IJ Defends Free Speech Against One of the Most Powerful Licensing Regimes in the Country—Our Own!
“Lawyers are licensed, aren’t they?”
We routinely get that question from opponents of our occupational licensing work, generally accompanied by a knowing sneer. The implication, of course, is that we are hypocrites for trying to remove licensing barriers from other fields while ignoring our own. Our answer has always been the same: “We’ll get to that, too.”
Because our opponents are not entirely wrong about lawyers. Lawyers, like people in any other field, sometimes use government power to protect themselves from competition. And to make matters worse, a lot of the “practice of law” in modern America is just talking—providing the kind of ordinary advice that IJ has long fought to protect from censorious licensing boards. The result of unchecked licensing of speech about the law is predictable: For ordinary people, basic advice about how to access their legal rights is often simply unaffordable.
That is why IJ has teamed up with Upsolve, an innovative nonprofit devoted to helping Americans access their legal rights for free. Upsolve rose to fame with a free bankruptcy app that walks people through Chapter 7 bankruptcies (and has helped relieve hundreds of millions of dollars in debt). But bankruptcy was just the beginning. Upsolve’s next project, the American Justice Movement, aims to help people respond to consumer debt lawsuits.
Consumer debt lawsuits are big business—in New York, roughly a quarter of all lawsuits are an attempt to collect on a debt. And many of these suits are, at best, questionable, brought by third parties who buy up old debts on the secondary market and file suits to collect, even if the defendant doesn’t owe the amount claimed or, sometimes, anything at all.
But the dubious nature of some of these suits does not mean they fail. Indeed, many succeed without a fight. As often as 90 percent of the time the defendants in consumer debt suits in New York fail to respond at all, leaving the plaintiffs with a default judgment. If a defendant shows up, the collectors often just give up rather than try to prove their case.
If showing up is half the battle—or more—this seems like an area where a little helpful advice could go a long way. That is what Upsolve wants to provide. By training community members to give basic advice on how to respond to lawsuits, Upsolve hopes to arm countless New Yorkers with the knowledge they need to defend themselves.
The problem, of course, is that this is a crime. Talking to someone about how to respond to a lawsuit is the unlicensed practice of law, and it’s a felony. But the First Amendment protects the right to give advice—including advice about the law. To protect that vital legal principle, IJ has joined forces with Upsolve and Rev. John Udo-Okon, a Bronx pastor and the American Justice Movement’s first trainee, in a challenge to New York’s prohibition on the unauthorized practice of law.
In America, we rely on people to decide whom they want to listen to, rather than relying on the government to decide who is allowed to speak. IJ stands ready to defend that principle against heavy-handed licensing boards nationwide—even when the license we’re challenging happens to be our own.
Brian Morris is an IJ attorney.
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