Lawyer Can’t Work on The Cheap Even If He Wants To

shutterstock_104531351You’ve got to applaud Austin, Texas based lawyer, Lee DiFilippo.

Whereas many attorneys with experience in corporate transactions, not to mention a CPA degree in their back pocket might focus on representing Fortune 500 companies or sexy business start-ups, DiFilippo set out to assist moderate income folks in the state of Texas obtain access to courts. Yet in spite of DiFilippo’s willingness to offer unbundled legal services and affordable flat fees, he couldn’t find enough takers for his services, as he describes in his Testimony to the Commission on the Future of Legal Services on February 5, 2015.

According to DiFilippo, he first attempted to launch his firm through own grassroots marketing efforts, visiting local community centers, churches and YMCAs. When these efforts failed to yield a critical mass of clients, DiFilippo went to the source, reaching out to various legal aid organizations seeking referrals. Two of the groups were, according to DiFilippo, reluctant to refer limited scope clients to a private attorney, while one of the legal aid groups did not even have a formal referral program. Meanwhile, another group said that it could not refer limited scope clients to lawyers unless they were on a bar association-sponsored referral list.

Undeterred, DiFilippo reached out to the State Bar of Texas asking it to create a referral list so he could receive legal aid referral but as yet, he has had no response. Finally, DiFilippo stumbled across an article by Wayne Moore, a long-time purveyor of unbundled services (so much so that he doesn’t appear to have much internet presence!) who offered to assist DiFilippo in achieving his goals.

Still, search the web and you won’t find DiFilippo’s story or others like his. Instead, you’ll find the ABA President touting the potential for creating a limited license legal technician (sort of the equivalent of nurse practitioners in the medical profession). And you’ll also find lawyers – and indeed, the entire profession – castigated by non-practicing attorneys for our failure to unequivocally embrace the LLLT model. 

Here’s the thing. I agree that access to justice is important. But when it comes to LLLTs, I think there’s more going on than a desire to serve the underserved and access to justice. I believe that law schools look at LLLT programs as another potential revenue source, and non-lawyer providers like Legal Zoom view LLLTs as a way to gain even more market share.  Meanwhile, there are real, qualified and fully trained lawyers like DiFilippo who desperately want to provide these same limited scope services but who run up against barriers.

Instead of taking lawyers out of the equation and calling it “innovation,” why don’t we look for ways to make it easier for lawyers like DiFilippo to provide limited scope services. Bar associations could work with legal aid group, not to mention full service law firms that don’t want small cases and encourage them to refer cases to lawyers willing to provide unbundled services. Bars could rent spaces near the courthouse where lawyers could offer unbundled services on a walk-in or spot basis.

Structural changes would help as well. Let’s get rid of trust accounts – which are an accounting horror and time sink for solos, not to mention a cash flow nightmare for lawyers who have to hold a fee for months instead of being able to cash the check right away. And allow lawyers to employ some of the same advertising practices as non-lawyers, with the caveat that deceptive advertising remains verboten.

There’s plenty of wrongheaded measures that bar associations and lawyers adopt that embarrasse me – but the reluctance to embrace LLLTs isn’t one of them. Our profession’s history is littered with plenty of examples of non-lawyer provided services and non-lawyer owned scheme that haven’t worked out all that well. What is embarrassing is when lawyers like Lee DiFilippo to come forward, ready to serve the underserved only to be ignored by those who would rather cut lawyers out of the equation entirely than find a way to help those who truly want to expand access to justice achieve that goal.