BEFORE THE AMERICAN BAR ASSOCIATION
COMMISSION ON MULTIDISCIPLINARY PRACTICE
February 12, 2000
Good morning. Thank you for the opportunity to share my views with you today. My name is Theodore Debro, and I have worked for many years with the Jefferson County Committee for Economic Opportunity, the Community Action Agency in Birmingham, Alabama. We provide a broad array of services to low- and moderate- income families in the Birmingham area, focusing primarily on issues such as alcohol and drug counseling, domestic relations, children and youth, senior citizens, families and economic enhancement for families in need.
I am also the President of Consumers for Affordable and Reliable Services of Alabama, a statewide organization promoting consumer choice, fairness in the marketplace, and affordable and reliable services to consumers.
I have heard some people say that Multidisciplinary Practice is not a low- and moderate- income issue. I say, this group is precisely the income group that needs Multidisciplinary Practices the most . In the course of my work, one of the issues that comes up again and again is access to quality and affordable legal services. When I was preparing for my testimony, I looked for some statistics that might support such an assertion, beyond my own experience. In the early 1990s, the American Bar Association commissioned a study of this very issue, called the Comprehensive Legal Needs Study, which shed some light on the problem. According to that research, nearly 8 million low-income households and almost 40 million moderate-income households faced at least one situation that could have required legal services. These situations included personal finances and estate planning, housing, domestic relations, personal injury, and employment issues, among others. The study was completed in 1993, and I think we can all agree that things have changed quite a bit since then. But I have little doubt that those numbers have increased in the years since, as life has become even more complicated.
This Comprehensive Legal Needs Study pointed out something more significant than just a measurable demonstration of need. It found that many low- and moderate-income consumers do not seek the advice of a lawyer. The ABA study reported that nearly 80 percent of low-income respondents and almost 70 percent of moderate-income respondents either handled their issue on their own or took no action at all. The most common reasons for this included the fact that many individuals either did not feel a lawyer would be able to help them, thought the cost was to high, or simply did not know how to find a good lawyer they could trust. I would add a fourth equally important reason to that list: these Americans, perhaps more than any other group, are intimidated by the thought of going to see a lawyer.
Whatever the reason, people are clearly slipping through the cracks. The legal profession needs to think of creative ways to serve this population in need. I am convinced that multidisciplinary practices represent one solution to this problem.
The reality today is that middle and upper income consumers already have an informal multidisciplinary practice network, -- sources they can turn to for assistance, such as social connections, professional contacts, friends and family to name a few. Many low- and moderate- income consumers, however, are blocked from these practices because of their position in life. Low- and moderate- income consumers are far more likely to turn to professionals other than lawyers when faced with a problem, – health care workers, for example, or insurance specialists, social workers and psychologists. Professionals, in other words, who are more accessible, more understanding of the types of issues this population faces on a regular basis, and less inherently intimidating.
I am convinced that multidisciplinary practices represent one promising solution to the unmet legal needs problem. And I am not alone. I understand that the Commission has received letters from a number of organizations that serve low- and moderate-income families, people of color, and various other disadvantaged groups. Among others, various branch offices of the NAACP, and the Urban League, have expressed their beliefs that MDPs will help provide broader access to legal service. For the same reason, the National Council of Negro Women has written to your Commission in support of allowing MDPs.
Let me illustrate how multidisciplinary practices might help by giving you a couple of examples. Let’s take an hourly factory employee who suffers a debilitating injury while on the job. His first thought is obviously to see a doctor. But a number of other professionals can and will provide valuable assistance. A psychologist might help the worker deal with the emotional trauma that lingers on after a major injury. An insurance specialist might help the individual understand his company’s disability benefits, while a social worker might meet with the family to discuss the impact on family members. Clearly, however, there is a need for legal advice about the rights and options available to someone injured on the job. A lawsuit might even be warranted. Too often, financial planning and emotional welfare are at the top of the worker’s list, but seeking out a lawyer is not. By allowing lawyers to practice alongside other kinds of professionals this injured worker might need. MDPs could offer coordinated advice that would help him make the best decisions regarding his injury.
Another example is of a grandparent left with children either by accident, crime, or drug abuse. These grandparents often need the services of an insurance professional, lawyer, financial planner, and childcare professional. In the low- and moderate-income community, there is a rising number of first generation college graduates. These graduates, however, are strapped with student loan debts and credit card debts that prevent them from realizing the "American Dream". Many of these graduates, because of different life style experiences and the belief that a college degree would offer a more affluent life style, need the multidisciplinary practice of a lawyer, health care professional, financial planner and counselor.
An example of a multidisciplinary team that works is the District Attorney offices in Alabama. In Alabama, multidisciplinary teams are in place to protect children from physical and sexual abuse. The teams consist of district attorneys, counselors, medical personnel, police officers or detectives, school officials, social workers and any other person relevant to the safety and welfare of children. During an MDT meeting, all parties come together to discuss reports received by different agencies concerning the child in question. Then they try to reach a decision to help the child. Everyone has a distinct job in his field and it is this expertise that makes the MDT work. People come together to work towards a common goal.
One example that is close and dear to me is a twelve-year-old girl who had been sexually molested by her uncle for three years before being discovered. The family needed a lawyer to understand the legal issues; the child needed emotional support from a child psychologist; the mother and father needed marriage counseling; the father needed counseling to deal with the act of his brother; the family, which includes another child, needed a family counselor; and the family needed financial advice to pursue a conviction and justice. Clearly, the best solution to this broad range of issues is a multidisciplinary team that can work together to get this family the help it needs as quickly as possible.
Another important issue regarding legal representation for low- and moderate-income individuals is clearly cost. While the poor often qualify for various free legal assistance programs, and more affluent consumers can afford fees in excess of hundreds of dollars an hour that many large firms now charge, people in the middle often have nowhere to turn. Sometimes, it is the perception of cost, more than the cost itself that becomes prohibitive. I hear people say all the time that they didn’t call a lawyer because it cost too much. There is a perception that sitting down in a room with a lawyer, even an initial meeting, costs a fortune. For others, of course, it is a matter of simply not having the money to pay for quality legal assistance. It’s not hard to see that when faced with choosing between car payments, rent, putting food on the table, and seeing a lawyer about an issue that, from the perspective of the consumer, may or may not need one, the lawyer will lose every time.
Will multidisciplinary practices lower the cost of legal services? Maybe, maybe not. That’s for the market to decide. But I believe that they will at the very least lower the perception of the cost, increasing the likelihood that an individual will at least seek legal advice as part of a larger package. This perception issue segues nicely into a third reason for the reluctance of many low- and moderate-income consumers to seek out a lawyer. Quite simply, many find lawyers intimidating, a feeling that certainly is not limited to those of moderate means. But it’s true. Say, "you need a lawyer" to someone, and they think: unpleasant, adversarial experience, one that will put me on the defensive, make me feel ignorant, confused, and probably angry. Ordinary people don’t see lawyers as a valuable problem-solving asset.
Trends in the way lawyers practice law have also contributed to the problem. Traditionally, low- and moderate-income households have sought legal assistance from lawyers who practiced in small firms or on their own. But the proportion of such lawyers has been in decline for decades. Fewer than two of every five lawyers today is a solo practitioner; a generation ago, that figure was more than three of every five lawyers.
In reviewing some of the testimony of other witnesses, I noticed that you heard last year from a representative of the AARP who talked about some of these same issues in the context of the elderly. In my line of work, I deal regularly with elderly individuals and their families, the vast majority of whom live on a fixed income. They need to get their wills in order, they have health-care and long-term care decisions to make, and they often need some basic tax and financial planning help to get their affairs in order. However, many elderly consumers are reluctant to visit a lawyer for the very same reasons I mentioned above, and so they are not getting the important advice they need. A senior citizen would, I think, be more likely to seek legal assistance if the lawyer was partnered with someone the senior trusted, such as a social worker.
I believe strongly that the legal profession needs to focus on the vast population of Americans whose legal needs are going unmet. The populations I spend my time with view the legal profession as remote and out of touch with the needs and concerns of everyday people. But by allowing lawyers to practice within MDPs, the bar would kill two birds with one stone. Low- and moderate-income consumers would be encouraged to seek the legal advice they so often need, and lawyers would regain the trust, and business, of a segment of the population that has increasingly seen them as being more of a problem than a solution.
Members of the Commission, I see the bar standing on the verge of a real opportunity, a real breakthrough in the way you offer your services. The bar has an opportunity to reach, and help a segment of the population that is too often not benefiting from the expertise of the legal profession. MDPs would provide low- and moderate-income consumers with quality services at a price they can afford. At the same time, by allowing its members to practice in integrated teams, the bar can show that it cares about the needs of all members of society and is doing something to ensure that everyone who needs legal counsel has the opportunity to receive it. I urge the bar to make this a reality. Thank you again for letting me speak before you today.