According to an announcement of a new project from the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System, people in the U.S. seek out lawyers for only about 16% of civil matters, and about three-quarters of state civil cases involve at least one self-represented party. IAALS’ new project, Unlocking Legal Regulation, will look at how some current regulations of law practice might contribute to this access to justice gap.
The project builds on previous research IAALS has done about the experiences of self-represented litigants. Natalie Knowlton, IAALS’ director of special projects, said Unlocking Legal Regulation focuses on “re-regulation” of ethical and professional conduct rules that govern law practice in the U.S. Proponents of reforming legal regulation say current regulations of law practice and how lawyers can conduct business also end up restricting client access to legal services.
“Many would say, including IAALS, [these regulations] are keeping both attorneys from thriving under new business practices and keeping a lot of consumers from being able to get critical legal advice or legal services that would help them move their case forward,” Knowlton said.
For example, lawyers can’t partner with non-attorneys in their businesses, such as accountants or marketing professionals, by giving them equity ownership. And they can’t work as staff attorneys offering services to the public in a business model other than a law firm.
Knowlton said a broad aim of the Unlocking Legal Regulation project is to analyze the effects of current legal services regulations on client and trade protection. Lack of access to legal services can have different causes: Not having enough money for a lawyer is a significant reason, but other factors such as lawyer shortages in rural areas also contribute.
Lucy Ricca, who is acting as a special projects advisor for IAALS for Unlocking Legal Regulation, said traditional regulations of law practice have been designed with consumer protection and risk management at top of mind, which are necessary but often don’t reflect practical realities of how they can contribute to gaps in access to legal services. Research on regulation reform recognizes the need to balance protection and risk management with access.