This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

If you want to see a particularly bleak example of what’s wrong with the legal profession’s over-regulation, check out Massachusetts Bar Ethics Opinion 98-1. This opinion finds that attorneys can’t offer limited scope legal services to clients if those services consist of “ghost-writing” litigation documents.

While this opinion is something of an outlier (and, it should be noted, was issued by a voluntary bar), many states have specific regulatory limitations on the ability of consumers to buy limited scope legal services in the form of help with drafting pleadings. 1

These rules usually take the form of some requirement that attorneys sign off on or otherwise notify the court that they – and not the pro se litigant – have written the document, and are justified on the theory that to not do so would be to somehow deceive the court.

This seems to take a particularly dim view of the capabilities of judges, while simultaneously playing up the supposed uniqueness of lawyers (as anyone who reads a lot of pleadings can tell you, there is vast range of quality across pleadings drafted by lawyers).

And more importantly, it acts as (yet another) regulatory barrier to access to justice. Lawyers who must sign off on pleadings they help draft are going to be far more reluctant to offer limited scope services, or will only do so at a cost level approaching full-scope representation.

Look, attorneys have since time immemorial relied on other attorneys – often not listed in the caption – to help them craft their pleadings. Pro se litigants regularly rely on family members and friends to pitch in.

So why are we so worried about disclosure when a lawyer helps a pro se litigant? Yes, maybe in some edge cases these litigants will gain an edge due to judges giving them some pro se deference despite the professional nature of their briefs. But see what I wrote above about judges – and keep in mind that the deference given to parties who represent themselves is almost never substantive; it’s more about getting more leeway on the process side.

When it comes to the arcana of courtrooms and litigation procedure, unrepresented parties could use all of the help they can get. And I’m sure judges would agree that the whole process would run a lot more smoothly if pro se litigants had regular access to SOME sort of limited scope advice.

At the end of the day, we are fighting the imagined demon of judicial deception at the expense of providing greater access to legal support for pro se litigants.

Maybe that tradeoff was intentional, but I doubt it. Rather, I bet these rules were adopted under roughly this algorithm:

  1. Hey, here’s a theoretical problem!
  2. OK, here’s a potential solution to your theoretical problem!
  3. Great, let’s draft a rule!

If we ever want to get serious about improving consumer access to legal services, we’re going to need to rein in our lawyerly fondness for regulatory solutions, and start fully considering the potential consequences of each rule.

Notes:

  1. Lawyerist recently published a comprehensive list of each state’s rules.

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