Recently a prospect for our DirectLaw Web Service asked me whether it was the unauthorized practice of law for a law firm to use a legal document that is generated by our web-enabled document automation system (Rapidocs), because the legal form did not originate within the law firm itself. In this model, a client completes an on-line questionnaire which generates a legal form or legal document instantly ready for attorney review and further modification. I asked my colleague Will Hornsby, who is Counsel to the Standing Committee on the Delivery of Legal Services, American Bar Association, and a leading expert on ethical issues that arise from delivering legal services over the Internet.
Hornsby says that a lawyer commits the unauthorized practice of law when the lawyer assists a non-lawyer, whether that is a person or a corporation, to undertake the practice of law. This leads to the question of whether online document automation that creates a legal form or document from data provided by the client is the practice law. The definition of “the practice of law” varies from state-to-state but frequently includes the drafting of legal documents and the use of legal knowledge or skill. (For specific state definitions of what is the practice of law, or the unauthorized practice of law, click here.
However, the question here revolves around whether the lawyer is “assisting” the software vendor in practicing law when the document preparation is provided as a legal service of the law firm. This is analogous to services provided by paralegals and other outsourced services. In most states, for example, paralegals have no independent authority to provide legal services. If they independently provide document preparation or use their legal skills in serving clients, they may be deemed in violation of their state’s UPL laws, as are any lawyers who assist them in providing those services. [This is the LegalZoom model ]. However, if paralegals provide those same services under the direction of a lawyer and the lawyer assumes supervisory obligations, the paralegal is not practicing law and is not violating UPL laws, nor is the lawyer who provides the supervision “assisting” in the unauthorized practice of law.
ABA Formal Opinion 08-451 (Aug. 5, 2008) clarifies that a lawyer may outsource legal services, subject to several considerations. The opinion directly addresses independent contractors, such as temporary lawyers, but also mentions sources of tasks such as a photocopy shop, a document management company and a third-party vendor for the firm’s computer services. In its discussion of Model Rule 5.5 and the unauthorized practice of law, the Opinion states, “Ordinarily, an individual who is not admitted to practice law in a particular jurisdiction may work for a lawyer who is so admitted, provided that the lawyer remains responsible for the work being performed and that the individual is not held out as being a duly admitted lawyer.”
Therefore, according to Hornsby, and I agree, even if a document automation application would be deemed the unauthorized practice of law if its services were provided independently of a lawyer’s services, once those service or the documents produced by the software application are provided under the lawyer’s direction and supervision, within the scope of the lawyer’s services, the lawyer can no longer be assisting the document preparation in the practice of law and no longer has a risk of assisting in the unauthorized practice of law.