CodeX FutureLaw 2014

CodexXFuture Law 2014
 

Guest Post from Will Hornsby with appreciation:

The recent CodeX FutureLaw 2014 Conference brought together all of the usual suspects in the tech law world, seemingly asking the same questions – Why aren’t reforms being adopted that would make our business models unfettered and why isn’t the ABA leading that charge? I had hoped to address those questions more effectively within the ethics panel discussion, but have a sense the Q&A format of that panel was a not a good vehicle to clearly make these points. Hopefully, this post will do a better job of that. 

Two fundamental regulatory obstacles limit online legal service models – the unauthorized practice of law and the ability to capitalize legal services. What we all need to realize clearly and at the beginning of this conversation is that the practice of law and the rules and laws that pertain to these issues are regulated in the US at the state level. This is the difference between the US and the UK and Australia. 

As Prof. Rhode noted, some states basically conclude that the practice of law is what a lawyer does, and therefore anyone doing what a lawyer does is committing the unauthorized practice of law when it is done by someone who is not a lawyer. Many states define the practice of law to include the selection of forms, which is an integral part of some online models. Regardless of the breath of the state definitions, they generally preclude the delivery of legal services by corporate entities that are not law firms. 

So, if you have a model that is delivering legal services, the question is how do you do so in a way that is not the unauthorized practice of law. There seems to be two paths. First, you can proceed on a state-by-state basis. That path can further be divided into court challenges and legislative changes. So, for example, LegalZoom recently prevailed through the courts in South Carolina. Decades ago, the owner of Quicken Family Law lost in the Texas courts and lobbied the state legislature, successfully, to redefine the practice of law in a way that carved out its model. The second path is through federal courts, in anticipation that the issue may come before the US Supreme Court and result in a decision that accommodates your model as the law of the land. 

Why hasn’t the ABA solved this problem? Prof. Rhode indicated the ABA “punted” on the issue when it gave thought to the creation of a model definition of the practice of law many years ago. (Call me a cynic, but I suspect she would have been critical of the definition advanced by the ABA had it come up with one.) What the ABA may have learned from that endeavor was that the states were not interested in a model rule. They, instead, embraced the definitions they have in place and showed no interest in a uniform definition, let alone a more liberal one. Simply put, no one can lead when others are not willing to follow.    

The second issue is related to UPL, but, I think, broader. It involves the capitalization of legal services. Why is it that those who are not lawyers cannot have an ownership interest in law firms? This, of course, is the key issue both for attracting start-up funding and creating an exit strategy where the corporate owner can profit from creating a legal service model. Unlike UPL, the ABA has taken a stance on this- seemingly since the beginning of time. Simply put, when a lawyer is put in the position to either serve the interests of a client or serve the financial interests of the shareholders of a corporate entity that owns the law firm, the ABA believes fidelity to the client should not be compromised. This is perceived as a core value of the legal profession and one that sets it apart from businesses. 

Even though the ABA is not likely to change its position in the foreseeable future, we should again keep in mind that the ABA has no direct force and effect on this issue. Again, the matter is controlled exclusively by the states. Nothing stands in the way of those interested in pursuing capitalization of law firms from doing so in each state, or alternatively pursuing the matter in federal court. 

But, be careful of what you wish for. What happens when the practice of law becomes unregulated and anyone can provide legal services? It is not likely a niche online legal service provider fills that space. Instead, the insurance industry become the resource for estate planning documents, no doubt giving discounts to customers with advance directives that prohibit resuscitation. Financial institutions provide incorporation services for their customers as they now provide trusts. Realtors assume the function of land conveyances. All this low-hanging fruit that had been a profit center for lawyers and is transitioning to online legal service providers is likely to be assumed by industries that will have collateral economic advantages. They will do it cheaper and on a larger scale than any of today’s online providers. As we confront the ethics battleground, it needs to be done strategically, with great precision, down a path that avoids the minefields. 

This is obviously a very superficial analysis, but one that I hope generates further discussion and interest in the ethics aspect of Future Law. 

Cloud computing for Law firmsState bar associations are starting to address the issue of law firms storing confidential client information in the cloud and are rolling out ethics opinions to guide law firm conduct. You can find a list of these opinions here on the American Bar Association web site. The basic standard that is emerging is that the attorney must use "reasonable care" under the circumstances. This makes sense. It leaves to the attorney the responsibility of making a management judgment about the risks in choosing one cloud solution over another. This assumes that the law firm has sufficient technical knowledge to evaluate these new risks created by the development of new information technologies. [This is the  subject of a future blog post!].

The Massachusetts Bar Opinion Ethics Opinion on this subject is troubling because it  explicitly requires:

"Consistent with its prior opinions, the Committee further believes that the Lawyer remains bound to follow an express instruction from his client that the client’s confidential information not be stored or transmitted by means of the Internet, and that he should refrain from storing or transmitting particularly sensitive client information by means of the Internet without first seeking and obtaining the client’s express consent to do so"

The requirement that in every case the client’s express consent to store confidential information in the cloud is not realistic and not consistent with the way web technology is evolving. There are clearly situations where it would would be reasonable under the circumstances to secure a client’s consent for storing confidential information in the cloud, but the way this Opinion is framed law firms will interpret to this mean that in every case the client’s express consent needs to be explicitly secured. This adds unnecessary "friction" to creating the lawyer/client relationship.

This requirement actually puts Massachusetts lawyers, particularly solos and small law firms at a competitive disadvantage. Solos and small law firms now have to compete against software powered non-lawyer sites such as LegalZoom, LegacyWriter, MyLawyer.com, and RocketLawyer, to name only a few. None of these non-lawyer web sites require that their customers provide express consent to store their confidential data in the cloud, and if they do, the consent is buried so deep in the fine print that the average user is completely unaware of what they are consenting to.

The Opinion cites Google Docs as its leading example, which is a good example of how out of touch the Bar is with emerging technological trends. It won’t be long before a person will be able to create a Will using a mobile app on their cell phones.

Must the user then be required to give their express consent before storing their data?  What does that "express consent" mean in a mobile application context? The necessity of preserving the integrity of the lawyer/client relationship through the appropriate application of ethical rules is clearly appropriate. But adding unnecessary "friction" to accessing legal services for the average consumer is just going to result them turning to alternative non-lawyer providers who operate with less restrictions. Restrictions like this impede innovation in the delivery of legal services by the legal profession. No wonder the legal profession is lagging behind every other service industry in adapting to the mobile social web.

For a similar viewpoint see: Carolyn Elefant’s Blog Post: The Bar Associations Have Their Head in the clouds When it Comes to Cloud Computing.

For a thoughtful analysis of bar association ethical opinions on the use of cloud computing by lawyers see also:  Bob Ambrogi’s blog posts at Catalyst.
 

The ABA Standing Committee on Client Protection just released a survey it conducted on unlicensed practice of law programs ( UPL) in United States jurisdictions in 2011-12.

Only 29 jurisdictions responded to the survey.  Twenty-three of the 29 actively enforce UPL regulations, although some jurisdictions indicate that insufficient funding or resources make enforcement challenging. Nine jurisdictions stated that enforcement is inactive or non-existent.

Of the jurisdictions reporting, 21 states permit some form of limited practice by non-lawyers. Here is the summary from the report:

Twenty-one jurisdictions authorize nonlawyers to perform some legal services in limited areas. Sixteen permit legal assistants, legal technicians or paralegals to perform some legal services under the supervision of a lawyer; six jurisdictions permit nonlawyers to draft legal documents. Other allowable nonlawyer activities include: real estate agents/brokers may draft documents for property transactions or attend real estate closings; nonlawyers may attend (and in some states participate in) administrative proceedings; and participate in alternative dispute resolution proceedings. Many of these jurisdictions do not classify these activities as the practice of law.

There are only six jurisdictions in the US that permit nonlawyers to prepare legal documents,
(without providing legal advice). These jurisdictions are California, Arizona, the District of Columbia, Florida, Maine, and Missouri. In these jurisdictions the "nonlawyers"  are referred to as –  "Legal Document Preparers" or "Legal Technicians".

[ Download Entire Report Here ].

Only one jurisdiction that we know of, the State of  Texas, makes an exception to the definition of the practice of law, and explicitly permits the sale and distribution of self-help legal software, software-powered legal web sites, self-help law books, and other technologically-based alternatives to the delivery of legal services.

It’s no wonder that LegalZoom is required to state in its S-1 filing to go public – that violation of UPL statutes in many states is a major risk factor for its business:

"Our business model includes the provision of services that represent an alternative to traditional legal services, which subjects us to allegations of UPL. UPL generally refers to an entity or person giving legal advice who is not licensed to practice law. However, laws and regulations defining UPL, and the governing bodies that enforce UPL rules, differ among the various jurisdictions in which we operate. We are unable to acquire a license to practice law in the United States, or employ, or employ licensed attorneys to provide legal advice to our customers, because we do not meet the regulatory environment of being exclusively owned by licensed attorneys. We are also subject to laws and regulations that govern business transactions between attorneys and non-attorneys, including those related to the ethics of attorney fee-splitting and the corporate practice of law."

Some Observations

  • Some entity, such as the US Legal Services Corporation whose goal is to expand access to justice for all,  or an independent or university-based research organization, should undertake empirical research which analyzes whether non-lawyer practices actually cause harm to consumers within the states that permit nonlawyer document preparation.  Research should also be done on the impact that nonlawyer legal form web sites have on the consumer in terms of benefits and potential harm. Empirical research in England by the Legal Services Consumer Board on the issue of whether will writing by non-lawyers causes harm, concluded that it did. This resulted in making will drafting and will writing a reserved area under the new UK legal profession deregulation scheme.
     
  • We need more empirical research like the UK Study to inform public policy making in this area.  Perhaps if LegalZoom is successful with its public underwriting it could subsidize or contribute to such a study, as it would certainly be in their interest to do so!
     
  • Research should be conducted in those states that permit nonlawyer document preparers to evaluate whether more consumers have access to the legal system and at a lower cost by using nonlawyer document preparers, rather than attorneys. This data would inform public policy with facts, instead of generalized theories that it is necessary to limit legal document preparation services to licensed attorneys in the interest of  "protecting" the public from harm.
     
  • Legal document preparation software is getting smarter — more intelligent– Web-enabled document automation applications can now generate documents that really do reflect a person’s individual circumstances. These applications are getting smarter and the intelligent templates easier to build. Other than in Texas, there is an issue as to whether legal software, standing alone, constitutes the unauthorized practice of law, despite disclaimers to the contrary.

    State Bar UPL Committees should consider adopting the Texas UPL exception to avoid charges of monopolistic behavior, to gain the confidence of the public that the organized Bar is really interested in expanding access to the legal system through the use of technology, and to encourage innovation in the delivery of legal services. [DisclosureWe operate an intelligent legal forms software company ].
     

 It would be interesting to see whether legal fees are also lower in jurisdictions which have competition from nonlawyer document preparers as these authors claim.

http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?lt1=_blank&bc1=000000&IS2=1&bg1=FFFFFF&fc1=000000&lc1=0000FF&t=divorcelawinform&o=1&p=8&l=as4&m=amazon&f=ifr&ref=ss_til&asins=0815721900

LegalZoom, the leading online provider of legal services to consumers and small business, as predicted here previously, finally filed for an IPO last week. The company is seeking to raise $120 million to expand their services both in the US and internationally.

LegalZoom’s data in the S-1 filing is now available for everyone to analyze:

  • In 2011, 490,000 orders were placed through their web site;
  • 20% of all limited liability companies in California were done by LegalZoom;
  • During the past ten years, LegalZoom has served over 2,000,000 customers.
  • Revenue in 2011 was $156 million.

These are impressive statistics and provide support for the proposition that consumers and small business prefer a very limited legal solution that is just good enough to get the job done, rather than pay the high legal fees charged by the typical attorney.

This is LegalZoom’s analysis of the legal market for consumers and small business, buried on p. 62 of the S-1 filing: 

"Making the right choices with respect to legal matters can be difficult, especially for those with limited time and resources. The U.S. legal system consists of overlapping jurisdictions at the city, county, state and federal levels, each of which has its own evolving laws and regulations. Businesses may be subject to additional laws, regulations and legal issues applying specifically to the industries in which they operate. In addition, the policies and procedures associated with the creation, filing and certification of legal documents are often arcane and confusing."

        "When in need of legal help, small businesses and consumers lack an efficient and reliable way to find high quality, trustworthy attorneys with the appropriate experience to navigate this complex legal system and handle their specific needs. Small businesses and consumers often do not understand their legal needs or know where to start looking for an attorney. Some are wary of attorneys in general, and others may have heard from friends or family about negative experiences with attorneys or the legal system."

        "The high and unpredictable cost of traditional legal services also presents challenges for many small businesses and consumers. In 2011, the average billing rate for small and midsize law firms was $318 per hour, according to ALM’s 2012 Survey of Billing and Practices for Small and Midsize Law Firms. Attorneys are frequently unable to predict the time required to address a client’s legal matter, sometimes billing thousands of dollars to research a legal issue they have not previously encountered. This can be particularly true of generalist attorneys that offer many disparate legal services to members of their local communities. Unlike attorneys at large global law firms or specialty boutiques who handle high volumes of similar matters and develop expertise in specific domains, generalists can find it difficult to efficiently address a client’s particular legal issue due to their lack of specialized expertise. Due to the high and unpredictable costs of traditional legal services, many small businesses and consumers limit their use of attorneys and instead often attempt to resolve legal issues without assistance."

       "As a result of these factors, many small businesses and consumers often are unsure of or dissatisfied with the legal services available to them, and many either elect not to seek help or take no action to address their important legal needs."

Many lawyers are in denial about the desire of consumers and small business to purchase their services. They will assert that consumers and small business are exposing themselves to liability by using LegalZoom’s limited services which will bring regret later. But consumer’s don’t seem to care. What they get from LegalZoom is "good enough." The numbers tell the story.

Solos and small law firms will find that it will be very difficult to compete against LegalZoom with its superior capital resources. The organized bar (State and ABA) has given up on trying to put LegalZoom out of business on they theory that the company is violating UPL (‘unauthorized practice of law") rules. Any organized bar attacks will be resisted by LegalZoom which will now have the capital to fight any challenges to its business model. The American Bar Association has created a Solo and Small Law Firm Resource Center, but it is too little and too late.

LegalZoom is here to stay and will expand its market share as the major provider of the delivery of legal solutions to consumers and small business.

LegalZoom will, inevitably, put many solos and small law firms out of business as it grows and expands its suite of services.  For a related analysis on my theory about the venture capital industry and disruption in the legal industry see video at: Legal Startups – An Overview at PointOneLaw ].

To survive in this fast changing environment, solos and small law firms need to figure out strategies that extend their brand online, without detracting in any way from their role as a trusted adviser in the communities where they live and work.  I see too many solos and small law firms that think they can emulate LegalZoom’s success but don’t have either the capital or the skills to compete in an online environment.

The competitive response for solos and small law firms should be to create a "click and mortal" strategy that combines what can be learned from LegalZoom with the best management practices of a law firm that has the capacity to deliver "limited" or "unbundled" legal services at a competitive price point, both in the office and online.

Here is a previous blog post which lists steps that solos and small law firms can take to become more competitive in this rapidly changing environment. The cost of adapting to this new competitive environment is not the cost of software, which is relatively inexpensive. The cost is the investment in time that the lawyer has to make to learn new online skills, create more efficient production procedures, and adopt marketing approaches that amplify a lawyer’s experti
se both online and offline.

It will be interesting to see what the legal landscape for solos and small law firms looks like five years from now.