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A working group of the District of Columbia Bar is proposing steps that will facilitate the provision of limited scope legal representation. Limited scope representation makes legal services more affordable to low- and moderate-income individuals, by allowing them to use a lawyer for smaller tasks such a one-time consultation or help with preparing a document. Though the DC Rules for Professional Conduct have allowed for limited scope representation since 1991, the current proposals will facilitate limited scope arrangements and will provide protections to consumers who may not have experience with using lawyers.

First, the working group is encouraging lawyers engaging in limited representation arrangements to get written consent from the client for the services that the client wants to seek out. Additionally, while limited appearances in court are expressly permitted in certain DC courts, such as in Family Court, the working group is pushing to have limited representation more explicitly permitted throughout the Superior Court. The working group is also recommending lawyer training on managing limited scope clients. Finally, the working group is recommending the creation of materials for limited scope representation, which would include model consent forms and informational brochures for consumers. More information can be found in this article.

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Sunday, 21 March 2010 20:00

Better living through the law

Right now, much of the country's attention is focused squarely on Washington DC and on healthcare reform. No matter your political opinion of the bill that just passed the United States House of Representatives late last night, one thing is clear: new laws regarding your healthcare are likely on their way. That bill (which can be downloaded in PDF format here) is very long, very complicated, and may change many things about the way you receive healthcare coverage. One thing is clear: having affordable access to legal services will be as important as ever.

The more the law changes and the more comprehensive and complicated it becomes, the more people without adequate access to the legal system risk being victimized by the law -- regardless of how well-intentioned those laws might be. In a recent national study conducted by The Legal Services Corporation, less than one in five of the legal issues facing low-income legal consumers ever receive attention from a private or legal aid attorney. The study concludes that a likely reason for this is that low-income legal consumers often don't realize the legal implications of some of the issues they face and therefore do not seek assistance, even in the rare instances when it may be accessible to them.

As you find yourself adrift in a sea of political rhetoric about healthcare reform, don't forget that access to your legal rights can have every bit as much an effect on your life and your health as access to healthcare. So get engaged in the process of reforming the legal system. After all, while healthcare laws may be about to change, the unmet needs of legal consumers remains sadly constant. And whether you have to fight an insurance company, a doctor, or the Government, or even if you just need to know how the new laws may affect you; having access to effective and affordable legal services may be just what the doctor ordered.

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The ABA's Ethics 20/20 Commission has released its preliminary recommendations on alternative business structures for legal practices. Regrettably, as they promised in their earlier issue paper on this topic, they have not considered meaningful reforms such as allowing outside investment, which would allow innovation in the delivery of legal services that could benefit consumers. Instead, they have recommended  merely a modified version of the District of Columbia's existing rule on this issue.

The panel's recommendation would only allow minority investment from other professionals who take an active role in a law practice. The proposal does not even allow true multidisciplinary practice, where lawyers and other professionals work side-by-side to serve customers with a range of legal and non-legal needs.

American Lawyer has an article on the new recommendations, quoting Responsive Law's Tom Gordon. To see our original comments to the ABA, click here.

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Mark Childress was sworn in yesterday as the White House's Access to Justice Advisor, succeeding Laurence Tribe, who left last fall due to health problems. The Washington Post describes Childress as a "savvy Washington operator" who played a major behind-the-scenes role in the enactment of health-care reform and in handling federal judicial nominations. While Professor Tribe has left some large shoes to fill, we are pleased that the administration has chosen a serious political player as his replacement. We hope that Childress will quickly put those skills to use on behalf of the majority of Americans who lack meaningful access to the legal system.

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Michael Frisch of Georgetown Law Center has just written an outstanding and frightening post about an attempt by the District of Columbia Bar to quietly takeover control of the budget for the District's bar discipline office from the D.C. Court of Appeals. Taking over the budget for discipline would mean that lawyers would exercise financial control over its own prosecution for disciplinary violations. Professor Frisch calls this "the most dangerous idea in the history of the D.C. Bar." From a consumer perspective, it's hard to disagree.

An inherent problem of self-regulation of any profession, including law, is that practitioners may act in the best interests of their guild, rather than in the best interests of the public. There are many areas where this takes place in the regulation of the legal profession. For example, restrictions on who may provide law-related services, such as document preparation, are justified by the bar as consumer protection measures, but act primarily to prevent consumers from having access to low-cost, non-lawyer service providers who, not surprisingly, might be in direct competition with lawyers.

In disciplinary matters, the bar generally argues that outside regulation is unnecessary because it can act on its own to protect consumers from lawyers who act against their clients' interests. The problem with this argument is that most lawyer disciplinary systems are already weak, administering meaningful discipline in less than two percent of all complaints they receive. Taking away budgetary independence of bar counsel's office will further handcuff the many dedicated lawyers who are trying to police the profession on an already limited budget. Furthermore, it completely undermines the argument that the bar is capable of regulating itself.

I've only been a D.C. bar member for about half as long as Professor Frisch, so I don't have the historical knowledge to confirm his claim that this is "the most dangerous idea in the history of the D.C. Bar," but it would take a remarkably bad idea to top it.

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