Commission on Multidisciplinary Practice
Center for Professional Responsibility
American Bar Association
541 North Fairbanks Court
Chicago, Illinois 60611-3314
Re: Request to testify at the ABA
Dear Commission Members:
I have worked for many years to provide a broad array of services to low- and moderate-income families in Birmingham, Alabama. While our focus is on core services, such as providing alcohol and drug counseling, dealing with domestic relations issues and securing home heating assistance for families in need, I regularly come across the issue of access to quality legal services. Low- and moderate-income individuals and families face countless legal situations every year. The Comprehensive Legal Needs Study, commissioned by the ABA and conducted in 1993, found that, in a single year, approximately 7.6 million low income households and approximately 30.9 million moderate income households faced at least one situation that raised a legal issue. These situations are often complex, relating to such issues as personal finances and estate planning, housing, domestic relations and family law, personal injury, and employment – all areas where the assistance of a lawyer might have been beneficial. Sadly, I see too many of our clients fall between the cracks when it comes to obtaining needed legal services.
While the poor often qualify for free legal assistance and the wealthy can afford private lawyers, the people in the middle, including the working poor, often do not seek out or cannot access necessary legal services. High cost is a significant, but not the sole, factor. Members of low- and moderate-income households also often do not call upon lawyers because they believe that their problems are not sufficiently legal or that a lawyer would not help them. And many are simply intimidated by lawyers, or uncertain how to go about finding one. Trends in the way lawyers practice law have, if anything, exacerbated the problem. Traditionally, moderate and low-income households have sought legal assistance from lawyers who practiced in small firms or on their own. But the proportion of such lawyers has declined dramatically over the last three decades, further reducing the options to these types of consumers. I believe that integrated professional service firms are one answer to these problems. I strongly favor reforming the legal ethics rules to permit the development of such practices.
How might lawyers’ participation in integrated service firms make things better? Members of low- and moderate-income communities have problems that transcend easy categorization. While their problems have legal aspects, they are not exclusively legal. Take for example a person of moderate means who suffers a sudden long-term disability or illness. He may need a lawyer’s advice on whether to file a discrimination lawsuit or a tort action, whether he qualifies for various benefits, or whether he is covered by his employer’s insurance policy. He may need to consult with a financial planner to address the economic consequences of his situation. Lastly, he may want assistance from a social worker or psychologist to deal with any lingering emotional effects. Although the suddenly disabled individual may talk to a psychologist or financial planner, as mentioned, he is less likely to seek out a lawyer on his own and so is not likely to get the legal advice he needs. Moreover, even if he does find a lawyer, consulting separately with each of these professionals is not necessarily the best way for him to get good, sensible advice. But a team approach to solving these problems is likely to be much more convenient, less intimidating and, perhaps most importantly, more cost-efficient.
Similarly, I believe that the elderly – a substantial percentage of whom live in low- and moderate-income households and have unmet legal needs – might be well served by integrated practices. The typical older American may need a will, may have to make various health-care decisions, and may require tax and financial planning advice. But the elderly are generally reluctant to visit a lawyer and are more likely to seek advice from a non-legal professional, such as a social worker or case manager. I believe a senior citizen would, however, be much more likely to speak to a lawyer if the lawyer was partnered with a non-lawyer professional the senior trusted.
The need for legal services among the substantial percentage of Americans these groups represent is undeniable. The legal profession needs to acknowledge that these groups have largely been forgotten and to develop ways to respond to their needs in an effective and efficient manner. Because multidisciplinary firms will certainly help address unmet legal service needs of countless Americans, I urge this Commission and the ABA to amend the ethics rules to allow such practices.
Consumers for Affordable and Reliable Services