New Competition for Lawyers

As if there weren’t enough pressure on law firms already from accountants, real estate agents, consultants and others encroaching on the territory formerly occupied only by attorneys. Now there’s another competitor determined to take away yet another aspect of legal practice. And despite the temporary closing of their doors after the Florida Bar accused it of practicing law without a license, and the filing of complaints by former customers , the company called We the People, a national chain of legal self-help businesses, will open a new store in Tampa, Florida.

According to an article in Southwest Florida’s Herald Tribune, the company is banking on the idea that the do-it-yourself trend that has flourished in other sectors, like home improvement, will attract consumers who need simple legal work.

The basic idea of the chain is to establish a middle ground between paying an attorney and filling out forms found on the Internet or at the courthouse. Customers can go to a We the People store and give their information to a store employee, who will check it for accuracy and send it to a processing center, where it is entered on the form and sent back for the customer’s approval.

Does this constitute the Unauthorized Practice of Law? The law is strict about what constitutes legal advice. Florida Bar official Lori Holcolmb said the company, in essence, is permitted to be nothing more than a typing service. Its representatives may not even tell customers which forms to choose. Florida, Tennessee and New York have already filed actions against the franchise and reached settlement. Authorities in Texas, Illinois and North Carolina have also lodged complaints against the company.

This promises to be a long battle against a determined company, and I hope that the PA Bar will react swiftly if the franchise attempts to set up shop here. This company has the potential, if left unchecked, to further erode the line of demarcation between the practice of law, and the unauthorized practice of law.

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