A special commission of the American Bar Association, criticizing lawyers who let the "drive to make money" become their primary goal, has recommended a series of measures to increase lawyers' "professionalism," including an end to the traditional prohibition on nonlawyers performing such basic legal services as real estate closings and drafting simple wills.
The ABA's Commission on Professionalism, in a 155-page "blueprint for the rekindling of lawyer professionalism," also recommended that all lawyers be required to take continuing legal education courses and, "where practical," to pass tests proving that they learned something in the classes. Although 22 states now require continuing legal education, none of the courses include tests, the report said.
"There is little question that lawyers, in fact, physically attend these courses in most instances, but the question is what they get out of them," the report stated.
The commission, chaired by Chicago lawyer Justin A. Stanley, was established last year at the urging of Chief Justice Warren E. Burger. Its conclusions, released Sunday, are to be reviewed at the ABA convention next month, where the commission has asked that a five-member committee be appointed to "coordinate implementation" of the recommendations.
"The temptation to put profits first will always be great," the report said. "Indeed, the increase in competitive pressures on lawyers may make the temptation greater now than at any period in history." However, it warned, "activities directed primarily to the pursuit of wealth will ultimately prove both self-destructive and destructive of the fabric of trust between clients and lawyers generally."
The report comes as the legal profession is under siege, with lawyers blamed for the liability insurance crisis and reviled for what the report said was "the unseemly rush of lawyers to Bhopal India " after the catastrophic gas leak there. In a commission survey of corporate clients, 68 percent said they thought "professionalism" among lawyers had decreased, and only 6 percent said "all or most" lawyers deserved to be called professionals.
The recommendation that nonlawyers be allowed to do work traditionally reserved for lawyers is certain to generate controversy. "There will be a lot of opposition to it, of course," Stanley said in a telephone interview yesterday. "In a lot of smaller communities, many lawyers make their living doing principally this kind of work."
The commission said "limited licensing" of paralegals to provide certain basic legal services would be a "desirable step" in making legal help affordable for the middle class.
"No doubt, many wills and real estate closings require the services of a lawyer," the report said. "However, it can no longer be claimed that lawyers have the exclusive possession of the esoteric knowledge required and are therefore the only ones able to advise clients on any matter concerning the law . . . . Lawyer resistance to such inroads for selfish reasons only brings discredit on the profession."
The report referred in a footnote to the Florida Bar's battle with Rosemary Furman, a legal secretary who was convicted of practicing law without a license by assembling do-it-yourself legal forms for simple wills, uncontested divorces, name changes and adoptions. The dispute "seriously damaged the bar's public reputation," the report said.
The commission also termed lawyers' "increasing participation" in business activities a "disturbing" trend that should be studied. Such activities include operating nonlegal businesses, establishing law firm "investment pools" that put money into clients' enterprises, and serving on the boards of corporate clients.
The commission also:
Urged judges to impose sanctions on lawyers who file baseless suits or employ dilatory tactics, and suggested that states follow the federal lead by adopting rules to penalize lawyers for such abuses.
Suggested that all fee arrangements between lawyers and clients be written and that states establish fee review committees to hear complaints by clients who believe they have been overcharged.
Criticized as "wasteful, wholly inappropriate tactics," the "double, triple or quadruple teaming on depositions, and the filing of motions to dismiss and motions for summary judgment in every case, whether or not there is any reasonable chance of success."
Other members of the 15-member panel included former attorney general Benjamin R. Civiletti, federal judges Frank A. Kaufman and George N. Leighton, and D.C. Superior Court Judge Sylvia Bacon.