Tuesday, March 10, 2009

While Government Fails, the Market Thrives

My nearly ten years practicing law have all involved providing legal services to folks who couldn't afford them. But in both the civil legal aid field and as a public defender, I could see people that fell through the cracks, for various reasons. There were a couple of interesting newspaper pieces today about the state of legal services in the country that pricked my interest because of that background.

The first is a sad commentary on the state of the modern criminal defense system. Writing in today's Washington Post, former VP Walter Mondale writes about the danger of losing the legacy of Gideon v. Wainright, in which the Supreme Court held that the Sixth Amendment right to counsel mean the right to have the state pay for it, if need be:

A report published by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School last fall, 'Eligible for Justice,' found that if Gideon were to face criminal charges in Florida today, he might well be denied a public defender. Under Florida law, he could be disqualified for counsel if he has assets exceeding $2,500 (excluding a house), a car valued above $5,000, or had posted bail of more than $5,000, even if none of those assets permitted him to pay the retainer -- often several thousand dollars -- that defense lawyers routinely charge.
In his home state of Minnesota, the state PD faced a shortfall of nearly $5 million at the end of the last fiscal year. The danger is that people who are charged with crimes but can't afford to retain counsel are going to get substandard representation. That can lead to wrongful convictions, as happened to Gideon himself.

But while the criminal side of legal services is hurting, the civil side is responding to the gap between those who qualify for legal aid services and those who can afford to pay for their lawyer is being filled in:
Fortunately for the newly downgraded, the access-to-justice movement has advanced in recent years from Skid Row to Main Street.

At storefront law offices like Santa Monica's LegalGrind, a cafe-legal clearinghouse, those facing court dates to deal with divorce, custody matters, driving offenses and debt can find out for $45 how best to tackle their problems without plunking down a $5,000 retainer and $400 an hour for a lawyer.

Bar associations in California and a dozen other states, meanwhile, have whittled away at the ethics rules and industry mind-set that used to discourage attorneys from taking clients on a 'limited scope' basis. This involves representing them on specific aspects without taking responsibility -- and charging fees -- for the client's full range of legal problems.
The collapsing economy has hit the legal practice as hard as anything else, so I suppose it only makes sense that lawyers would go in search of under served markets. If the legal work is up to snuff (I have no reason to think otherwise) it's a beneficial situation all around.

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