND the Family Law Section provided the exact same resource. It is an online, sophisticated document generation system available to anyone who wants to use it (including non-low income citizens). Did this result in drops in income for family lawyers? No, it did not.
At the time a good friend called me to say the Bar should sue the Court for the unauthorized practice of law. I suggested that would not happen and had a lively discussion with this older, self-proclaimed “bottom feeding” family law practitioner. I understood where he was coming from, since the system could impact his business. We had the same discussion about access to justice noted above. And what happened to him?
He started sending his clients to the forms system first, before he would meet with them. He basically out-sourced document drafting to the courts. Instead of spending his time drafting pleadings, he spent it counseling clients. His clients have very limited resources, so this new approach meant they were spending them on the highest value this lawyer had to offer. His business did not drop. He was happier and his clients were getting better value and service.
The crux of this issue actually hits the entire legal market. Lawyers will do much better to embrace change than fight it in the courts. The market will continue to progress either way. If the TAJC and Court do not meet this need, LegalZoom or someone else will. I recommend the Family Law Section reevaluate their approach to this effort and join with the TAJC. Here’s a novel idea along that line of thinking: Use the same forms as member benefit for your section. Add some additional tools and content on top of the forms and they become a high-value member benefit instead of a vague threat.
I’ll step down from my soap-box now. Having lived and breathed on the access to justice side of the profession, along with being involved in new technologies and change in general, made this a hot-button issue for me. I believe the profession is better than this and should work together to benefit clients and lawyers. This sort of public in-fighting benefits no one.

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7 comments:

Anonymous said...

It appears that the Utah forms are for uncontested matters. My experience is that there are people out there who will not use a lawyer even though they can afford to. The use of one-size-fits-all forms could very easily be a recipe for disaster, not just for the litigants but the courts too.

I've practiced for some time, and I've seen LOTS of pro se matters blow up and sometimes it's too late to fix things.

Anonymous said...

The Texas forms are ALSO for uncontested matters, just like the Utah forms. Anyone saying otherwise has bought the misinformation being spread by the family law section. Check it out for yourself. http://pdfserver.amlaw.com/tx/divorce_no_kids.pdf:

Lisa Rush said...

Great piece! Another benefit of uniform family law forms forms is increased pro bono work in family law. Non-family law lawyers will be more comfortable doing pro bono work in family law when they have confidence that the forms they are use are court-approved.

Texas has one standardized form now -- a protective order form. There is only one state with a more pathetic uniform forms program -- Mississippi.

Greg Lambert said...

Having lived in Mississippi for a number of years, we should change our motto from The Magnolia State to the "We Just Kept You From Being Ranked 50th! You're Welcome!" State.

Lewis Kinard said...

Toby,
As usual, your pragmatism shines through. Thanks for sharing your experienced perspective on this.

The outcry is loud, but seems to be from a vocal minority.

Steve Bresnen said...

One of the Geeks works for Vinson and Elkins. Harry Reasoner's a top guy there; Mr. Reasoner chairs the group that came up with this stuff.

The first forms produced are for uncontested matters with no kids, but the Task Force has already begun preparing forms for contested cases with kids, real property--the gamut. They sent up the uncontested forms so they could make just the argument made here. This is a strategy suggested to them from high up. Don't make me prove it!

It's stated mission is to draft forms for probate, guardianship, landlord/tenant,consumer, employment and other areas of law practice. Nor are the forms for low-income people; this new social service is for people who can afford a lawyer but want to do-it-themselves.

You may think this is good policy and you're entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts.

Toby Brown said...

Steve - you missed that fact that I used to work for Fulbright with Jim Sales, the former chair of the group. Although I have no idea what that has to do with this or the facts.

I have no involvement in this project, only the knowledge of the fact that it worked fine in Utah and about 20 other states. Oh yeah - and that it wasn't an evil plot there to steal work from lawyers.

 

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