On August 2, 2011, Federal District Judge Nanette K. Laughrey, for the Western District of Missouri, the Judge presiding over the class action case against LegalZoom for unauthorized practice of law, released an opinion denying, in part, Defendant’s Motion of Summary Judgment. The Court held that document preparation by non-lawyers, under Missouri Law, is conduct, and not entitled to First Amendment protection. ( See full opinion here ).
This is consistent with my own view, expressed in a previous post. (Is LegalZoom just a self help legal software company?).
The court’s opinion rejects the logic in an article authored by Professor Catherine J. Lanctot, titled, "Does LegalZoom Have First Amendment Rights: Some Thoughts About Freedom of Speech and the Unauthorized Practice of Law." , which doesn’t surprise me, as it is hard to characterize LegalZoom’s activities as "speech", when they have 500 employees working on customer’s documents.
One paragraph in the Court’s opinion is troubling. On Page 21, the Opinion states as follows:
"Furthermore, LegalZoom’s branching computer program is created by a LegalZoom employee using Missouri law. It is that human input that creates the legal document. A computer sitting at a desk in California cannot prepare a legal document without a human programming it to fill in the document using legal principles derived from Missouri law that are selected for the customer based on the information provided by the customer. There is little or no difference between this and a lawyer in Missouri asking a client a series of questions and then preparing a legal document based on the answers provided and applicable Missouri law. That the Missouri lawyer may also give legal advice does not undermine the analogy because legal advice and document preparation are two different ways in which a person engages in the practice of law. "
"The Missouri Supreme Court cases which specifically address the issue of document preparation, First Escrow, Mid-America and Eisel, make it clear that this is the unauthorized practice of law. The fact that the customer communicates via computer rather than face to face or that the document prepared using a computer program rather than a pen and paper does not change the essence of the transaction."
This Opinion could be interpreted to mean that all legal software programs are a form of conduct, and not entitled to First Amendment protection. I would argue that the Court comes to this conclusion because the legal software is used in the context of a document preparation service, and is not a stand alone program. As the Court further explains that:
As in Hulse, First Escrow, Mid-America, and Eisel, LegalZoom’s customers are rendered passive bystanders after providing the information necessary to complete the form. Yet LegalZoom charges a fee for its legal document preparation service. …..The customer merely provides information and "Legal takes over."
The facts of this case make a difference, I would argue, in understanding the scope of the Court’s Opinion.
If we define a legal software program as a "product", where there is no service element and no conduct whatever, then it is hard for me to believe that the Court intended to ban legal software programs from distribution directly to consumers, whether on-line or off-line.
If that was the Court’s intent, then companies like Nolo and Intuit, would have to pull their products off the shelves of Barnes & Noble and Staples and Amazon, programs like LawHelp Interactive, supported by the US Legal Services Corporation, would have to be terminated, and the many web sites that offer interactive forms, without any service component would have to be abandoned. Courts that are experimenting with distributing interactive forms from their web sites, would have to consider whether this activity is the "unauthorized practice of law", a strange result.
Law Schools like Chicago-Kent Law School that are experimenting with new legal software interfaces that connect citizens directly with legal help through software, might reconsider their efforts.
The only way that such legal software could be used, would be by attorneys in the context of delivering of legal service through their law firms. I think this would be an unfortunate result.
Other possible negative consequences of such an interpretation would be:
- The legal profession would be further attacked for attempts to restrict commerce and maintain higher legal pricing by the consuming public causing further damage to the profession’s already declining reputation;
- Pro se litigants would not have access to tools that enable them to represent themselves, further restricting access to the legal system;
It would be helpful, if the Missouri District Court clarified its language on page 21 of the Court Order to distinguish between fact situations where interactive legal software is used as part of a document preparation service business and situations where the programs are distributed as stand alone programs — products– like a book or other publication. What do you think?