To Deepen U.S. Democracy, Decriminalize Legal Empowerment

Dear Friends,

I have worked on legal empowerment in several places around the world, from Myanmar to India to Sierra Leone. Like you, I believe it essential that all people are able to know, use, and shape the law.

I had long dreamed of building a legal empowerment effort in the United States, where I grew up and now live. But when we started looking closely at the possibility several years ago, we realized that here, legal empowerment is illegal.

In this new essay, I argue that, in order to deepen American democracy, the U.S. needs to embrace legal empowerment rather than criminalizing it.

If you are in the U.S., we’d love to hear your experience with restrictions on the “unauthorized practice of law.” Has anyone harassed you or deterred you using those rules? Would you like to take part in an effort to undo them?

If you are outside the U.S., we’d love to hear about whether you face any regulatory barriers to legal empowerment, and how you’re adapting to them or challenging them.

In many countries, our movement has overcome monopolist opposition from the private bar and achieved official recognition of community paralegals and other intermediaries. See details from 10 countries at this link.

The pandemic calls us to reimagine many things, including the role of law in society. I look forward to reimagining and re-creating with all of you.


Thank you for bringing up this important issue, Vivek. I have experience legal empowerment in several African countries and, more recently, in the United States with formerly incarcerated individuals. See Thus far, our financial support has come from our state bar association, our state legal foundation, and the american bar endowment. I would love to be part of this effort as it is a constant worry for all involved.

Warmly, Deborah Espinosa


Dear @DebEspinosa,

Great to hear from you and wonderful to hear about the vital work of Living with Conviction.

We will reach out to you about advocacy efforts related to UPL. Our friends at the National Center for Access to Justice at Fordham Law School are currently pulling together a range of people interested in reform.

To our other US-based network members: anyone else interested in taking this on?