(Photo of Natalie Anne Knowlton by Elevate Photography/ABA Journal)
When states consider law firm ownership and limited law practice by nonlawyers, a common attorney criticism is that such regulation changes will create a tiered legal system that would give an advantage to people represented by lawyers.
The discussions mostly involve state supreme courts and bar associations and their members, while consumers are rarely invited, says Natalie Anne Knowlton, a Colorado lawyer who spent 14 years with the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System, the last six years as director of special projects.
“Maybe you’d rather have a Toyota than a Mercedes-Benz,” Knowlton says of consumers and legal representation choices.
Her work for the IAALS, an independent research center housed at the University of Denver, has provided data and reference for states that have overhauled or are considering modifying their unauthorized practice of law regulations to allow for alternative business structures, limited nonlawyer practice or some combination thereof.
For instance, she helped spearhead Cases Without Counsel, an empirical research study that led to two IAALS publications focused on unrepresented parties in family court.
Pro se litigants interviewed often thought court staff was reluctant to provide information, while court staff who participated in the study spoke of the difficulties of helping these litigants without giving legal advice, Knowlton says.
“People don’t understand the line between giving legal advice and information,” she says, adding that consumers often felt everyone working in the court system was saying no to them, which creates tension. “And judges are concerned about how to balance their duty to remain neutral with their duty to dispense justice.”
The pro se litigants also were asked why they did not obtain counsel. Cost was a significant factor, as were experiences with lawyers and a sense they could self-represent, the survey found.
“We heard from some that getting an attorney in a family law case automatically made them feel that the matter was going to be a lot more formal than it needed to be,” Knowlton says. “We also heard, ‘I don’t want to drag our kids through this big legal mess, so we’re going to try to do it ourselves.’”
In August, she left the IAALS to co-found Access to Justice Ventures with fellow 2023 Legal Rebel Zachariah DeMeola. Knowlton describes the offering as a “justice ecosystem that prioritizes the public interest above all else, and we want to provide support in both creating that ecosystem and support to those operating in that ecosystem.”
“We intend to make what we know freely accessible through our website, and we are available for more bespoke consulting as well,” she explains.
According to her, Access to Justice Ventures’ audience will be legislatures, legal professionals, “law adjacent professionals” and the public. “We can never really speak on behalf of someone else. It is critical that legal consumers have a voice,” she says.
Technology will figure in too. “I want to support tech startups that in some way reach and directly benefit legal consumers,” says Knowlton, 42.
The 2008 graduate of the University of Denver Sturm College of Law initially thought she wanted to do international human rights law. She also has a graduate degree in international studies from the university, and during law school, Knowlton externed with the United Nations’ International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.
“When I went to law school, I knew right away I didn’t want to practice law in the traditional sense,” she says. “I was interested in systems and systemic change.”
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