This Is Why Only Lawyers Should Be Offering Legal Services

The New Jersey State Bar Association has long opposed the trend of non-lawyers providing legal services. This ongoing, troubling practice seen in some parts of the nation threatens to undermine the autonomy attorneys have in practicing law.

To make matters worse, the idea of law firms being run by financial institutions—hedge funds, large accounting firms, and private equity ventures—inches closer to reality each year. The result is a profit-driven practice of law—a legal system where lawyers are forced to place the interests of their corporate owners over advocacy and care for their clients.

Taken together, these two threats would undermine the sacred role lawyers play as officers of the court, operating under strict ethical guidelines and free of influence from corporate overlords or earnings.

The bottom line is this: only lawyers should perform the work of lawyers. Any alternative would do the public and our system of justice a grave disservice.

ABA Rule 5.4

The American Bar Association took the critical step this summer to renew its longstanding rule that prohibits lawyers from partnering with those not licensed to practice law. Rule 5.4 blocks non-lawyers from having a financial stake in a lawyer’s profits and influencing them to prioritize corporate goals and earnings over the duty they owe to clients.

Lawyers, trained in the law and bound by ethical constraints designed to protect the public, should provide legal services, not corporations or hedge funds, the rule affirms.

Though Rule 5.4 has been adopted in some form by most states, Arizona and Utah have worked around the guideline in the name of promoting access to justice for low-income clients. Arizona abolished Rule 5.4 in 2020 to license 25 non-lawyer entities that offer services in business law, taxes, and estate planning.

Meanwhile, Utah has allowed non-lawyer investors and managers to take ownership stakes in businesses that provide legal help, including legal technology services that create legal forms online that people use without the help of an attorney.

It won’t be surprising if both endeavors end up like the limited license legal technician program in Washington state, now defunct after being lauded as an innovative way for non-lawyers to provide legal advice in some legal matters.

These ventures are mostly run by individuals or businesses outside the legal profession, who partner with lawyers to expand their businesses. Profits come first, while duty to the client—our most important responsibility as attorneys—is secondary.

Denial of Fair Representation

Advocates for this direction argue that it’s the best way to foster competition and innovation in the profession, but there’s no evidence to support that premise. No one, especially attorneys, wants a two-tier justice system, where large segments of the population are denied high-quality legal representation.

Everyone deserves their day in court, but it’s equally important that a licensed attorney represents clients—someone who is bound by strict ethical rules.

The NJSBA recognizes the ongoing need to provide high-quality, affordable legal services to the public. Statistics show that low and middle-income Americans have the most trouble retaining counsel for debt-collection cases, landlord-tenant lawsuits, and mortgage foreclosures.

The best and most efficient way to bridge the justice gap for this population is to match them with lawyers willing to work pro bono or at a reduced rate.

Technology platforms can match up attorneys willing to work at lower rates with members of the public who cannot afford the market rates of attorneys.

The NJSBA launched a program in one New Jersey county, matching 300 litigants who otherwise would have represented themselves in court with service-minded attorneys willing to work for a reduced rate.

The effort matches the access to justice measures undertaken by bar associations across the country to provide legal service and pro bono programs to underserved populations.

Lawyers, not hedge funds, have the capacity to fix any access to justice issue. The suggestion that private businesses can offer quality, affordable legal services while satisfying owners and shareholders is not only disingenuous—it’s contradictory.

This article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg Industry Group, Inc., the publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.

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Jeralyn L. Lawrence is the president of the New Jersey State Bar Association. She is the managing member and founder of Lawrence Law, a divorce and family law practice in Watchung, NJ.