At the last panel of the State Bar Ethics Symposium in San Francisco in April 2014, John Steele posed a question to his fellow panelist, Chas Rampathal, General Counsel of Legal Zoom, about what ethical rules presented the biggest obstacles to the provision of alternative legal services. Unfortunately, time ran out before the question could be fully discussed.
A recent published Review Dept. decision may help fill in the answer. In the Matter of Huang deals with a highly commoditized form of legal service, representing borrowers in loan modification, and a lawyer’s culpability of aiding the unauthorized practice of law.
The Halo of Trust
Despite our negative image, lawyers are still perceived as professionals who can be trusted. Non-lawyer legal service providers do not yet share this halo of trust. Part of the purpose of lawyer discipline proceedings is to maintain that halo and non-lawyers legal service providers lack it because there are no comparable mechanisms to police their behavior. Because what they do is illegal. At least sometimes.
In the matter before us the clients engaged the services of respondent. They expected and were entitled to have the services of an attorney in evaluating and settling their personal injury claims. Instead, they got the services of an adjuster and his negotiators, housed in offices bearing respondent’s name, with phones answered in respondent’s name and correspondence and negotiations conducted in respondent’s name, with little or no input from respondent.
In the Matter of Bragg (Review Dept. 1997) 3 Cal. State Bar Ct. Rptr. 615 (1997 WL 215942). Bragg involved an attorney who entered into a business relationship with a non-attorney “adjuster” to process his pre-litigation personal injury cases. California Insurance Code section 15007 provides for a “public insurance adjuster [which] includes one who, for compensation, assists an insured in negotiating for or effecting a claim on behalf of an insured.
The Magic of the Lawyer’s Mantle
Bragg’s argument was essentially if the adjuster could do what he does on his own, how can I be culpable of aiding the unauthorized practice of law? The Review Dept.’s answer was that those activities by a lay person, even if sanctioned by statute, become the unauthorized practice of law when that person is working under the aegis of an attorney.
Strangely, Bragg was not charged by the Office of Chief Trial Counsel (OCTC) with aiding the unauthorized practice of lawin violation of Rule Prof. Conduct 1-300(A). But they also had charged Bragg with acts of moral turpitude in his relationship with Hickman. The Review Dept. found that Bragg “knew that he was abdicating his responsibilities as an attorney and acted purposefully in allowing Hickman to engage in activities which constituted the practice of law.” OCTC didn’t spot the 1-300 violation; but Bragg was expected to.
The gravamen of what the Review Dept. articulated is a false advertising argument. You hired an attorney but you got an adjuster. You are entitled to individualized legal counsel, even if all you really wanted was the medical bills paid and legal extra cash. In Richard Susskind‘s terms, you are entitled to (and presumably paying for) the “bespoke” legal services of a lawyer. But something else comes with those “bespoke” services; the expectation of an individual relationship of trust.
When a lawyer is involved, the nature of the service changes, transmutes. It’s now imbued with the intangible, almost mystical, aspect of the lawyer as counselor. Just as other cases dealing with unauthorized practice of law, there is almost religious qualify ascribed to the attorney-client relationship; indeed, Benninghoff v Superior Court (2006) 136 Cal.App.4th 61, 68 speaks about what a “defrocked” lawyer may or may not do.
Huang, like Bragg, had an opportunity come his way. It knocked in the form of the loan modification practice of an attorney who files had been seized by the Orange County DA. Attached to those 100 files were two non-attorneys, Martinez and Campos, who operated under the name National Mitigation Service (NMS.) Mr. Huang had only been admitted three years when he began working with Martinez and Campos. He told the Orange County and the State Bar that he would be hiring NMS to “process” the files.
The State Bar apparently did not inquire closely into what Huang’s role would be in that processing. But just three years later it charged Huang with aiding the unauthorized practice of law. The hearing judge found that the State Bar did not prove its that charge by clear and convincing evidence. The Review Dept. seemed incredulous:
Huang created a lay negotiating service that permitted non-lawyers to practice law and elevated profit above the clients’ interests. …. “Although [loan modification] services might lawfully have been performed by . . . brokers, and other laymen, it does not follow that when they are rendered by an attorney, or in his office, they do not involve the practice of law. People call on lawyers for services that might otherwise be obtained from laymen because they expect and are entitled to legal counsel.” By delegating all the work on loan modification cases to nonattorney staff, Huang failed to “competently evaluate the client’s claim and represent the client appropriately.” [citing Bragg] Accordingly, we find he violated rule 1-300(A) in all eight client matters.
Emphasis added. Huang’s practice had between 500 and 800 clients. Those familiar with loan modification practice under programs like HAMP will know that it bore little relationship with the type of real time negotiating that lawyers typically engage in, except for occasional instances where a lawyer’s clout will have an impact. This has changed a little with the enactment with the Homeowners Bill of Rights which has given lawyers a new and expanded potential role in loan modification. But by and large it is the kind of commoditized legal service that could be more cheaply performed by someone who does not have the legal training of a lawyer.
The Missing Ingredient: Vitamin T
One can see why the Review Dept. granted OCTC’s motion to publish Huang. It re-states the core selling value of the legal profession that lawyers are offering a highly individualized product: a special relationship of trust with client. That kind of personal attention to the client is often lacking when dealing with a highly commoditized high-volume practice such as loan modification. Many aspects of a commoditized law practice can be more cheaply accomplished by non-lawyers but the lawyer has to be involved, not only in supervising the non-lawyers (who may know more about the subject matter of the practice) but to fulfill the client’s expectation of trust. That means contact with the client.
Part of the reason that halo rests so heavily on the lawyer’s head is that lack of enforcement mechanisms like professional discipline for non-lawyer legal providers, a consequence of their general prohibition. The State Bar of California is creeping slowly toward recognizing legal providers who are less credentialed than lawyers but the trend in the short term is to maintain, and indeed strengthen the remedies for non-lawyers delivering legal services. The State Bar is actively seeking the ability to recover attorneys fees and costs in civil actions against such non-lawyers through former Assembly Bill 852. A prior almost identical bill was vetoed by Gov. Brown after vocal opposition by the California Association of Legal Document Assistants (CALDA).
To bring the discussion full circle, Legal Zoom has found that the marketplace for commoditized legal services delivered by non-lawyers only went so far under the UPL rules. So Legal Zoom now offers legal services from attorney licensed in all jurisdictions through its group legal plans. The web site promises to help consumers “Find An Attorney You Can Trust” and “Build a Long Term Relationship With An Attorney You Can Trust..”