Fundamental civil rights injustice. This is what Upsolve co-founder, Rohan Pavuluri, claims to be resulting due to the ban against nonlawyers providing simple legal advice for consumer debts. Upsolve is a non-profit organization based in New York City that promotes financial literacy and helps consumers handle their debts. Recently, the company has created the “American Justice Movement”, a program where volunteer counselors are trained to help people who are facing lawsuits over consumer debts; a growing concern for many Americans. In fact, in 2020, at least “four millionAmericans a year were sued over consumer debt, with less than 10 percent retaining lawyers and more than 70 percent of cases ending in default judgments against the defendant.” Moreover, an astonishing 265,000 consumer debt suits were filed in New York, with over 95% percent of the defendants not represented by a lawyer between 2018 and 2019. The inability to get into contact with a lawyer, coupled with their hourly rate greatly exceeding the debt the consumer is trying to dispute, are possible explanations behind the lack of lawyer representation. Upsolve decided that they wanted to fill that role, hence their inspiration for the legal training program. Once implemented, volunteers would be able to sign up to undergo “training” to assist people with their consumer debt suits. The “training” in question consists of reading an 18-page justice advocate training guide.
However, Upsolve has not yet been able to put this program into motion due to New York’s law that bars people without a license from practicing law. This sparked a recent lawsuit, where Upsolve filed against the Manhattan’s attorney general, arguing that barring non-lawyers from giving basic advice through Upsolve’s program violates the First Amendment. The company is hoping the New York law will carve out an exception for their legal training program. Upsolve argues that the services their legal volunteers would provide would simply be helping consumers with debt to understand how to respond to the pending lawsuit. Specifically, in New York, consumers can respond to the summons by filling out a fill-in-the-blank form in which they will assert possible defenses. Thus the question becomes, is this really the practice of law, or rather, simple advice which is protected under the First Amendment? Upsolve argues the latter, in that with the streamlined process in New York, the program’s services are just narrowly tailored towards filling out the form. While most ordinary laypersons would be able to fill out the form, low-income consumers who struggle with financial literacy are likely to have issues.
Laurence Tribe, a legal scholar who headed the access to justice initiative during President Obama’s term, claims the ban on non-lawyers who want to help unrepresentative consumers afflicted with consumer debt seems to be a law that was created to prevent competition for legal services. However, would the availability of more people to assist consumers really take away from those billable hours? Debt claim cases have increased tremendously over the past few years, filling up the civil court dockets, as cases have doubled from 12% in 1993 to 24% in 2013. With volunteer counselors helping consumers faced with consumer debts suits, this could potentially eliminate the need to go to court and reduce the amount of cases filed in civil courts substantially. In fact, Pew Charitable Trust believes the increased availability of online services for consumers with debt could help to lessen the floodgates in courts.
Nonetheless, the court’s decision on this upcoming suit is uncertain. Of course, the ban on non-legal advice was intended to ensure that consumers aren’t being manipulated by others and obtaining the full justice system. But couldn’t it be said that Upsolve and the law share that same mission by ensuring consumers are obtaining the full justice system? At the end of the day, an 18-page training manual could never replace an experienced lawyer with years of legal training.