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At MSBA, one panel asks whether non-lawyers can help improve access to justice

Madeleine O'Neill//June 8, 2023

From left: Vicki Schultz, executive director of Maryland Legal Aid; Reena Shah, executive director of the Maryland Access to Justice Commission; Sarah Coffey Bowes, executive director of Civil Justice, Inc., Jared Jaskot, principal at Jaskot.Law, and Irwin Kramer, of Kramer & Connolly, speak at a panel discussion on allowing non-lawyers to perform some legal services. (Madeleine O'Neill / The Daily Record)

At MSBA, one panel asks whether non-lawyers can help improve access to justice

By Madeleine O'Neill

//June 8, 2023

OCEAN CITY — At a conference devoted to Maryland’s lawyers, one group of panelists asked a delicate question Thursday: would letting non-lawyers perform some legal work help bridge the access to justice gap?

With thousands of Marylanders unable to afford legal help and other states forging ahead in this area, the question has become increasingly pressing. But some in the legal field are hesitant to broach the topic or see it as a threat to lawyers, said panel moderator Irwin Kramer, of Kramer & Connolly.

“We are very pro-lawyer,” said Reena Shah, the executive director of the Maryland Access to Justice Commission. “Lawyers have great value. This is about being pro-lawyer but also helping people.”

The panel at the Maryland State Bar Association’s annual legal summit discussed a range of possibilities that have been considered or adopted in other states, including limited licensing for paralegals or allowing certain types of professionals, such as debt counselors, offer legal advice in narrow areas.

In Utah, for example, the state Supreme Court authorized a “legal sandbox” that allows businesses and organizations to test legal services that would usually be considered unauthorized practice of law.

As it stands now, poor or middle-income Marylanders often go without legal help because they cannot afford it.

“When this conversation comes up, it’s always about (how) we want to protect the consumer, we want to make sure the consumer does not get harmed by having a non-attorney represent them, but let’s just look at the reality,” Shah said. “The people that are not being represented by an attorney right now, they’re not being represented (at all).”

Heather Pickett, a paralegal who was in the audience at the panel discussion, said the Maryland State Bar Association’s Paralegal Task Force has a committee looking at the issue of limited licensing for paralegals. A small number of other states have begun offering limited licensing for paralegals, according to the American Bar Association.

Jared Jaskot, an immigration lawyer who runs his own firm in Baltimore, said the issue is a simple question of supply and demand. Lawyers have been able to artificially suppress the supply of legal services — and charge more — by limiting who can offer them.

Jaskot also noted that lawyers in Maryland are not allowed to share legal fees with non-lawyers, and that non-lawyers cannot own or share ownership of law firms, which has made it difficult for him to partner with professionals who bring important skills to the business.

“We’re stifling innovation and we’re keeping these innovations from coming into the legal field,” he said.

The panelists agreed that there are difficult conversations ahead about opening the door to non-lawyers. The topic is often met with opposition in legal circles, the group said.

“Instead of fostering innovation, we as a profession have said ‘No, that’s not going to happen,'” said Sarah Coffey Bowes, the executive director of Civil Justice, Inc. ” We are squelching innovation at a detriment to Marylanders and ourselves, because it’s going to get ahead of us.”


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