In a revolutionary moment for the legal profession, the deregulation of legal services is taking hold in many parts of the country. Utah and Arizona, for instance, are experimenting with new regulations that permit nonlawyer advocates to play an active role in assisting citizens who may not otherwise have access to legal services. In addition, amendments to the Rules of Professional Conduct in both states, as well as those being contemplated in California, now allow nonlawyers to have a partnership stake in law firms, which may dramatically change the way capital for the delivery of legal services is raised as well as how technology and artificial intelligence may be leveraged in adjudicating disputes.
While overt regulatory changes remain enormously controversial, scholars and policymakers have missed a critical part of the landscape: the role state court judges are playing in the de facto deregulation of the legal profession at the civil trial level. Across the nation, the rise of pro se parties has forced judges to rethink their roles. In the new reality of pro se courts, judges in debt collection, eviction, and family matters—which, together, occupy roughly ninety percent of all civil court dockets—must make critical decisions about how to balance the duty of impartiality with the need to achieve a measure of justice and ensure fair adjudication of disputes.
Drawing on original data, including interviews and hundreds of hours of court observations, from a multi-site investigation of the civil justice landscape, this Article shows how some judges—mired in the pro se crisis—are relying on a shadow network of nonlawyer professionals to substitute for the role counsel has traditionally played. Focusing on domestic violence courts as the primary illustration, we find that even in jurisdictions not currently contemplating regulatory reform, judges are relying on organized nonlawyer actors to prepare pleadings, offer substantive and procedural information to litigants, and provide counseling services. These nonlawyer advocates play a significant role in shaping the facts and arguments presented to the judge which we believe, in turn, influences processes and outcomes.
In addition to demonstrating this novel phenomenon, the Article raises three important implications of trial judges’ role in diluting the lawyer’s monopoly. First, the collaboration between judges and nonlawyer advocates is hidden behind the scenes. The quiet partnership assists judges in maintaining the perception of impartiality in the courtroom, which is critical to public trust in the courts, while enabling pro se parties to properly raise claims and seek remedies from the justice system. Second, an opportunity to develop norms around the role of nonlawyers is being squandered. Trial court judges, who are typically excluded from formal regulatory processes, could be leaders in deregulating the lawyer’s monopoly in ways that ensure the integrity of the legal profession, fill a justice gap for pro se litigants, and help to open up pathways for public and formal recognition of a new class of legal professionals. And finally, due process demands that the role of nonlawyers be made public. Our research reveals that only one party to the dispute—the petitioner for a protective order—receives nonlawyer assistance, while the respondent typically receives little to no assistance at all. Domestic violence advocates have been effective in organizing wrap-around services for survivors, including help with preparing court papers, but those accused of domestic violence and subject to protective order proceedings benefit from no such organizing effort. Bringing nonlawyer assistance out of the shadows would make plain that more needs to be done to level the playing field for both parties.
GW Paper Series
Fordham Law Review, Vol. 89, 2021