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USC professor reflects on the high cost of law

Gillian Hadfield recently testified before the State Bar of California on making justice more accessible. (Photo/Courtesy of USC Gould School of Law)

USC Gould School of Law Professor Gillian Hadfield has published new research on improving access to legal services. Hadfield’s paper, “The Cost of Law: Promoting Access to Justice through the (Un)Corporate Practice of Law,” argues that the lack of access is rooted in U.S. law firm economics. It was published in the International Review of Law and Economics.

Hadfield, professor of law and economics, has long advocated for allowing licensed legal professionals and organizations, including corporations, to perform some of the legal work that currently requires a high-priced attorney.

“Under the existing business model — in which legal services for ordinary individuals are provided by solo and small firm practitioners operating in traditional law-office settings — these costs are simply too high,” according to Hadfield. “To reduce the cost of law and increase access to legal assistance, the form in which legal services are produced and delivered to the market has to change. This will require much larger-scale organizations and more creative and complex financial and management relationships between those who provide legal expertise — lawyers — and those who provide many of the other components that go into ultimately delivering legal assistance to people.”

Hadfield said few Americans can afford attorneys, who often charge more than $200 hour. She is a proponent of the British model, which authorizes a wide variety of professionals, organizations and corporations to provide legal help. She advocates allowing practitioners to work for corporations to cut costs on overhead and other inefficiencies.

“Conventional legal services are simply beyond the means of most Americans. Increased public funding of legal aid is clearly not feasible as a means of meeting the demand for legal help: At the rates estimated for solo and small firm practitioners, it would cost on the order of $50 billion annually just to secure one hour of legal help for all the American households with an unmet dispute-related need; the current total expenditure on legal aid in the U.S., counting both public funds and charitable donations, is less than 10 percent of that figure: $3.7 billion,” according to the paper. “Even those living in poverty, who are eligible for civil legal aid, often are unable to obtain assistance: The Legal Services Corp. [LSC] estimated that in 2009, half of those seeking assistance from LSC-funded services were turned away [Legal Services Corp 2009].”

Hadfield recently testified before the State Bar of California on making justice more accessible by licensing legal assistants who would not be required to obtain a JD degree and licensing entities, including nonprofit organizations and for-profit companies. These new providers of legal services would perform a portion of the legal work that now requires an attorney.

In 2012, Hadfield testified on the matter for the chief judge in New York. As a consequence of that testimony, the New York courts are developing pilot projects for the use of nonlawyer assistants in court.

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USC professor reflects on the high cost of law

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