The Utah Defense Lawyers Association (UDLA) is a Utah non-profit organization serving the interests of Utah lawyers principally involved in the defense of civil litigation. UDLA serves its members by promoting professional development through the exchange of information, ideas, and litigation techniques to enhance the knowledge and improve the skills of Utah civil defense lawyers.
DRI is the leading international membership organization of lawyers who represent business in civil litigation. DRI is committed to enhancing the skills, effectiveness, and professionalism of defense lawyers, anticipating and addressing issues germane to defense lawyers and the civil justice system, promoting appreciation of the role of the defense lawyer, improving the civil justice system, and preserving the civil jury.
UDLA and DRI agree with the Utah Supreme Court that access to justice is an area of national concern. But for several reasons, both UDLA and DRI are concerned the proposed changes to Rule 5.4 will erode the quality of legal representation available to Utah legal consumers while failing to meaningfully address individuals’ abilities to afford legal service.
First, there is little evidence that nonlawyer law firm ownership, fee sharing, and entity regulation licensing reforms, if implemented, would increase access to justice. In jurisdictions where nonlawyer ownership of law firms exists, it has not accomplished similar policy goals. Similarly, it is not clear, regardless of the regulatory sandbox framework proposed, that for-profit legal technology services would in any way assist the disadvantaged with legal representation.
In the U.K. and Australia (or in the District of Columbia which has had a relaxed version of Rule 5.4 for many years), where reforms similar to those under consideration here have been enacted, there is no evidence the changes have had any impact whatsoever on the access to justice crisis. Instead, evidence shows the typical alternative business structure in the U.K. competes with the same types of law firms that had been servicing the fee-paying public long before the U.K. recognized nonlawyer ownership, as opposed to providing services to disadvantaged clients. Notably, a recent study concluded that the use of alternative business structures in the U.K. and Australia had been accompanied by no measurable improvement of those countries’ access to justice needs. Robinson, Nick, When Lawyers Don’t Get All the Profits: Non-Lawyer Ownership.
On the contrary, the changes might lead to a decrease in access to justice. Big business and tech could tailor legal services towards individuals and entities most likely to minimize investment risk while avoiding expenses incurred through traditional legal providers. That shift could in turn result in a substantial decrease in pro bono work. Currently, many profitable firms subsidize their attorneys’ pro bono work by permitting or even requiring attorneys to meet their billable requirements through pro bono representation of disadvantaged clients. But under the proposed changes, non-lawyer owned entities would have little incentive to do this given they would not be subject to the same ethical or professional standards to which members of the Utah bar are held. Indeed, the proposed changes do not establish any duties on non-lawyers, let alone duties to provide disadvantaged groups with access to legal services.
UDLA and DRI are also concerned that these changes may exacerbate the decline of access to legal services for rural Utahns. Unlike lawyers along the Wasatch Front, many “country lawyers” cannot afford to specialize in only one type of law and instead offer services across the legal spectrum, from criminal defense, to preparing wills and trusts, to defending their clients in a range of civil disputes. The proposed changes may alter this balance by shifting certain types of work (for example, estate planning) away from the rural lawyers and into the hands of corporations in far-off cities. In doing so, country lawyers may find they can no longer afford to practice law in rural areas, leaving entire areas of Utah without access to any local legal practitioner (even today, there are counties in Utah with few, if any, lawyers living in their boundaries). While the individual who has procured discounted estate planning might be said to have benefited from such a situation, the same individual might not find the tradeoff worth it next time they find themselves in need of representation not easily provided by a smartphone app.
Second, UDLA and DRI are concerned the proposed changes would erode the ethical protections the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct currently ensure. Although the committee charged with addressing the rule changes insists a Utah lawyer’s ethical obligations would theoretically remain unchanged should the new rules be adopted, this would be practically impossible in practice. Under the current system, legal services providers are owned and controlled by the lawyers representing the client. Thus, while outside entities (like insurance companies) may pay a lawyer’s legal fees or litigation expenses, the case is always ultimately controlled by the lawyer and client, to whom the lawyers owe an ethical, non-delegable duty.
But a lawyer may not be practically capable of performing this duty should ultimate control be delegated to a non-lawyer. When the outcome of a case is driven by profit as opposed to client benefit, business interests will often win out even if the client is disadvantaged as a result. One possible example would be a lawyer who is incentivized to seek medical interventions for his client to increase claimed special tort damages, even if that attorney (or the client’s treating doctor) believes those medical interventions to be unnecessary. A lawyer employed in an environment that prioritizes financial outcomes over the client’s interest would potentially be forced to jeopardize their job should their ethical duty to put their client’s interest first conflict with their employer’s business interest.
Utah’s Rules of Professional Conduct reflect the core values of our profession, and they are designed to protect the public whom we, as licensed Utah attorneys, are all privileged to serve. As attorneys, we are sworn to serve as key members of a legal system on whom our society relies for justice and fairness. Lawyers must complete a rigorous program of education just to be permitted to sit for a bar examination. Our bar admission system is designed to test knowledge and competency, determine character and fitness to practice law, and assess adherence to a prescribed set of rules of professional conduct throughout an attorney’s tenure. This system not only serves to protect the public from untrained and unscrupulous would-be practitioners, but it also far surpasses what is required for a typical business. Fundamental change to our profession should not compromise our core values and enable profit-seeking by entrepreneurs who are unencumbered by our rules of ethical responsibility.
Finally, consequences to the practicing bar should be a major concern of any access to justice review. The impact of changing law firm ownership and fee sharing rules would bring major upheaval to the practice of law. The effect of the ownership, fee sharing, and entity regulation recommendations would not simply involve channeling legal practice revenues from lawyers to private investors or legal tech companies. These revenue shifts would likely also result in both the Utah State Bar and local bar organizations realigning their focuses away from service to and regulation of practicing attorneys and toward the novel (and as yet unknown) consequences of these fundamental changes to Utah legal practice. This would represent a profound disruption to the traditional work of Utah Bar and local bar associations, which could better work through the current regulatory framework to encourage and support licensed attorneys’ efforts to deploy technologies and non-traditional legal services directly, instead of through intermediary business and technology firms.
In sum, UDLA and DRI are concerned that the proposed rule changes will not lead to an increase in access to justice and would likewise negatively impact both the legal profession and the profession’s reputation.