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A Band Aid for Broken Bones? DIY Law


At a recent conference of Georgia's legal leaders, the issue of people in poorer rural areas needing attorneys was addressed. And, since newly minted lawyers fresh out of law school and in significant financial debt aren't going to flock to the country to do pro bono (free) work, the idea of helping more people advocate as their own lawyer, with better law libraries made available, was proposed as a solution. The old adage of one who is their own attorney has a fool for a client may be true, but it's also true that one can't get blood from a stone. And lawyers may accept American Express, but not generally blood or stone as payment. So this DIY law initiative is probably going to happen. There are really no other plausible solutions. But, it will prove a very rocky road to empowering more Citizen Lawyers to be their own counsel in Georgia's rural counties, and it very well could be a disaster.

For one thing, many people aren't willing or, frankly, capable of navigating the incredibly complex morass of legal jargon, and convoluted and often conflicting jungle of statutes and judges' opinions that make up what we call the law. If this sounds elitist, so be it. It's experience speaking. As someone who often is appointed by courts to represent people in matters where lawyers haven't yet been brought in, I have seen firsthand the mess that is more often than not made trying to fill-in detailed petitions for executors and administrators of estates, guardianships, conservatorships, and divorces. And I've seen plenty of form documents off the internet that were riddled with errors and not suitable for use in the first place. So, even when a fill-in-the-blank document is available, the opportunity for a disaster is writ large when a competent lawyer is not involved. What if the petition or motion has to be drafted from scratch?

Another thing is that while many judges are the cream of the crop in the legal profession, and compassionate and fair to all parties, there are a few (perhaps a bit more than that even) who could do with some re-training in the law and procedure, and frankly, manners. While their robes are on loan from the people of Georgia, some judges think they were born with them on. The immense power they have over the people who come before them is wielded not deftly and justly, but like a baboon with a bludgeon. Even the most competent and patient judge can be sorely tested, and sometimes trip up, when a case gets particularly contentious and the stakes are high. How are our judges going to deal with more people who have no idea how a hearing or trial should work coming into their courtrooms to be DIY F. Lee Baileys and Perry Masons? 

Lastly (or the sake of this blog piece at least) was an issue brought up in the Daily Report article, that the issue of practicing law without a license would rear its head. Indeed, perhaps law isn't brain surgery (unless you're a patent attorney representing a new device to be used in brain surgery - or a personal injury attorney in a suit over a surgical mishap during brain surgery), but neither is most law simple. That's why states are very protective of who can practice law within their political bounds. Law and its application often varies greatly from state to state. Thus, if lawyers can't just go from state to state without proper licensure and practice in order that their would-be customers are protected from bad legal service, how are things going to go when we've "empowered" a cadre of shade-tree attorneys engaging in, not just self-help, but helping all their friends with their divorces, DUIs, and slip-and-fall suits? Because that is going to happen no matter what rules are enacted, or warnings against it, are made. Watch.

What's the answer then? There is no easy answer. The DIY answer posited is the easiest answer, and therefore the one we will see, if we see anything at all. In the end, as do so many of society's ills, a true solution comes down to foundational fixes like providing all our children with top-notch educational opportunities and a curriculum that emphasizes not just STEM subjects, but humanities and civics. How's that for opening up a can of worms? But it is what it is - and you can't fix a broken bone with a band aid. Sometimes, you can only hope to slow the bleeding.