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

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 ]

American Bar AssociationThe American Bar Association has issued its draft Report and Recommendations on the Future of Legal Education. You can download it here.

I agree with many of the recommendations of the report which urges law schools to experiment with different modes of legal education, recommends relaxing ABA accreditation rules which impede innovation, and modifies the traditional law curriculum to focus less on the teaching of doctrinal law and more on skills the prepare law students to actually practice law. Many of the recommendations,if adopted, would radically change the structure, focus, and culture of many law schools.

One of the recommendations of the Task Force is the idea of limited licensing of non-lawyers ("legal technicians") to deliver legal services to the public directly without the supervision of a lawyer:

"However, there is today, and there will increasingly be in the future, a need for: (a)persons who are qualified to provide limited law-related services without the oversight of a lawyer; (b) a system for licensing of individuals competent to provide such services; and (c) educational programs that train individuals to provide those limited services. The new system of training and licensing limited practice officers developed by Washington State and now being pursued by others is an example and a positive contribution."

Thus one of the final recommendations of the Task Force Report is:

"Authorize Persons Other than Lawyers with J.D.’s to Provide Limited Legal Services, Whether Through Licensure Systems or Other Mechanisms Assuring Proper Education, Training, and Oversight."

and:

"Develop Educational Programs to Train Persons, other than Prospective Lawyers, to Provide Limited Legal Services. Such Programs May, but Need Not, Be Delivered through Law Schools that are Parts of Universities."

Unlike the other recommendations which deal with fixing legal education, these recommendations are focused on access to justice issues, which requires a different framework for analysis. 

The recommendation to create a new class of limited licensed legal providers, so-called "Legal Technicians" –  needs to be re-evaluated in the light of changing legal industry market dynamics and the accelerating impact of Internet technology on the delivery of legal services.

Just to note, for decades I have been a strong advocate for the idea that trained paralegals should be permitted to serve the public directly, without further licensing or regulation by any state body, other than graduation from an ABA-accredited law school and a few years of experience working in a law firm.  I was formerly President and Dean of the Philadelphia Institute for Paralegal Training, the nation’s first paralegal educational institution, and in that role saw how effective a trained paralegal can be in serving a law firm’s clients.

More recently. the company I founded – DirectLaw – offers a virtual law firm platform for solos and small law firms. If there were a new class of limited license professionals in the market, I would not hesitate to modify our DirectLaw platform to serve limited licensed professionals, opening up a major new market for our virtual service. So personally I have much to gain by a new class of limited license professionals that would serve the public directly.

Only recently have I begun to reconsider the viability of a new class of legal paraprofessionals serving the public directly primarily because of  changes in the market for personal legal services.

I have  reservations about the proposal to license non-lawyers to provide limited legal services. My reservations are in the form of a challenge to the Task Force recommendations on limited-licensing, in the sense that the idea needs further thought and analysis before states rush to adopt these ideas. (despite the fact that Washington State already has a scheme in place, and  California and New York are considering similar proposals). 

Here are my reservations – comments welcome:

  • The data that we have (see for example www.attorneyfee.com) suggests that the pricing of legal services by solo practitioners and very small law firm firms is going down — not up. It is not a fact that the legal fees are out of reach of many consumers. There is an issue of connecting with consumers with lawyers– but it is becoming less of a price issue and more of an "engagement" issue. There is no evidence to suggest that the fees that limited licensed practitioner would charge would be any less than the fees currently charged by solo practitioners, but their service, by definition, would be much more limited than the service offered by an attorney.
     
  • Solo practitioners are already being displaced by technology which is forcing a reduction in legal fees. Limited license practitioners would be even more vulnerable to the impact of information technology on the more routine services that they would offer.
     
  • The restrictive licensing scheme for lawyers, which is based on a "job-shop" model is likely to be replicated in the licensing scheme for "legal technicians." Licensing of legal service professionals based on the "job shop" model creates a high overhead enterprise that is vulnerable to new entrants into the market, e.g., LegalZoom, that are not subject to such restrictions.  Lawyers already suffer from a competitive disadvantage against new market entrants. Legal technicians will face the same competitive disadvantages. I can’t see how the practices of legal technicians, with certain exceptions, will be viable economically. (I have yet to see a business plan of what such a limited license practice would look like that would include the cost of malpractice insurance, office expenses, advertising and marketing expenses, etc.).
     
  • Introduction of a new class of limited licensed professionals will continue to erode the economic model of solo and small law firm practice by sucking out from those practices the more routine legal services which are important to sustaining the economic viability of those law firms. It is naive to suggest that solo practitioners should concentrate on doing "more complex legal work" leaving the routine legal work to "limited license professionals.". If the ABA wants to deliver a death blow to solo practitioners this is a good way to do it. (See: Will California Threaten Lawyer Livelihoods with Legal Technicians?)
     

Creating a new re
gulatory scheme and educational system for limited licensed professionals is going to be high in cost. It is not likely that law schools and universities will be able to offer education a price point which is much lower than there existing price levels. The result will be that we will have a new class of students being trained in law that who will incur high student loans where the income generated from their practice will be insufficient to amortize the principal and interest, because of limited market prospects and price compression in the legal industry.

  • Many of these new students who aspire to limited licensed professionals professionals are likely to be members of minority groups. Since there will be no hard data on the income prospects for this new class of professionals — just the idea that that once graduate they will be able to compete with lawyers in a limited way – seducing students into a new field where there is no effective demand.
     
  • I can just hear the pitch of commission-based admission’s representatives at a variety of educational institutions who will jump in this market: "Become a licensed legal professional and you can provide legal services like a lawyer."

One result will be the imposition on a group of students excessive loan burdens which will be impossible for them to discharge. (This reminds me of the banking industry preying on minority neighborhoods with fraudulent loans). I would feel more comfortable with an of educational program to train legal technicians if the tuition was very low or free. Since there is no evidence that there is a viable career upon graduation, the risk should be assumed by society, and not the individual student. So if law schools and universities want to jump in this educational market the least they can do it make it tuition free or very low in cost for the first three years, until it is clear that there is a real career after graduation.

I could write more abut this subject, but this post is already long enough. 

 

Legal forms, without the legal advice or assistance of a lawyer, continue to decline in value. As a pure digital product, a legal form follows the price curve of other digital goods eventually approaching zero.  Several new start-ups in the legal industry will accelerate this trend.

Docracy is a new legal document start-up, founded by Matt Hall and John Watkinson, that grew out of a TechCrunch Disrupt Hackathon in New York City. The idea is to provide a free depository of legal documents that meets the needs of small business and start-ups which are crowd sourced by individuals who register for the site. The concept is to provide an open source site for legal documents in the same way that GitHub is an open source site for code. The company is venture funded First Round Capital, Vaizra Seed Fund, Quotidian Ventures and Rick Webb by a group of investors who see opportunity in disrupting the legal profession. The documents are largely flat forms (MS Word or Adobe .PDF File format), with quality control provided by the "community." It’s not clear yet what the business model for this site will be. Online signing of legal documents is coming.

A second legal document start-up has emerged out of the New York City start-up web scene called Paperlex  .  Paperlex is also targeting the small business market. This site will contain standardized legal documents that can be modified within the web browser. A user will be able to store all of their documents online in their own private and secure web space, will be able to collaborate with third parties, and will have the capacity to execute/sign documents online.

Rather than crowd sourcing the legal form content, Paperlex will provide their own libraries of standard forms. Alison Anthoine, Esq., the CEO and Founder, hopes to provide an accessible legal document portal that small business can easily use with their customers and other parties at a cost that is much less that the cost of a custom document crafted by an attorney. The business model for Paperlex is a Saas subscription service provided for a low monthly fee.

DocStoc is another document repository that includes not only collections of legal documents, but collections of documents in other categories as well, such as human resource, travel, and personal finance documents. Documents are for free or can be purchased. The site is also built on crowd sourcing principles. Users can contribute documents and sell them through the site, with DocStoc taking a cut. Most documents are not automated and are provided in either MS Word or Adobe .PDF file format. However, a new feature called "custom documents" enables the user to answer an online questionnaire which generates a more customized document. The user can view the assembled document before making a decision to purchase a monthly subscription.Monthly subscriptions range from $9.95 a month to $39.95. The site claims to have 20,000,000 users.

Docstoc, Inc., was founded by Jason Nazar (bio) and Alon Shwartz (bio). The company was selected in September of 2007 to debut its product at the prestigious TechCrunch40 Conference. The platform was subsequently launched to the public in October 2007.

Docstoc is a venture backed company (Rustic Canyon) and received funding from the co-founders/investors in MySpace, LowerMyBills, Mp3.com, PriceGrabber and Baidu.

WhichDraft.com , founded by Jason and Geoff Anderman, brothers, and both attorneys, offers free contracts that can be assembled within the web browser. Legal documents can be easily shared with third parties, and you can build your  own Question and Answer templates. A nice feature enables a user the compare any two versions to see new and deleted text in the fee legal form. 

By A Legal Forms PLan frm MyLawyer.comMyLawyer.com, our  own consumer legal document portal, also offers legal document plans that are libraries of automated legal documents that when purchased in a bundle are less than the cost of a song on iTunes*.

 

 

In the nonprofit sector, LawHelp Interactive, a unit of LawHelp.org,with funding from the Legal Services Corporation, [ See Technology Initiative Grants ] has been working with a legal aid agencies nationwide to help the automate legal forms and publish them to state-wide legal form web sites which are available to any one within the state. The program is not limited to low income people. Hundreds of thousands of free legal forms are now created annually in more than 34 states. LSC has invested millions of dollars in the development of interactive legal form sites over the past 9 years.

Courts have also jumped into the free legal forms distribution game in response to the hoards of pro-se filers looking for free legal help. See for example: Online Court Assistance Program in Utah and Maryland Family Law Forms .

These free legal form web sites raise some interesting questions about the future role of the attorney and the changing nature of law practice.  What role will the lawyer play in this changing environment?  What is the impact of these relatively new sources of free or low cost legal forms on law practice, particularly the practice of solo and small law firms? Our own research provides support for the fact that solos and small law firms will continue to loose market share to these new providers.

"Unbundling" legal services by providing legal advice and legal document review for legal forms that clients secure from another source, may be a way of expanding access to the legal system, but it is also disruptive of law firm business models,  just like iTunes* was disruptive of the bundled album approach of the music industry. Value is shifting from the lawyer to the consumer and non-lawyer providers of legal forms. I can hear the sucking sound as law firm business models collapse.

Some questions to think about:

  • What risk do consumers and small business assume when they use a legal form without the advice or review of an attorney? The answer depends on the type of form, its complexity and the complexity of the transaction. If a user represents themselves in their own relatively simple name change, and their name ge
    ts changed by the court successfully,  then one can assume that self-representation worked.
     
  • But what about a Shareholder’s Agreement, where terms have to be negotiated, and the standard document doesn’t include the particular language required by the parties to reflect their intent? Should the parties now draft their own language? Should the parties simply ignore the need to include special language that reflects their intent hoping that there will be no situation in the future that will create a conflict between the shareholders because of a failure to include the language?
     
  • Who should negotiate the terms of the Agreement? The lawyer or the principal? Who would do the better job? How much shuld be charged for a successful negotiation?
     
  • How should the lawyer price services, when the client comes to the lawyer with their own standardized form and asks the lawyer to review it?
     
  • Will the lawyer refuse to serve the client, unless the client uses the lawyer’s form or document?
     
  • How important is the insurance that a lawyer provides that the document or form is valid for the purpose intended, accurate, and reflects the intent of the parties?
     
  • Lets assume that the 85% of the legal form content in many categories of documents is identical. [ This is what Kingsley Martin from KIIAC has concluded and he should know ! ] But 15% consisted of critical variable language not susceptible to easy document automation. Should the attorney charge on a fixed price for the entire project as if she drafted the entire agreement, although she only worked on several paragraphs? If the agreement fails because the variable paragraphs are incorrect for the particular case, why shouldn’t the attorney charge as if she he worked on the entire agreement?

If you have thought about these questions, and have some ideas on the impact of free legal forms on the legal industry, please share them here.

Document Automation as  DisruptuveTechnology

 

*iTunes is a trademark of Apple, Inc.

 

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?

 

One of the winners of TechCrunch Disrupt Hackathon is a new, yet to be launched, legal document web site called, Docracy,  The idea is that members will contribute their legal documents to an open source site so that there would be a basis for comparison between  "open source" documents and the document that the member needs for their business. The theory is that by comparing documents, with the document that the member has on hand, there would be a basis for comparison, resulting in an informed decision, without the cost or benefit of legal advice.

In this model, legal advice from an attorney is worth zero. The model is designed to eliminate the attorney from the transaction.

The idea was developed by mobile app developers Matt Hall and John Watkinson ,from Larva Labs, who were faced with signing an NDA with a client and were unsure of some of the terms and concluded that the cost of legal advice was either unnecessary or prohibitive.

This is another example of the resentment that the average consumer  and small business person has towards the legal profession resulting in the rise of non-lawyer legal form web sites such as LegalZoom.

Another example of an open source legal document repository is Docstoc which we have used as a research source. It is useful for us, because as lawyers we understand what we are reading. I think simply accessing raw documents as a consumer would be a daunting exercise, although I am sure that many consumers and small business use the site.

The problem with any  legal document web site as a source for creating binding legal documents  is that the use of a particular clause may be rooted in case law in a particular jurisdiction.

Without understanding all of the implications of using particular language in an agreement, the "non-lawyer" moves into a danger zone, because he or she has no idea what they are signing. 

A better alternative is a "self-help" book from Nolo that contains both legal forms and explanations of the implications of each clause, but that often involves reading and understanding a 300 page book, which is beyond the attention span of most consumers.

Another solution is an automated document with extensive help screens that explain the implications of choosing one clause over the other.

A third alternative, is to purchase "unbundled and limited legal services" from an on-line law firm  for a fixed price with legal advice bundled into the transaction. In that case you get a certain level of accountability and guarantee that the legal advice is correct for the user’s individual situation.

See for example the firms listed at DirectLaw’s legal document portal , where you can access legal forms for free, or forms bundled with legal advice for a fixed fee.

You don’t get legal advice from a legal forms web site or a LegalZoom for that matter, which can be a major limitation depending on the complexity of the document or the transaction. Without annotations that explain the significance of particular language in an agreement, the non-lawyer is stumbling around in the dark.
 
Nevertheless, I don’t doubt that consumers and small business will find this a popular site, despite its limitations. Caveat emptor!
 
Free White Paper on Virtual Law Practice: Success Factors

After 40 years of leading the self-help law movement, Nolo, is being acquired by Internet Brands an advertising driven Internet company. Nolo was created by two frustrated legal aid lawyers, Charles (Ed) Sherman and Ralph (Jake) Warner, who wanted to figure out a way to help the thousands of consumers with their legal problems who could not afford an attorney and were turned away by legal aid because their incomes were too high.

Based in Berkeley, California, the center of the counter cultural revolution of the 1960’s, Nolo assembled a group of radical lawyers, editors, and writers who were determined to do something about a broken legal system where 90% of the US middle class were priced out of the legal system. Championing legal reforms that would make the U.S. justice system accessible to everyone, the company has seen these reforms become mainstream in the US.

Courts now offer their own automated self-help legal forms, legal aid agencies publish state-wide legal information web sites and also distribute automated legal forms, legal form web sites give away legal forms for free as a way to generate traffic, small claims court limits have been raised in many states, and lawyers are delivering "unbundled legal services" and creating virtual law firms,  figuring out ways to deliver legal services online for a fixed and affordable fee.

Its ironic that Nolo is being acquired by  Internet Brands, for an amount rumored to be in the range of $20,970,000, by an advertising company that is focused primarily on generating leads for law firms through their directories and advertising properties. How does self-help law fit into this business model?

The amount being paid is little more than one times revenue — not exactly a premium.  Although, Nolo  publishes Willmaker and several other excellent web-based legal software programs, it is still primarily a book publisher. In its hey day, before the Internet penetrated almost every household in America, Nolo self-help law books were the primary source for accurate do it yourself legal information and forms.

As the web expanded hundreds of legal information and legal form web sites also emerged, plus national brands such as LegalZoom. These web-based alternatives also provided  legal solutions without the need to use a lawyer — the same need that Nolo was meeting. Except that instead of reading a 200-300 page book in order to get to a legal solution —  web-based applications delivered a legal solution more efficiently, faster, and at less cost.

Nolo has migrated many of its legal forms online, too little and too late, and except for a few major products, non-automated forms. Here is another example of a print publisher whose business, despite the excellence of its product, has been eroded by the Internet.

It is well known that Nolo’s book business actually declined during this recession and growth has been flat. The fastest growing area of Nolo’s business is their Lawyer Directory. This is ironic for a company that prided itself in developing self-help legal solutions that don’t require the assistance of an attorney.

The challenge for Internet Brands will be to figure out how to unlock the assets buried within Nolo’s vast collection of self-help law books and turn these assets into web-based applications that can be distributed over the Internet. It remains to be seen whether the quality of Nolo’s self-help legal content will deteriorate under the management of an advertising-driven company that measures results in page views and unique visitors.

Internet Brands, previously a public company, was recently taken private private when it was acquired by Hellman & Friedman, a private equity firm, based in San Francisco,  in December, 2010. Internet Brands has acquired over 70 vertical web sites in areas ranging from travel to cars to real estate. Internet Brands derives more than 70% of its revenues from advertising on its portfolio of web sites.

In December, 2010 Internet Brands also acquired ALLLAW.com , a consumer legal information portal and AttorneyLocate – an Attorney Directory Service. Both of these web sites are relatively weak properties. Compete.com shows that in March, 2011 Nolo had 498,769 unique visitors ( an 8% decline for the year), ALLLAW.com  had 190,069 unique visitors, (for the of March, 2011); AttorneyLocate.com was especially weak with only 18,277 unique visitors (for the month of March, 2011). Internet Brands also owns ExpertHub, which in turn manages web sites in verticals markets such as dentists, plastic surgery, accountants, tummy tuck, and of course lawyers. The ExpertHub site for lawyers only generates 96,289 unique visitors a month (March, 2011), so I wonder if that level of traffic is high enough to support their advertising rates.

There is irony in the fact that LegalZoom, a company that prides itself on offering  legal solutions from a non-law firm generates more traffic than any of the sites mentioned above at 889,762 unique visitors in March, 2011, trailing only Findlaw and Lawyers.com, (both of which offer similar services as the Internet Brands properties).  With the traffic that LegalZoom gets, maybe LegalZoom should consider creating their own lawyers directory for consumers who need just a bit of legal advice to go with their forms to keep them on the right track? I wonder what solos and small law firms would think if LegalZoom moved in that direction?.

It will be interesting to see how Internet Brands integrates these legal properties to leverage the assets in each acquisition as its tries to compete with the likes of Findlaw and Lawyers.com . It will also be interesting to see whether the quality of Nolo’s self help legal content deteriorates under the management of an advertising company that measures results in impressions, clicks, and unique visitors. If Jake Warner, the present CEO stays involved, I am sure the quality of Nolo’s products will remain "top of class."

It’s an odd mix, –the best in class self-help legal book publisher with an excellent reputation, with some less than best in class lawyer directories and a legal information web site. Only time will tell whether this combination will work. (Although Internet Brands may intend to run each of these properties as separate brands, which would help Nolo maintain the quality of it self help legal content).

I discovered an interesting web site called The Law Wizard,  still in beta, for pro se parties doing their own probate, in the United Kingdom.  The site promises to offer a unique package of online interactive tools, guides and videos. The Probate Wizard is initially designed for individuals who want to probate their own estates, but the site states that the tools will be made available for law firms as well.

The site is scheduled for launch later n 2011. The site looks interesting because it combines a web-enabled document automation system with extensive video and other information guides that takes the user through a  complicated process step by step. We will see more web sites like this, both in the legal form market space and the virtual law firm space.

Detroit News just published an article on the decrease in divorces because of the recession – a national trend, and an increase in pro se divorces in Detroit, also a national trend. The article discussed the possibility that law firms could offer "unbundled legal services" as a way of reducing the cost of divorce, but apparently there are very few Michigan law firms that provide this kind of limited legal service.

One law firm in Michigan that is pioneering in offering a reasonably priced limited legal service for divorcing couples over the Internet is Calibre Law, PLC at  Michigan Virtual Law, one of the law firm;s in the DirectLaw network.  Calibre is Michigan’s first virtual law firm.  Calibre offers no-fault divorce forms with legal advice for a reasonable fixed fee.

Calibre Law is lead by Edward F. Hudson II. a litigator with experience in estate planning, family law, and small business disputes. Based in Royal Oak, Michigan and launched only a few months ago, Attorney Hudson, plans to have an impact on making legal services affordable throughout the entire Detroit metropolitan area.