Mr. Green is a professor at Fordham Law School, where he is the director of the Stein Center for Law & Ethics. Mr. Udell is the executive director of the National Center for Access to Justice.
When the United States was founded, friends and neighbors could freely advise one another how to deal with legal problems. Anyone could give advice about the law or draft legal documents for others. One had to be a lawyer to advocate before certain courts, but that was all that lawyers had an exclusive right to do.
New York’s highest court launched a significant change in 1919 when it declared that the practice of law, reserved exclusively for lawyers, included legal assistance provided for a fee outside the courthouse. The court noted that one “probably” could “ask a friend or neighbor” for legal help, but courts have since expanded lawyers’ monopoly so that laws across the country restrict anyone who is not a lawyer from helping another person with a legal problem.
These laws prohibiting the “unauthorized practice of law” hurt those who cannot afford a lawyer. Even those who have relevant training or personal experience but are not lawyers may not offer free advice on how to handle a common legal problem. They cannot advise, for example, how to use legal processes to pursue the return of a security deposit, obtain overtime or a payment for child support, or prove that a debt was repaid.