Group legal services are legal services provided under a plan to members of the plan.These members may be employees of the same company, members of the same organization, or individual consumers. Many people view group legal services as a benefit that bears some resemblance to benefits such as group health insurance plans but rather than paying a monthly premium to have access to affordable healthcare, members of group legal services pay a fee (usually an annual one) to have access to free or low-cost legal consultations with a licensed attorney. Legal group services stem from different sources such as employers, unions, and commercial plans (plans that are independent of an employee’s particular work or employer). Different plans vary in scope, price, and availability.

History of Group Legal Services

The 1970s was the first decade to have group legal services. These early plans were for unions who negotiated for them as employee benefits. Unions have remained a primary user group legal services. In subsequent years, lawyers saw this as an uncharted and innovative way to market their services. The mid-1980s brought about legal groups that were aimed at a variety of groups that might benefit from them, including the legal profession, the media, government workers, and the public. It is estimated that by the 1990s, 10% of Americans belonged to some form of group legal service. Nowadays, there are many more companies that offer group legal services. Some of the larger companies offer group legal plans as well as many different insurances such as auto, home, group accident and health (insurance that is complementary to regular auto and health insurance), disability, dental, vision, and life. 

For many years, group legal services were resisted by the legal profession and facets of the profession sought to restrict them. An example of this is that state bars initially opposed group legal services because the organisation of the plans requires the imposition of an intermediary between an attorney and their client. The state bar associations saw this as a violation of the traditional attorney-client relationship of confidentiality, amongst other things. Unions that were the first proponents of the advantages of group legal services plans were met with stiff opposition in several states. Starting in the early 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement and a series of US Supreme Court decisions broke these barriers down and group legal services became more accessible.

Legal Decisions Affecting Group Legal Services

– In 1963 in NAACP v. Button, the court struck down a Virginia law that had prevented the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) from providing staff lawyer services to members.

– In 1964 in Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen v. Virginia ex. Rel. Virginia State Bar, the court struck down an injunction that prohibited legal services for members of the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen on the grounds that it violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

These and other court decisions cleared the way for a broad expansion of opportunities for group legal services that ultimately helped to lower the cost of legal fees. Similar to the way that group health insurance creates savings because participants are buying “in bulk” as a group, having a large group of people buy into a particular legal plan or program, can lead to lower costs for individuals.