H&R Block launched an experimental and innovative service in Texas in January to assist immigrants in completing H&R BlockUSCIS forms. The forms were powered by software and H&R Block’s role was to provide a service to assist users in completing the forms within their offices– , but no legal advice was to be provided.

It didn’t take long for the organized immigration bar to shut this service down.

Here is a report from Crystal Williams, Executive Director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association to the Board of Directors of AILA about their efforts to make sure that H&R Block would not compete with the immigration bar:

“H&R BlockAs many of you are aware, this large national tax preparer had been advertising an “immigration document service,” apparently as a pilot program in Houston. After some quiet diplomacy, H&R Block has agreed to cancel the program and remove any advertising related to it.  They are in the process of removing what is out there on it.  If, after another week, you or other members still see anything at a physical site, on the internet, or elsewhere about it, please let me know.”

“In addition, we had a meeting with another large national accounting firm that had been contemplating something similar, and it appears that they too will not be pursuing it.  We will continue to work on this issue with other firms that seem poised to cross the UPL line.  Chapter chairs, please feel free to share this with your members.”

It’s not clear where there is any UPL violation, as the Immigrant Assistants were simply helping users navigate through the software rather than provide any legal advice.  It is well documented there is a huge demand for legal assistance and that the immigration bar only serves a small proportion of the total demand as most immigrants can’t afford the fees that immigration lawyers charge. For this reason that there is well documented fraud abuse by “notarios”, as scam artists move to service immigrants with services that are over-priced, fraudulent, and inadequate.

On the other hand, we have a Fortune 500 company that attempts to provide a needed service to fulfill this gap in service with the idea that evaluation and assessment would in the fullness of time result in a limited and valuable service that is software-powered, not unlike the tax preparation service that H&R Block provides to millions of Americans. Rather than permit this experiment, the organized bar moved quickly to intimidate Block into shutting this service down.

ftcNo wonder there is little innovation in the delivery of legal services to consumers. No wonder consumers hate lawyers. Non-lawyers helping pro se litigants navigate through intelligent and smart software is hardly the practice of law, and it is, as Prof. Renee Knake argues, a protected First Amendment right.

Where are you —  U.S. Federal Trade Commission?

Surely there must be opportunities to experiment in the use software technologies to close the access to justice gap in America without interference by the organized bar. Regulation of legal services is too important to be left only to the lawyers. It is time to think about alternative schemes to regulate the delivery of legal services that involved interests other than protecting the income of the legal profession – despite the continued claim by the legal profession that their only interest is protecting the public from harm. There is little evidence to support that claim.

 

  • Software to replace lawyers–what could possible go wrong? And while were at it, why not replace doctors with software to diagnose and proscribe treatment? After all, there’s huge demand for medical treatment and that doctors only serves a small proportion of the total demand as most sick people can’t afford the fees that doctors charge.

    • The practice of medicine is very different than the practice of law. Your analogy is not relevant.

      My point is that any person has a constitutional right to represent themselves (well-established), and the use of self-help software by a self-represented litigant is also a protected constitutional right.

      There is no question that the practice of immigration law can be complex and clients have needed the assistance of counsel to navigate this environment or serious consequences can ensue.

      However, in the fullness of time software will become sufficiently powerful that it will easily replicate the cognitive abilities of attorneys for many, but not all factual situations. Lawyers, in the public interest, should be encouraging the development of such software, not attempting to restrict its use. If you don’t believe that software will become this powerful, you are, in my opinion, in denial.

      Richard S. Granat, Esq.
      CEO/Founder
      SmartLegalForms, Inc.
      http://www.smartlegalforms.com
      Direct: 561 – 622-9971

      • Speaking of denial, what if folks rely on your software for legal advice (“self-help” as you call it) and the software gets it wrong? Are you or your company going to accept liability?

        • The is a difference between being represented by a lawyer or reading a selfhelp law book or using selfhelp software. The user uses the second at their own risk. If the user wants a remedy for liability, they should use a lawyer. Should we ban selfhelp law books also? Selfhelp books that come with software? Where’s the line? Should we restrict the use of legal software only to lawyers?

  • Jim Martin

    Mr. Granat, the first sentence in your blog post stands as a stark example of why these softwares should not be used by non-lawyer businesses. It has been some 12 years since the Immigration Service was called the “INS”. If you cannot even get the name of the agency right, I really doubt that you can develop a software that will aid a potential client in navigating the intricacies of our complex immigration system. Further, there are issues that come up when filling out forms that no software can anticipate or about which it can counsel the client in how to answer. It seems that you believe that the practice of immigration law is merely a question of filling out forms. It is not. Finally, your impugning the motives of the immigration bar is unacceptable. We are at the front line in the trenches in combating notarios, who I might add, often times charge MORE than we do. I would also add that because of the notarios, many times our clients end up in removal proceedings (that’s what they’ve been called since 1996 in case you didn’t know) with their funds depleted. We really don’t need software with even less cognitive reasoning skils victimizing our clients. Sorry if the UPL rules are hurting software sales. There are plenty of other lines of business to go into and practicing law is a good way to make money if the software sales sink.

  • Sabrina Damast

    I’d like to provide you with some evidence of the harm that we, the Immigration Bar, are trying to protect the public from:

    http://media.ca11.uscourts.gov/opinions/pub/files/201312071.pdf

    That link will lead you to the story of a young woman, lawfully in the United States on a student visa but fearful of returning home, who sought the assistance of a non-attorney simply because she was “confronted by impenetrable government forms.” Do you know what assistance the non-attorney document preparer rendered to her? A lifetime bar to immigration benefits. Of course, we can all debate the young woman’s culpability, as the Court here did. But her story is not unique – as you, yourself, recognize, fraud by non-attorneys in the immigration field is rampant. Particularly in light of that, it is difficult to understand the line you try to draw between helping someone navigate immigration forms and giving them legal advice. For instance, how do you select which form your client needs assistance filling out without making the legal judgment that a particular application or petition applies to them?

    I speak for many of my colleagues when I say that the harm we see caused (intentionally and inadvertently) by non-attorney assistance is grave and great. We focus our advocacy on preventing any such harm in the future because we believe it is a goal worth pursuing, and one that we have the power to accomplish.

  • hoppock

    Errors on your taxes = penalties or fines. Errors on your immigration forms (or filing the wrong forms, or filing when you aren’t eligible) sometimes = deportation. I practice immigration law and turn a lot of people away. Not because they can’t afford the fee. We work on a sliding scale and offer pro bono help. The most common reason i turn people away is because they aren’t eligible for anything, or because the thing they want to file for will get them put in removal proceedings. Will Block be turning people away when they aren’t eligible? How can they if they aren’t giving legal advice. It isn’t possible to help someone with an immigration form without giving legal advice. This is why various state bars have been going after notarios. Not because all notarios are crooks, but because you can’t do this without giving legal advice, and the consequences are disastrous. By the way, there is a final process for non attorneys to be allowed to give immigration advice, by getting accredited by the BIA. Block didn’t do that. This wasn’t charity. It was a business model and had no formal mechanism to prevent getting people deported. No malpractice insurance, and no state bat to file a grievance if the Block employee messed your case. Block did the right thing shutting this down.