UpSolve Delivers, and the Legal Monopoly Shrinks

Well, THAT was fast.

It was only the end of January when UpSolve filed its lawsuit against New York and its overly-broad unlicensed practice of law — or “UPL” — law.

I shouldn’t be too hard on the Empire State; every state has horrifically overbroad UPL laws. And what do these laws do? First, they make a criminal out of anyone who wants to provide legal services but is not a lawyer. And second, they create a speech and access to justice-chilling definition of “legal services.” UPL rules seem designed for maximum uncertainty, ensuring that the monopoly for lawyers it creates is as wide as possible.

The natural result is that the UPL monopoly reaches basic legal advice, like explaining to someone how to navigate a custody hearing, or how best to fill out a government form.

But such advice is speech, speech protected by the First Amendment. And it’s intolerable that the government would criminalize the content of speech in this way.

Thankfully, U.S. District Court judge Paul Crotty agrees, having granted UpSolve an injunction from the enforcement of New York’s UPL statute. And while the decision is narrow, it may well have a much longer reach. Judge Crotty writes convincingly of the reasons why a prohibition on providing legal advice is a content-based restriction on speech — and holds that as such, it is subject to strict scrutiny.

Now, it’s true that the old axiom that strict scrutiny is “strict in theory but fatal in fact” is somewhat overstated. Government speech regulations can survive strict scrutiny review. Some elements of UPL — like holding out, court representation, or making certain attestations — may well do so. But I’m thinking the broad prohibition on anyone but lawyers providing legal advice is fatally flawed.

As Judge Crotty notes, in finding that New York’s UPL statute as applied to legal advice falls far short of meeting the bar of strict scrutiny:

Aside from its less-than-compelling interests, the State has failed to narrowly tailor the statute. In fact, the UPL rules could hardly be broader: New York could implement less restrictive alternatives to blanket ban on all unauthorized legal advice.

Important words, and an important warning to every other state. While it could certainly be cut back on appeal, this decision is now the second I’m aware of that has taken a cue from the Supreme Court’s 2018 decision in NIFLA v. Becerra to find that restrictions on professional speech are subject to strict scrutiny.

If I might offer a suggestion to the other state Bars: start working, post-haste, on what a version of UPL would look like that could satisfy strict scrutiny and the First Amendment rights of your states’ citizens. And there’s a bonus to so doing, aside from avoiding the inevitable legal thrashing: you’d be providing a powerful boost to the Access to Justice initiatives that you all spend so much time talking about.