|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.