Greedy LawyersUnder the guise of consumer protection, North Carolina has passed new legislation, at the direction of the North Carolina Bar, that imposes restrictions on distributing self-help legal software over the Web.  Rather than protecting consumers, this legislation is a frightened response by the North Carolina Bar to protect their incomes from the impact of advances in Internet technology that provide new ways for people to solve their legal problems at low cost.

The restrictions are so severe that the result is to deprive North Carolina’s citizens of low cost solutions to solving many legal problems, inhibits innovation in developing legal solutions by an emerging self-help legal software industry, stifles competition to attorneys from self-help legal software publishers in the State of North Carolina, and will eliminate any possibility of private investment in self-help legal software development.

The new legislation can be found here: http://www.ncleg.net/Sessions/2015/Bills/House/PDF/H436v5.pdf

Also see also previous blog post on efforts by the North Carolina Bar to stifle competition..

Continue Reading North Carolina Restricts the Distribution of Legal Self-Help Software to Consumers

Legal Start-Ups and the ABA Commission on the Future of Legal ServicesThe American Bar Association Commission on the Future of Legal Services was created last year by then ABA President William C. Hubbard to explore ways to meet the legal needs of the underserved. The Commission does its work by holding public hearings on an issue, creating discussions and conversations among different stakeholders, issuing Issues Papers, soliciting comments on these papers, and depending on the issue  —  proposing new rules or policy approaches sometimes approved by the ABA’s House of Delegates where they become “official”. Some policies will be adopted by State Bar Associations which govern the conduct of lawyers and which regulate the legal profession and the legal services industry. As discussed below I believe that the ideas discussed within the Issue Papers will have an immediate impact on the ability of some “legal start-ups” to raise investment funds for their companies.

Issue Paper on Unregulated LSP Entities and “Legal Start-Ups”.

An Issues Paper was released  by the Commission on the Future of Legal Services on March 31 which solicits comments from the public and the profession on an approach to impose a regulatory regime on “non-regulated legal service providers entities” such as independent legal technician and document preparers serving the public directly, on-line automated legal document preparation service companies, legal software publication companies, and other “non-lawyer” entities that provide legal solutions to consumer. Many “legal start-ups” fall within the scope of the Issues Paper. The Issues Paper can be viewed here.  The deadline for submitting comments is April 28, 2016.

The way the paper is written it could include in its concept of an “unregulated LSP entity,” legal software application providers (“legal software publishing companies”)  that provide legal solutions directly to the consumer as an alternative to the services that could be purchased from a lawyer. Examples might include: automated document assembly companies, legal expert systems developers, intelligent calculators, legal decision tools, intelligent data bases, consumer- centric legal analysis tools, and automated legal advice applications.  New rules could apply to many legal software publishing entities from larger companies such as http://www.nolo.com; http://www.avvo.com; and http://www.rocketlawyer.com to smaller publishers and providers such as http://www.neotalogic.comhttp://www.shakelaw.com,  http://www.completecase.com; and http://www.lawgeex.com.  Our market research indicates there are hundreds of these new entrants to the legal service marketplace offering legal software applications that enable consumers to do legal tasks themselves.

There are also important developments within the courts, government agencies, and the national legal services program designed to provide software powered legal solutions for use directly by consumers.

All of these entities provide “software only solutions” – not services, so as a category I consider them to be “software publishers”.  [ Disclosure: I am the CEO of SmartLegalForms, Inc., which is a legal software publisher ].

Services vs. Legal Software Applications

My colleague, Marc Lauritsen, has written extensively and in-depth about how regulating legal software publishers would be unwise, and probably unconstitutional as a prior restraint under the First Amendment of the Constitution. His analysis of the wisdom and the right of the state regulation of legal software publishers and software developers can be found in these law review articles:  Liberty, Justice, and Legal Automata, 88 Chi-Kent L. Rev. 917 (2013)  and Are We Free to Code the Law? – August 2013 Communications of the Association for Computing Machinery . Other commentators have cautioned about extending the regulation of legal services beyond the legal profession itself.

The Role of Private Capital in Legal Service Innovation

One bright spot in the move towards innovation in the delivery of legal services has been the interest by private investment and the venture capital community in legal start-ups.  See:
http://www.lawsitesblog.com/2016/04/number-legal-startups-nearly-triples-two-years.html. Legal software application development is a capital intensive process. Very few solos and small law firm have access to capital that can be dedicated to creating new applications that translate into low cost solutions for the under-served.  It is for this reason that most innovation in the delivery of legal solutions to consumers has been outside of law firms and within private companies or the public sector. (except within Big Law firms where internal capital resources are available). Capital is the fuel of innovation.

Regulation is a Barrier to Innovation: Bye Bye Legal Start-Ups

I predict that if the ideas proposed in the Issues Paper are translated into policies and regulations the impact will be to dry up sources of investment capital for legal start-ups. The regulatory constraints that are being discussed to protect the consumer, would make it impossible for one category of legal service provider – legal software companies that serve the public directly – to operate a sustainable business. These requirements include among others:

  • registration by the legal software publishing company in every state that the company serves in;
  • waiver of “as-is” liability in Terms and Conditions Statements;
  • enabling consumers to sue the publishing company in the state where the consumer lives;
  • prohibitive insurance coverage to cover potential claims;
  • requirements that legal software companies disclose whether a lawyer is involved in the production of the software product, the name of the lawyer, and the jurisdiction where the lawyer is licensed to practice;

If I were a venture capitalist thinking about investing in a legal software publisher that intends to serve the public directly, I would be hesitant to invest now because these ideas are being floated by the Commission  and could become a reality in the not to distant future.

“Legal Start-Ups” – Speak Out

If the authors of the Commission’s Issue Paper did not intend that “unregulated LSP entities” should include legal software publishers, I suggest that they make this clarification now. If they authors intended  that”unregulated LSP entities” include legal software publishers and legal application develolpers then this is alarming.

If you are a legal software publisher that serves the public directly with a legal solution, I suggest that you make your views known by commenting on their Issues Paper directly.

 

 

 

 

Th

SOFTWARE_EATS_

Marc Andreessen quipped in 2011: “Software is eating the world”.

We are already seeing how Andreesen’s prediction is working its way through the legal profession.

Predictive coding continues to make inroads in eDiscovery demonstrating that software analysis is more accurate and faster that hordes of associate lawyers clicking on documents on screens. Companies such as Recommind are leading the way.

Last week I attended  Conference at Georgetown Law School, co-sponsored by the ABA Journal, called: From Revolution to Evolution: Digital Tools in Legal Practice where a variety of new legal applications were discussed that replace the labor of an attorney.  In the hands of an attorney , this software results in faster, cheaper, and better legal work.

One panel, that I was honored to participate in featured Kingsley Martin from KMStandards and Noah Waisberg from KiraSystems formerly DiligenceEngine. Both demonstrated software applications that expedited the document review process in transactional work and rationalized the document creation process. Like predictive coding in eDiscovery these software tools will replace some of the work of associate lawyers in larger law firms leading to a smaller employment force that works more effectively. As Mr. Martin points out — legal software can be good, and lawyers can be good, but lawyers using legal software are best.

The day before this conference,  Georgetown Law School, under the leadership of Tanina Rostain , held their Iron Tech Lawyer competition, for the third year in a row.  Law students show case legal expert systems that have created using the NeotaLogic legal expert systems platform .This student work is impressive as I witnessed software applications generating legal advice to complex questions with more accuracy that your average lawyer and at the speed of light.

We are still at the beginning of the beginning of these developments, but the pace of change is likely to be more rapid than we think. If you want to become more aware of an impending tsunami of legal disruption read John O. McGinnis and  Russell G. Pearces’ law review article in Fordham Law Review, titled, The Great Disruption: How Machine Intelligence Will Transform the Role of Lawyers in the Delivery of Legal Services

On the other end of the legal spectrum from Big Law, there is an estimated $40 billion latent market for consumer legal services yet to be served by lawyers. In 2013, two-thirds (66%) of a random sample of adults in a middle-sized American city reported experiencing at least one of 12 categories of civil justice situations in the previous 18 months. The most commonly reported kinds of situations involved bread and butter issues with far-reaching impacts: problems with employment, money (finances, government benefits, and debts), insurance, and housing.  Most consumers handle these problems on their own, or do nothing.  Moderate income people rarely seek assistance from lawyers to deal with these legal problems. Either legal fees are too high or they do not understand their problems to be legal.  80% of the U.S. consuming public can’t afford legal fees.  This is the often discussed Justice Gap in America that is the subject of an ABA Presidential Commission on the Future of Legal Services and a National Summit on Innovation in Legal Services to be held at Stanford Law School next week on May 2-4, 2015. [See Agenda and Schedule Here. ]

Figuring out ways to have more lawyers serve this latent market at affordable prices has proved to be a challenge. My own view is that scalable solutions must be software solutions. There is ample evidence that software alone can solve the legal problems of everyday consumers. Last year 600,000 users assemble legal documents and resolved their problems without lawyer assistance in over 40 states with the support of the U.S. Legal Services Corporation through Law Help Interactive and legal services programs in those states. This number will continue to increase. Other private legal software companies, such as ShakeLaw, continue to enter the market that offer pure software solutions to the resolution of legal problems at low or no cost.

I often hear lawyers say these solutions are inferior. Last week I also attended in Chicago, an American Bar Association School on UPL and participated in a panel on UPL and new technology. I argued that since the legal profession wasn’t serving 80% of consumers anyway so we should continue to experiment with legal software solutions. There was push back from this group, with some participants arguing that automated legal advice could be the unauthorized practice of law. I argued that in the interest of access to justice we should have a safe harbor that encourages legal software development for consumers, if there were sufficient warnings to the consumer they were not dealing with a lawyer, but a software application.

One state, Texas, has famously passed such an exception to their definition of the practice of law which reads:

In this chapter, the “practice of law” does not include the design, creation, publication, distribution, display, or sale, including publication, distribution, display, or sale by means of an Internet web site, of written materials, books, forms, computer software, or similar products if the products clearly and conspicuously state that the products are not a substitute for the advice of an attorney.’

I pitched to this group of UPL officials the idea I would like to see this exception to the definition of the practice of adopted in every state. My rationale is that it would remove a potential barrier to innovation and encourage the development of Internet-based software applications that could help close the Justice Gap. The response was underwhelming.

ibm_watsonDespite these constraints, legal software will continue to eat away at the lawyer’s market share. Where there is demand, entrepreneurs will find a way.  IBM’s Watson has demonstrated that it could beat the two world Jeopardy champions- not a trivial matter.

 

jeopardy_2

More relevant a team of law students at the University of Toronto students has created ROSS on the Watson platform to conduct legal research.  ROSS is not only for lawyers. It can be used by consumers to do their own legal research.

Lawyers who deny the power of these software applications to solve legal problems, and the exponential rate of change, have their heads in the sand,

heads

 

Greedy Lawyers A bill was introduced in the North Carolina legislature that would narrow the definition of the “practice of law” to exclude sell-help legal materials, including books, software, and legal information. [ See House Bill 663 ]. The text of the amendment is:

“(b) The phrase “practice law” does not encompass any of the following:” …  (2) the design, creation, assembly, completion, publication, distribution, display, or sale, including by means of an Internet Web site, of self-help legal written materials, books, documents, templates, forms, computer software, or similar products if the products clearly and conspicuously state that the products are not a substitute for the advice of an attorney. “

The bill was reported out favorably of the Senate Committee on June 24, 2014, and will be voted on by the North Carolina Senate on July 9.  The North Carolina Bar Association is opposing passage of the bill.   The real reason for this opposition is  protecting lawyer’s incomes at the expense of easier access to the legal system for consumers. 

Texas has had a similar exemption from the definition of the practice of law for years with no demonstrable harm to the public.

It is well documented that 80% of the U.S. consumer public can’t afford the high cost of legal fees, so self-representation, a constitutional right, is one way for consumers to get access to the legal system. [ North Carolina Const. Art 1 § 18:  [ “All courts shall be open; every person for an injury done him in lands, goods, person, or his reputation shall have remedy by due courts of law, and right and justice shall be administered without favor, denial, or delay.” ].

Self-representation enables consumers to resolve their legal problems at low cost. The U.S. Legal Services Corporation has endorsed this approach and funded over 40 states to enable citizens to assemble their own state-specific documents powered by a national document server managed by LawHelp Interactive.com. The Legal Services Corporation has also supported state-wide legal information Web sites. North Carolina also maintains a state-wide legal information Web site to provide tools to self-represented litigants and a legal forms site sponsored by the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts.  North Carolina has also automated three sets of interactive forms using the National HotDocs Server designed to enable a self-represented litigant to a pro se litigant appeal an eviction or file for custody in court without a lawyer.

These are the software and legal information tools that the North Carolina Bar seeks to restrict by not clarifying that the provision of self-help  legal publications, interactive software, intelligent Web advisors, and other emerging software-powered tools are not the “unauthorized practice of law.”

Instead of making it easier for citizens to exercise this constitutional right, the North Carolina Bar wants to make it more difficult.

A growing body of academic scholarship suggests that the major obstacle to access to the legal system for those who cannot afford legal services is the legal profession itself. Afraid of competition from new forms of legal solutions enabled by the Internet and more powerful software, the unauthorized practice of law committees of state bar associations target non-law firm Internet legal form web sites, non-lawyer legal document preparers, and other innovative means of enabling access on the theory they are protecting the public interest from harm.

The North Carolina definition of the “practice of law” is so broad it is arguably unconstitutionally vague and includes within it almost any act that results in creating a legal document.  [ See Act ]. Categorizing self-help legal information materials as “the practice of law” is a slippery slope.

In a recent article from Professor Deborah L. Rhode, from Stanford Law School,  & Lucy Buford Ricca, Director of the Center on the Legal Profession, Stanford Law School, titled: Protecting the Profession or the Public? Rethinking Unauthorized-Practice Enforcement., where the authors conducted a national comprehensive review of  unauthorized practice of law enforcement, they conclude that:

A third problem is the lack of focus on the public interest. Although bar leaders and case doctrine insist that broad prohibitions on unauthorized practice serve the public, support for that claim is notable for its absence.  Outside a few contexts such as immigration, foreclosures, and trusts and estates, it is rare for customers to assert injury, or for suits to be filed by consumer-protection agencies.  As noted earlier, three-quarters of jurisdictions reported that fewer than half of their complaints came from consumers or clients, and two-thirds of respondents could not recall a specific case of injury in the last year. Of those who did identify a case, almost all involved immigration. So too, the vast majority of UPL lawsuits filed against cyber-lawyer products are brought by lawyers or unauthorized-practice committees and generally settle without examples of harm.

More directly relevant Professor Renee Newman Knake from Michigan State Law School argues in:  Legal Information, the Consumer Law Market, and the First Amendment, 

“The economic arguments for liberalizing lawyer regulation to facilitate the free flow of information support the First Amendment analysis. Perhaps one state will bravely implement a regulatory structure to expand access to legal information without intervention by the U.S. Supreme Court. If not, as this Article has shown, many of the restrictions governing the organizational form of law practice and the distribution of legal services are constitutionally vulnerable to the extent they constrain the creation and distribution of legal information…”

Marc Lauritsen writing in Chicago Kent Law Review, in an article titled, Liberty, Justice and Legal Automa , (See also, Are We Free to Code the Law?) , concerned that the obstructionism of the organized bar will chill innovation when access to the legal system has become critical, asks whether we are free to code the law.

“It is in the enlightened interest of lawyers, as well as the best interest of society in general, to enable programmatic expression of legal knowledge.  We should be free to write code, run code, and let others run our code. If concerned citizens, law students, and entrepreneurs want to create tools that help people access and interact with the legal system, the government should not get in the way.  Are citizens at liberty to create and share software that helps others understand and interact with the legal system? Are we free to code the law?   We certainly should be.”

Professor Catherine J. Lanctot. from Villanova Law School concludes in an article on the same subject [ “Does LegalZoom Have First Amendment Rights: Some Thoughts about Freedom of Speech and the Unauthorized Practice of Law” Temple Political & Civil Rights Law Review 20 (2011): 255. ], that even if one assumes  that the practice of preparing routine legal documents for consumers runs afoul of many unauthorized practice statutes, however, there remains an open question of whether these statutes may themselves interfere with First Amendment guarantees.

“To the the extent that these statutes broadly sweep vast amounts of law-related speech within their scope, they may infringe on free speech rights. The article concludes with a “caution about aggressive pursuit of these online document preparers without careful consideration of the possible risks involved. A successful First Amendment challenge to an unauthorized practice statute could have repercussions far beyond the world of LegalZoom.”

Conclusion:  10 reasons the North Carolina Bar should support this amendment to the definition of the practice of law:

  1. The legal profession will be viewed more favorably as on the side of the consumer, rather than on then in the side of their pocket books;
  2. A challenge to a publisher that legal software is the unauthorized practice of law is likely to fail on 1st Amendment grounds;
  3. There is a difference between legal software (a “publication” ) and a lawyer providing legal advice. (‘conduct”);
  4. Technology innovation will be encouraged for the benefit of both consumers and lawyers;
  5. It will be clear that the publication of consumer facing web-enabled interactive legal forms by legal aid agencies in North Carolina, and other public agencies,  is not the unauthorized practice of law;
  6. The U.S Department of Justice and the U.S. Federal Trade Commission will have less reason to accuse the North Carolina Bar of anti-competitive behavior; [ See letter to Massachusetts Bar Association from the FTC on this subject ];
  7. Bar leadership can demonstrate that they understand that the legal profession is changing and can help prepare their members for 21st century law practice;
  8. With disclaimers, a consumer will understand the difference between using an interactive software application and receiving advice from a “live” person;
  9. The North Carolina Bar can avoid the charge it restricts access to the legal system;
  10. The North Carolina Bar can avoid the charge it is out of step with contemporary technological developments.
*Disclosure: My Company, SmartLegalForms, Inc.,   provides web-based interactive self-help legal forms directly to consumers and to non-lawyer companies nationally and in the state of North Carolina. [ See for example ]

Expert Systems in the LawDavid R. Johnson, a Visiting Professor at the Institute for Information Law and Policy and New York Law School, has written a new thought piece for the World Future Society on how the digitization of law changes the nature of law. Building on a theme first articulated by Ethan Katsh in his seminal work on The Electronic Media and the Transformation of Law (Oxford University Press, 1991).  Katsh speculated that digital technologies would change our ideas about what the law actually is. Johnson extends the analysis and notes that "Katsh’s speculations are only now becoming right-in ways that not even he predicted." I am indebted to Katsh as when I first read his book in 1991, in pre-internet days, it set me off on a journey and a path that I am still pursuing to this day. I underestimated that time that it would take for these predictions to become a reality by about two decades!

Johnson envisions a future where there will be a proliferation of expert systems developed by lawyers that will enter into dialogues with clients and consumers that will provide answers to legal questions at low cost and at scale. He sees law becoming conversational and dynamic, rather than static. Legal documents becoming wholly interactive. Statutes will also become dynamic with interpretations of language build into the code itself.

In an environment where law is conversational, the meaning of a term or rule will become less obscure and ambiguous, so that disputes will be resolved based on the facts, rather than what a particular term means.

Johnson predicts that that:

"As law becomes conversational code, we will talk to it directly. Some people may not get the answer they like. so lawyers will always need to be around to provide comfort or help formulate alternative plans for those who can afford them."

The tools to create such "expert systems" are getting to be easier to use. Neota Logic, an expert systems authoring tool company, collaborated this year with New York Law School and Georgetown Law School in a project to train law students to help students build expert legal systems in the context of  courses offered by both law schools. I have reviewed these student projects and I can tell you that they are quite good and useful aids to decision-making. Here is a video that describes these projects. These students are learning skills that will enable them to become a new kind of legal professional that creates systems that can have wide distribution, and as Johnson points out a potentially a new kind profitable law practice.

(Richard Susskind , another one of my mentors to whom I owe a great intellectual debt, also predicts the rise of a new class of legal software engineers, in his seminal book on The End of Lawyers).

It will be interesting to see how long it will take for Johnson’s predictions to become a reality. (Probably another two decades!) One constraint  that we know of, is that it takes capital to build any kind of a digital application, because it takes time to build, and if you are spending time building a digital application, you are not billing hours to clients.

It is for this reason for example. that although we make our document authoring system available for free when a lawyer subscribes to our DirectLaw virtual law firm platform , less than 5 lawyers out of hundreds of law firm subscribers have elected to automate their own legal documents.

Perhaps the current generation of lawyers simply don’t possess the skills to do this kind work – a problem that some law schools are trying to address. See Reinvent Law at Michigan State Law School. Change comes very slowly to the academy, so I would not expect a new cadre of legal software engineers to available soon.

For those that acquire these new skills, I think they will find themselves in demand – not by law firms – but by disruptive law start-ups, privately-financed companies, that will be the source of these new legal expert system applications.

You can download the entire Johnson article here.

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In accordance with the   FTC 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guidelines Concerning Use of Endorsements and Testimonial in Advertising" I am disclosing that I have a material connection to some of the companies referred to in this Post. I am the Founder/CEO of  DirectLaw, a virtual law firm platform provider.. The opinions expressed here are my own. I did not receive any compensation from any source for writing this post. DirectLaw sponsors this blog by paying for the costs of hosting.

 

 

Legal Software Program 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.

A2J Guided InterviewsLaw 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.

Stop No Entry

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?

 Increasng Profit Margins With Document Automation- Free White Paper

In a Fortune Magazine blog post by Roger Parloff just last week, entitled Can Software Practice Law?, writing about the class action suit against LegalZoom in Missouri for violating Missouri’s UPL statute, Parloff argues that LegalZoom is no more than a self-help legal software company, and therefore entitled to the same protections as a self-help legal software publisher. The question of whether legal software constitutes the practice of law is a controversial one. When the Texas Bar won a suit against Nolo Press on the grounds that its WillMaker program constituted the practice of law, the Texas Legislature amended the UPL statute and further defined the practice of law  as follows:

Texas Code, 81.101 (c) the "practice of law" does not include the design, creation, publication, distribution, display, or sale, including publication, distribution, display, or sale by means of an Internet Web site, of written materials, books, forms, computer software, or similar products if the products clearly and conspicuously state that the products are not a substitute for the advice of an attorney. This subsection does not authorize the use of the products or similar media in violation of Chapter 83 and does not affect the applicability or enforceability of that chapter.

No other state has passed such an exemption, but there is a well-established line of cases that supports the position that the publication of information about the law, as well as self-help legal books, divorce forms with instructions, and do-it-yourself kits is not the practice of law and protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and may be protected by state constitutions as well. See, e.g., New York County Lawyers’ Ass’n v. Dacey, 21 N.Y.2d 694, 234 N.E.2d 459 (N.Y. 1967), aff’ing on grounds in dissenting opinion, 283 N.Y.S.2d 984 (N.Y. App. 1967); Oregon State Bar v. Gilchrist, 538 P.2d 913 (Or. 1975); State Bar of Michigan v. Cramer, 249 N.W.2d 1 (Mich. 1976); The Florida Bar v. Brumbaugh, 355 So.2d 1186 (Fla. 1978); People v. Landlords Professional Services, 215 Cal. App.3d 1599, 264 Cal. Rptr. 548 (Cal. 1989). 

LegalZoom takes the position that it is no more than a self-help legal publisher and seeks to fall within this classification, as Roger Parloff argues in his blog post. This is also the position that Legal Zoom takes on its Web site and in its answer to the Missouri Complaint:

From the LegalZoom Web site:

"Is LegalZoom engaged in the practice of law?"

"No.  LegalZoom is the latest and natural evolution of the centuries-old legal self-help industry."

"No jurisdiction prohibits the sale of software that generates a legal document based on a customer’s unique input.  LegalZoom has never been prohibited from operating in any state."

"Should consumers be concerned about LegalZoom losing this case?"

"No.  If LegalZoom is found to be engaged in the unauthorized practice of law in Missouri, then every guide and legal formbook in libraries and bookstores in the state would also be engaging in the unauthorized practice of law.  These days, nearly all such books are packaged with computer software that works in a similar manner to LegalZoom.  Just like with a Nolo Press® book or a preprinted form, LegalZoom customers have the ability to review and consider their legal form before committing to their purchase."

It is not possible to know how LegalZoom’s document technology actually works without further evidence. However, one can state with certainty that it doesn’t work like a true Web-enabled document automation technology which generates a document instantly from data entered into an on-line questionnaire that is presented through the Web browser.

Vendors of true Web-enabled document automation solutions, such as HotDocs, Exari, DealBuilder, WhichDraft and Rapidocs (our company) have document automation technologies that generate a document instantly after the user clicks on the submit button. Because LegalZoom’s technology seems to require a separate step that is executed off-line, it does not in my opinion, fit into the category of a Web-enabled document automation technology. [ For a more extensive discussion of Web-Enabled Document Automation as a Disruptive Technology, click here to download our white paper on the subject. ]

Instead, in the LegalZoom  business model, as described by LegalZoom, a data file is created, reviewed by a legal technician, and then imported into their – document assembly application utilizing some form of import mechanism. It is not clear whether the document is fully-assembled until this second step takes place, and it’s a distinction that makes a difference.

If LegalZoom were just a legal software company, it is hard to understand why it needs over 400 employees to provide services to its customers, other than the fact that these employees are conducting professional reviews and providing real service support. For these services, LegalZoom receives a substantially higher price than if they were just selling a self-help legal form. See for example on the LegalZoom Web site, the 30-point review of wills conducted by LegalZoom’s "professional legal document assistants."

These more labor intensive, personal services makes LegalZoom a "service business" and not just a "legal software publisher" entitled to the First Amendment protections that are afforded to publishers.

Andrea Riccio, a Canadian lawyer who has commented about this subject, responds to some of the arguments that LegalZoom makes in its defense:

LegalZoom’s argument: "Typically, there is no interaction between the customer and the person reviewing the file."

Riccio’s response:

“The mere fact that the employee is granted access to the customer’s response is an interaction between the employee and customer.”

LegalZoom’s argument: "If there is an inconsistency, it is NOT corrected by the employee – instead, it is brought to the attention of the customer." 

Riccio’s response:

“Whether it is the customer or the LegalZooM employee that physically changes the document is irrelevant. What is important is that it is the LegalZoom employee that has identified the inconsistency. That, in my opinion, goes beyond "self-help" and is an act of legal draftsmanship.”

LegalZoom’s argument: "no employee revises or corrects any portion of the customer’s self-created document." 

Riccio’s response:

“Identifying inconsistencies or errors in another person’s document is in my opinion an act of revision and correction. Who physically makes the changes is irrelevant.”


It is for these reasons that LegalZoom was required to be licensed under California law as a registered and bonded legal document assistant (see footer
LegalZoom Web site).

What is a Legal Document Assistant?

A "Legal Document Assistant", as defined by the California Business & Professions Code (Section 6400 (c)) is:

"Any person who is otherwise not exempted and who provides, or assists in providing, or offers to provide, or offers to assist in providing, for compensation, any self-help service to a member of the public who is representing himself or herself in a legal matter, or who holds himself or herself out as someone who offers that service or has that authority, or a corporation, partnership, association, or other entity that employs or contracts with any person who is not otherwise exempted who, as part of his or her responsibilities, provides, or assists in providing, or offers to provide, or offers to assist in providing, for compensation, any self-help service to a member of the public who is representing himself or herself in a legal matter or holds himself or herself out as someone who offers that service or has that authority."

This California statutory scheme is based on the idea that a non-lawyer can perform clerical support functions without violating the unauthorized practice of law statute in California. Only a few states have carved out this exception by statute (e.g., California, Florida, Arizona).  Missouri is not one of them.

Could LegalZoom operate in California, where it is headquartered, without being registered with the state as a Legal Document Assistant?  I think not.  

This is the category that LegalZoom fits into, not “self-help” software.

Otherwise, I suppose Nolo, a California-based self-help legal software publisher, and other California-based legal software publishers that sell directly to the public, would have to be licensed in California as Legal Document Assistants!!!  (See generally – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Legal_document_assistant, for a more extensive discussion of what a Legal Document Assistant is, and is not.)

Just to be clear, I am personally in favor of both self-help legal software and paralegal-assisted document preparation services as a way of providing access to the legal system, and personally think there should be more choices for consumers.  But my personal opinions are not the issue.  The issue is: 

“What does the law in the different states now require, and what can we do to change it if we don’t like it?”

It is becoming clear that LegalZoom’s defense strategy in the Missouri case is to associate itself with “self-help software”.  I am sure that its well-financed publicity machine is already approaching bloggers and the business press to write stories about whether “legal software” should be prohibited or regulated, when the real issue is whether and under what conditions a legal document preparation service should be regulated, or immune from regulation.

Definitions of what is “legal self-help software”, and what is not, are critical for carving out safe harbors for innovation, particularly as legal software applications that are distributed over the Internet have potential for great impact and for providing access to the legal system for those who cannot afford full service legal representation.

For example, LawHelpInteractive, a non-profit pro bono support organization, with grants from the US Legal Service Corporation, has assisted in the creation of true Web-based document assembly Web sites in many states that provides free legal forms directly to consumers that can be assembled directly on-line. 

LawHelpInteractive has generated thousands of legal forms during the past few years that are instantly available and free to consumers throughout the United States. No one is arguing that these Web sites constitute the practice of law.

Because of the wider reach of the Internet, Web-enabled legal software applications are actually more of a threat to the legal profession, than desktop software, and the opportunity for over-regulation remains ever present. I would regret the day that courts prohibit the sale of self-help legal software because it is the unauthorized practice of law.

However, stronger arguments can be made for protecting from regulation the distribution of legal software applications, than there are for exempting from regulation a "service business", so I maintain that confusing one category with another is dangerous and takes us down a slippery slope.

Whether or not LegalZoom provides a valuable service; whether or not consumers have been harmed by LegalZoom; and whether or not the company provides some form of legal advice are questions of fact for the Missouri jury, and beyond the scope of this post.

The question for the U.S. District Court in Missouri is whether, as a matter of Missouri law, LegalZoom’s document preparation service business constitutes the practice of law in Missouri, under the terms of the Missouri UPL statute.

I think it does. What do you think?

 

For years some law firms, but not all, have used some form of document automation in their law offices. Ranging from an MS Word macro to long standing programs such as HotDocs, as well as automated forms distributed by legal publishers such as Willmaker by Nolo, some law offices have incorporated some form of document automation in their law practices. Document automation of legal documents that are generated in high quantity by a law firm is an indispensable process for increasing law firm productivity and maintaining profit margins in an era of intense competition.

Legal Document Creation the Old Way

The manual process of cutting and pasting clauses from a master MS Word document into a new document, is a productivity process which is fast becoming out dated. It reminds me of the time before there were automated litigation support programs, and legal assistants would duplicate a set of case documents three or four times. The next step was filling one file cabinet with a set of documents in alpha order, filling another filing cabinet with a set of documents in date order, and finally, filling another filing cabinet with a set of documents in issue or subject order to enable "fast"   retrievable of relevant paper documents. It took awhile, but almost all litigation lawyers now use automated litigation support methods.. This is not true of transactional lawyers, many of whom still use out-dated methods of creating legal documents, as if each legal document were a unique novel, poem, or other work of fiction.

Barriers to Change

An obstacle to wider use of automated document assembly methods, is typically the lawyer’s insistence on crafting the words in each clause to their own satisfaction. Because most lawyer’s do not have the requisite programming skill to automate their own documents, law firms by default will opt to use their own non-automated documents, rather than risk using the legal documents automated by an independent provider, because by definition the content of the documents is "not their own." As a result, many law firms do not even use desk-top document assembly solutions when the forms are published by an independent provider or publisher, remaining stuck using more time consuming and less productive manual methods.

Typically, when a law firm does use document assembly methods, a paralegal inputs answers from a paper intake/questionnaire into a document assembly program running on a personal computer. This results in the extra time-consuming step of inputting data from the intake questionnaire to the document assembly program, but it is still more efficient than manual methods.

Web-Enabled Document Automation

Now comes, "web-enabled legal document automation" methods."  Web-enabled document automation is a process whereby the intake questionnaire is presented on-line to the client through the web browser to be completed directly.

When the client clicks the "Submit" button the document is instantly assembled, ready for the attorneys further review, analysis, revision, and customization if necessary.  The result is a further leap in productivity because the client is actually doing part of the work at no cost to the lawyer, freeing the lawyer up to focus on analysis and further customization of the document.

This is what the work flow looks like when using web-enabled document automation methods:

Client Journey- Web-Enabled Document Automation Work Flow

Unfortunately, lawyers have been slow to adapt to this process as well,  because of their reluctance to use legal documents drafted or automated by someone else. However in order to automate their own documents they must either acquire the skill to do the job, or commit the capital to have a skilled professional automate their documents for them. For solos and small law firms these two constraints create formidable obstacles to using more efficient methods.

Since neither condition is common within smaller law firms (programming skill, investment capital), the result is that the law firm gets stuck using older less productive methods of document creation.

Vendors that provide web-enabled document platforms include, our own Rapidocs, and Exari, Brightleaf, HotDocs, DealBuilder, and Wizilegal, to name only a few, all claim that their authoring systems are easy to use, but I have yet to see lawyers without any kind of programming skill create their own automated legal documents in any quantity. Thus, law firms become stuck in a negative loop of their own creation which reduces productivity (and profitability) :

"My legal documents are better than yours; I can’t automate them for the web because I don’t know how; thus I will be less productive and be required to charge you more because of my own inefficiency."

Competition

In the consumer space, now comes the non-lawyer providers to take advantage of the solo and small law firm’s competitive disadvantage. Research by companies like Kiiac provide support the conclusion that 85% of the language in transactional documents is actually the same. In more commoditized areas, where legal forms have been standardized,  the legal form content is 100% the same in all documents. Taking advantage of this consistency of legal form content,  companies like LegalZoom, Nolo, CompleteCase, SmartLegalForms, and LegacyWriter , with their superior on-line marketing and branding machines, now sell legal forms by the thousands at low cost which provide a "good enough" legal solution for consumers who would do any thing to avoid paying the higher fees to an attorney.

Its true that the consumer doesn’t get the benefit of the attorney’s legal advice and counsel, and the accountability and protection that dealing with an attorney provides, but consumers don’t seem to care.

What can be done?

The "web-based legal document automation solution" , used by non-lawyer providers, is a disruptive technology  that is eating away at the core business base of the typical solo and small law firm practitioner. 

What can solos and small law firms do to compete in this challenging competitive environment?
The American Bar Association’s Legal Technology Resource Center reported last year in their Annual Technology Survey that only 52.2% of solo practitioner’s don’t have a web site.  Even if this number is underestimated, it is shockingly low compared with web site utilization by other industries.  If you don’t even have a web site, the idea of "web-enabled document automation" is still a "light year" away.

What can be done to encourage more wide-spread use of web-enabled document automation technology by law firms, particularly solos and small law firms? A follow-up post will explore some solutions, but I
am open to ideas from anyone.

Download our White Paper on Web-Enabled Document Automation

 

The eLawyering Task Force of the Law Practice Management Section of the ABA is seeking recommendations and applications for the James Keane Award for Excellence in eLawyering which is awarded annually at ABA Tech Show in Chicago ( April 11-13, 2011). This will be the fourth year that the Award has been made. Previous award winners include Stephanie Kimbro for her work in creating the virtual law firm of KimbroLaw and Lee Rosen of the The Rosen Law Firm (both coincidentally located in North Carolina).

The purpose of this Award is to give recognition to law offices that have developed legal service innovations that are delivered over the Internet. The focus of the Award is on the innovative delivery of personal legal services, with special attention given to firms and entities that serve both moderate income individuals and the broad middle class. 

The Award is technology-focused, in the sense that the Award Committee is seeking innovations that demonstrate the concept of eLawyering – which can be  further defined as the delivery of online legal services. Examples of elawyering include the development of online web advisors, expert systems, innovative uses of web-enabled document automation, on-line client collaboration systems, and on-line dispute settlement systems, to name a few examples.

Nominees may be any individual lawyer, law firm or other deliverer of legal services to individuals within the United States.

The nominee can be a large or small law firm, public or private, or a legal services agency. More than one entry may be submitted, and the Task Force encourages self-nomination. The Application deadline has been extended to March 15, 2011.

For further information and an application form see: http://tinyurl.com/48xvcfq

 

Chrissy Burns, an Australian lawyer produced a PHD thesis in 2007, entitled ‘Online Legal Services-A Revolution that Failed?’, where she argued that Clayton Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation does not apply to online legal knowledge products and that a "latent market" for legal services really doesn’t exist. Ms Burns is presently Director of IT and Knowledge Management at Blake  Dawson so she brings first hand knowledge to her thesis based on her  work with large law firms. In a recent review of her workby Darryl Mountain, an attorney with expertise in document automation, makes the counter-argument  that Ms Burns focus is purely on large law firms and the corporate legal market and overlooks the documented unmet legal needs of the broad middle class and the disruptive response of non-lawyer providers such as LegalZoom which has served generated over a 1,000,000 wills for consumers during the past five years. Mountain cites other evidence that there is a wide and growing latent market for legal services, that Burns has overlooked. Mountain concludes that, " The legal marketplace has continued to evolve since Burns finished writing in 2007. On the retail side of law practice, the revolution is very much alive and people are beginning to resolve legal problems solely through the use of online legal knowledge products."

Mountain also argues that Burns has defined "online legal services"  too narrowly because her definition is limited to knowledge products that solve legal problems without lawyer assistance or involvement. Such products are stand alone applications, such as "expert systems."

Mountain argues that the better model for thinking about disruptive change is to consider how Internet-based legal technology can work together with legal professionals to increase law firm productivity, maintain profit margins, or result in lower fees. Instead off stand-alone, legal  knowledge products, Mountain argues that technology-assisted legal service is likely to become the more pervasive model in the future. Mountain writes:

"The best solutions are often those that combine people and software, whether the people are lawyers, paralegals, or outsourced personnel. "

His review and Burns’ thesis are both worth reading for those who follow developments in the delivering of legal services online.