Who Deserves Legal Help and Who Doesn’t? The Answer Is Not In Words, But Actions

Section 81.102(a) of the Texas Government Code states that “a person may not practice law in this state unless the person is a member of the state bar.” Section 81.102(b) then allows for the Supreme Court of Texas to “promulgate rules prescribing the procedure for limited practice of law” by lawyers admitted out-of-state and by law students.

On August 29, 2017, the Supreme Court of Texas took advantage of this power, by adopting “Emergency Order After Hurricane Harvey Permitting Out-of-State Lawyers to Practice in Texas Temporarily.”

The Order provides that a lawyer who is admitted to the bar of another state and is in good standing in that state may, for a period of six months from August 29, 2017, “practice law in Texas” if that lawyer “is retained by a legal-aid or pro bono program or a bar association that provides services to victims of Hurricane Harvey.”[1]

It is important to note that no one, at least not in any online forum, has criticized the Order. Most notably, no one has said that out-of-state lawyers will provide inferior legal services to victims of Hurricane Harvey, by virtue of not being admitted to the Texas bar. No one has complained that the out-of-state lawyers will steal legal aid or pro bono work from Texas lawyers. No one has even complained that the out-of-state lawyers, working for free, will deprive Texas lawyers of paid work.

No, rather than criticizing the Order, it was welcomed. On the very day the Order was issued, the blog of the Texas Bar (of which all lawyers admitted to the bar in Texas are obligatorily members) posted an entry announcing the Order and providing a link to a form for out-of-state lawyers to fill out in order to volunteer. On the next day (August 30), the ABA Journal published an online article to publicize the Order and provide information about how out-of-state lawyers can assist. And the bars of other states, like Florida, Tennessee and Maryland publicized the Order, encouraging its lawyers to volunteer and providing links for additional information. Indeed, the only negative comment I was able to find about Texas opening itself to out-of-state lawyers was one by Margaret Becker of Legal Services NYC, who was involved with recovery efforts after Hurricane Sandy. As reported by Bloomberg BNA: “A lot of outside firms came to help with flood insurance and ‘they’re a mixed bag,’ Becker said. Some were conscientious but others were not, she said.”

While the Order itself was not criticized, that does not mean that its issuance did not prompt criticism. That criticism was directed at the circumstances that required the Order, and namely the restrictions that Texas and other states (either on the basis of ABA Model Rule 5.5 or otherwise) place upon multijurisdictional practice. One commentator to the ABA Journal article, Josh Effron, wrote that the Order:

helps to show the silliness of preventing lawyers from practicing across State lines in the first place: if an out-of-State lawyer is good enough to practice law in one case (i.e., pro hac vice) and is good enough to practice on a temporary basis (such as in this case), then clearly that lawyer is good enough to practice in general.

The only reason why we make it hard for lawyers to practice across State lines is not to protect the public but, rather, as a form of protectionism, for in-State lawyers to insulate themselves from competition. This runs completely counter to the alleged goal of State bars as protectors of the public interest (rather than the economic interests of the lawyers in that State).

Another commentator was equally harsh: On the website Above the Law, Elie Mystal wrote an article entitled “Texas Allows Out-Of-State Lawyers To Help, Kind Of Highlighting The Stupidity Of State Bar Restrictions.” He continued:

While we’re casting about for silver linings, might this kind of assistance lead us down a path where state bars more generally loosen out-of-state prohibitions on lawyers willing to work pro bono? I mean, I get the economics of out-of-state restrictions. This State’s bar can’t have That State’s lawyers flying in and scooping up all the legal work. It’s stupid and leads to economic inefficiencies, but I get the reasons for it.

But surely, when it comes to pro bono work, why should it still matter what state you are barred in? Why should we make people willing to help for free endure the friction of finding “local counsel” and all that? I don’t mean to sound like Jim Harbaugh, but Legal Aid should be a backbone of our social safety net, and limiting that service based on state bar requirements doesn’t seem to be helping anybody.

The point that Effron and Mystal are making is, essentially, that if a state can allow multijurisdictional practice in order to help victims of Hurricane Harvey, then why can’t other states —all states —allow multijurisdictional practice in other contexts? Mystal limits his question to the context of pro bono (free) legal work, while Effron asks it with respect to all legal work, without differentiation. Both complain that restrictions on multijurisdictional practice do not serve the public interest. To the contrary, they are nothing but a form of economic protectionism for in-state lawyers that operate to limit the public’s access to legal services.

These are entirely accurate observations about the Order, and they raise entirely legitimate objections to restrictions on multijurisdictional practice. However, they do not go far enough. Here is how they could, and should, go further:

1)         While there is no count—official or otherwise —of the number of victims of Hurricane Harvey who will need legal assistance, it will likely be a high number. And many of those persons won’t need legal help for just one matter or requiring just one type of legal expertise. To the contrary, they are likely to require help with respect to multiple matters and a wide range of subject areas: insurance, real property and mortgage, landlord/tenant, family law, bankruptcy, litigation, wills and estates, probate, consumer protection, employment. In this context, it is quite possible if not likely that the demand for free legal services by victims of Hurricane Harvey will be greater than the supply that lawyers, be they from Texas or out of state, will be willing or able to provide. That is, just as legal aid organizations across the country are not able to serve the needs of everyone who is eligible for legal aid, so many victims of Hurricane Harvey will not be able to access free legal services because the demand will be greater than the supply. Some of those persons will be able to pay at least something for legal services. Who will they turn to? If they are paying for the services, they will be limited to lawyers admitted in Texas. Where is the logic in that? According to the laws of supply and demand, the fees charged by the Texas lawyers should be higher than they would be if Texas were open to competition from out-of-state lawyers on a fee-paying basis also. If the victims of Hurricane Harvey can access out-of-state lawyers for free legal services and no one claims that the quality of those services will be harmful to those victims, or even simply inadequate, then on what basis can it be legitimate to deny the victims access to out-of-state lawyers on a fee-paying basis in a more competitive marketplace than one that is limited to Texas lawyers only?

Keep in mind that the Order is valid for six months—unless the Supreme Court issues an extension, all of the out-of-state lawyers (again, working for free) will need to wrap up their work by late February/early March 2018. It is unlikely that all outstanding legal issues connected to Hurricane Harvey will be fully resolved by then. Regardless of whether the Supreme Court issues an extension or not, the Order will at some point expire and when it does, victims of Hurricane Harvey will no longer have access to free legal services by out-of-state lawyers (not legally, anyway). And if they can’t find a Texas lawyer willing to work for free then they’ll have to get in line and pay for a Texas lawyer, just like everyone else.

It is in considering the situation from this urgent context that the pure protectionist purpose of Model Rule 5.5 (the protection of in-state lawyers) is laid bare—indeed, stark naked—and the need to end such protectionism becomes even clearer.

2)         The Order itself is an acknowledgement on the part of the Supreme Court that how lawyers are regulated generally, and the unauthorized practice of law rules specifically, have a direct and demonstrable effect upon the extent to which citizens of a state are able to access legal services. (This is a topic that I explore in my book Modernizing Legal Services in Common Law Countries: Will the US Be Left Behind?). Going further, the Order is an acknowledgement that the exclusion of out-of-state lawyers (Model Rule 5.5 and its counterparts) has the effect of denying needed legal services to a population. Hurricane Harvey did not invent this situation, it simply made it more acute and more blatant for a very particular population: one that is large but still contained and easily identifiable, as well as highly mediatized and easy to sympathize with.

3)         The Order exposes the belief on the part of Supreme Court of Texas (if not all legal regulators) that some legal needs are more worthy than others. As regards the victims of Hurricane Harvey, the Supreme Court considers their legal needs so worthy, the court acted very quickly (just four days after Hurricane Harvey hit the Texas coast on August 25) in order to take very rare (unprecedented?) steps to expand the supply of free legal services, even if some (many?) of the beneficiaries of those services could pay at least something for them. (Unlike the rules of most legal aid organizations, there is nothing in the Order that restricts the beneficiaries of free legal services by out-of-state lawyers only to victims of Hurricane Harvey who are unable to pay for them.)

Contrast what the Supreme Court of Texas presumably learned back in June, 2017 from a report by the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), “The Justice Gap: Measuring the Unmet Civil Legal Needs of Low-Income Americans.” This 68-page Report offers these startling statistics: 71% of low-income households in the United States have experienced at least one civil legal problem in the past year, and 25% have experienced six or more civil legal problems. Of those civil legal problems, the Report states that 86% of them received inadequate or no legal help.” 86%.

The Report lists the most common civil legal problem areas as health, consumer & finance, rental housing, children & custody, education, disability and income maintenance. These problems (together with a host of others, such as domestic violence) afflict the more than 60 million Americans across the country that have family incomes at or below 125% of the Federal Poverty Line (FPL), including senior citizens, persons with disabilities, veterans and residents of rural communities. The Report calls out Texas as having 5.7 million people with incomes under the FPL, a large number as compared to other states. More specifically, of Texas’s total population of 26.8 million, 21.1% have incomes under the FPL. Based upon an average household size of 2.84 persons, this means that there are approximately 2 million low-income households in Texas. Extrapolating from the national figures of 71% and 86%, this means that last year in Texas approximately 1.4 million low income households experienced at least one civil legal problem, and of those, no fewer than 1.2 million of those problems received inadequate or no legal help. Contrast that number to these currently available numbers for Hurricane Harvey: as of Friday September 1, it was estimated that 185,149 homes were damaged or destroyed and 364,000 people had registered with FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) for assistance. Those numbers are considerable, but they do not surpass the 1.2+ million unmet legal needs of low-income households in Texas in the past year.

Underscoring these issues, and going further back, in December, 2016, the Texas Commission to Expand Legal Services issued a report containing eight recommendations to the Supreme Court with the purpose of expanding the availability of civil legal services to low- and middle-income Texans. Those recommendations include “The Court should form a standing committee to maintain accountability for closing the justice gap and to monitor the effectiveness of reform initiatives,” “The Court should encourage the State Bar of Texas, the Texas Access to Justice Commission, and local bar associations to create pipelines of services for modest-means clients,” and “A primary objective of future rulemaking projects should be to make the civil justice system more accessible to modest-means clients.”

There is no evidence in the public record that, since December, 2016, the Supreme Court of Texas has acted upon these or any of the other recommendations in the Texas Report. Nor is there any evidence that since June, 2017, the Supreme Court of Texas has taken any steps to address the situation of the 1.4 million low-income Texas households described in the LSC Report. Why would the Court would be utterly inactive with respect to the dire needs described in those Reports and at the same time be so quickly reactive with respect to the needs of the victims of Hurricane Harvey, if the Court did not believe that some legal needs are more worthy—more deserving of resources and attention—than others?

Do we agree? We can all agree that the victims of Hurricane Harvey deserve legal assistance. Lawyers can demonstrate that agreement by volunteering to help them on a pro bono basis. By all accounts, many lawyers have volunteered, all within a matter of days. But do we also agree with the Supreme Court of Texas that the 1.4 million low income households in Texas (and by extension the 60 million low-income persons throughout the United States) are less deserving of assistance with their legal issues that are unrelated to Hurricane Harvey? We can declare over and over that they are equally deserving of assistance, but, like the Supreme Court of Texas, our inaction says otherwise: We do believe that some legal needs are simply more worthy than others.

[1] The Order also allows a lawyer to “practice law in Texas” if that lawyer was displaced form his/her home state due to Hurricane Harvey and works remotely from a Texas location to provide legal services in his/her home state.

If you’d like to subscribe in order to receive notices of new posts, you can do so by scrolling to the bottom of this page — you’ll see the place in the bottom left corner. Thanks for subscribing!

Related posts on this site:

Chapter 9: Alternative Structures Cannot Help Those Who Cannot Pay

Chapter 12: Opportunities for Legal Aid

Chapter 20: Unmet Need as Human Rights Crisis

Chapter 23: Endless Objections and The Lawyer Monopoly


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *