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. 

AxiomLawSome colleagues asked me that other day if I knew whether Axiom is a law firm. I said I didn’t really know, so I decided to find out. There has been much buzz lately about AxiomLaw .  The company recently raised $28,000,000 in private equity funding, after an initial round of $5,000,000.  Axiom has recently launched a new Web site call ReThinkLaw  – a kind of forum Web site that is designed to "provoke thought and drive innovation in the business of law—leading to greater efficiency and positive change for the benefit of clients, firms and lawyers alike."

The AxiomLaw Web site and ReThinkLaw site makes it look like Axiom is a law firm.

For example:

AxiomLaw sounds like a law firm and has a domain name that makes it look like a law firm. When it describes itself it states that "it is not your father’s law firm" or it is  "a new model legal services firm."

But its not a law firm at all. The company’s real name is Axiom Global, Inc.,  It is organized as a "C" corporation, and incorporated in the State of Delaware, just like any other company. (This explains of course how it can have investors).

So if AxiomLaw is not a law firm – what does it actually do? It targets the General  Counsel’s office of large corporation’s and provides the following services:

  • It’s a high priced placement firm assigning lawyers to work for in-house General Counsel;
  • It’s an outsourcing firm working directly for General Counsel of major Fortune 500 corporations;
  • It does "projects" directly for General Counsel of major Fortune 500 corporations.

Should any one care whether AxiomLaw is a law firm or not?

  • Prospective attorney recruits might care whether they are being recruited by a law firm or something else;
     
  • Prospective customers should understand that only a company with an in-house counsel who is a member of the bar where the legal matter is being conducted can qualify for AxiomLaw’s services;
     
  • If you don’t have an in-house counsel, then you can’t use Axiom’s services. Not being a law firm. Axiom cannot provide services to the public (individuals or organizations) directly;
     
  • Prospective corporate customers should understand that the traditional lawyer-client confidentiality privilege does not apply. Any confidentiality must result from the relationship between the company’s general counsel and their outsourced lawyer workers by virtue of the agreement between Axiom and the corporation customer – but I wonder if that is sufficient.
     
  • Competing law firms might care that Axiom suggests that its services are "legal services" competitive with the services of other law firms, when in fact they are are just "services" by definition. Actually contracted support services by in-house counsel. Otherwise Axiom would be violating Unauthorized Practice of Law (UPL) regulations in every state. Since Axiom is not really a law firm it can make claims about its services, that are not subject to bar regulation. Some of the statements that Axiom makes about its services, a law firm is prohibited from making because it would be in violation of the advertising and disclosure rules which are operative in every state.
     
  • Law firms are prohibited from solicitation. AxiomLaw is not subject to the same constraints.
     
  • Maybe state bar association officials should be concerned that the location of the disclaimer on the AxiomLaw web site that states that Axiom is not a law firm and cannot give legal advice. It is difficult to find. . I finally found it here.  and here.

Is AxiomLaw a positive development for the legal profession? Who knows?

General Counsel of major companies seem to think so. AxiomLaw is demonstrating that certain kinds of services can be delivered at a much lower price, without compromising quality. By enabling corporate counsel to get done certain kinds of legal work that ordinarily would be provided by outside counsel at a much higher price, Axiom has opened up a major market be simply segmenting the kind of work that can be done more efficiently in-house with help from Axiom.

It seems to me, however, that an in-house counsel assumes the risk of malpractice when they contract with Axiom. Axiom is not a law firm so it can’t secure a law firm malpractice insurance policy. Moreover, the supervisor of the legal work is not Axiom, (technically it can’t be), but in-house counsel. When in-house counsel contracts with a company like Axiom they give up the assurance of quality legal services and accountability that they get from a traditional law firm. 

In checking directly with Axiom on this point, Axiom states that:

"The individual lawyers don’t carry their own malpractice, Axiom maintains a lawyer’s professional liability insurance policy that provides coverage for all Axiom attorneys, regardless of W-2 or independent contractor status. Almost all of our lawyers in the US are W-2 employees. Axiom does not, because we cannot, have access to or supervise the substantive work of our lawyers."

One likely impact of these developments is to destabilize the business model of the Big Law firms by sucking out the more routine work from big law firms which results in decreasing overall profitability.  As the Axiom’s of the world expand their services and their reach,  there will be less work for the large law firms resulting in a shrinkage of the market share of traditional law firms. (real law firms!). The firms that are left standing will offer the most high-end legal services but will probably raise their fees as they will be the only game in town as a supplier of complex legal services where law firm accountability is a necessity.

Do GC’s have any interest in a vibrant independent and expanding legal pr
ofession, or do they prefer a world where there will be less traditional law firms offering their services at higher fees?

Two final questions for consideration:

1. Should AxiomLaw be more transparent on its Web site about what kind of an organization it really is by making clear that it is not a law firm, and should it avoid comparisons with traditional law firms?

2. Maybe non-law firms like Axiom, with their access to capital and superior management and technological resources, should be able to offer legal services like a real law firm, but just make these new organization’s subject to the Rules of Professional Conduct like any other law firm.

Of course, private investment in a law firm is prohibited by Model Rule 5.4, but maybe it’s time that state bar associations recognize that there is a new kind of organization moving into the legal industry any way, so why not simply subject these new players to the same regulatory scheme as traditional law firms?

Would that level the playing field? Would that provide better consumer protection for both individual consumers and corporate purchasers of legal services?

I had the honor of speaking at ReInventLawSiliconValley, a conference on innovation and the legal system sponsored by the ReInvent Law Laboratory at Michigan State Law School, co-founded by Professors Dan Martin Katz and Renee Newman Knake. This was a great learning day for me and I suggest if you are interested in the subject of change in the legal profession and legal education that you watch the videos when they are published on the ReInventLaw Law Channel. See also on Twitter #ReInventLaw and my pre-conference post on this Conference.

Here are the slides from my ReInventLaw presentation.

Private capital into law firmsI am interested in the subject of how to get private capital into law firms to spur innovation despite the prohibitions of 5.4 of the ABA Model Rule of Professional Conduct. This is the rule that prevents a non-lawyer from owning an equity interest n a law firm in all US states, except on a limited basis in the District of Columbia. This is a controversial issue in the US, and the the ABA Ethics 20/20 Commission decided not to address the subject in its recent deliberations. The ABA House of Delegates and almost all state bar associations are dead set against any change to this rule.

 

Jacoby & Meyers

 

Jacoby & Meyers, the pioneering consumer law firm, has filed a suit against the judiciary in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut  in Federal court to overturn the rule, but that’s another story.

 

I am interested in finding out if clever lawyers have figured out away around the rule. I discovered at least two instances where law firms have created a business model that enables private capital to fund technology and management support that would be beyond the ability of the law partners to fund by themselves.

The law firms are Clearspire and RajPatent, recently re-branded as LegalForceLaw.  Both law firms are built around the same concept – a law firm that is supported by an independent management company that provides technology and management services to the law firm.

ClearsspireClearspire invested over $5,000,000 in a technology and management platform to support the delivery of legal services to corporate legal clients. The firm is growing rapidly and recently opened a San Francisco Office.

LegalForceLaw was founded by a solo practitioner, Raj Abhyanker. The underlying company is called Trademarkia, Inc., which created the Trademarkia web site, the legal web site with the most traffic on the Internet. Like Clearspire, Trademarkia developed a technology to make it easy for non-lawyers to do a trademark search. The traffic to the Trademarkia site generates business for the law firm. [See previous post on LegalForce ].

In both cases, a separate management and independent management company provides services to the law firm. In theory the management company could serve other law firms, but in these cases the management company only has one client.

Foloow the MoneyThe arrangement raises more questions and the answers are not apparent.

I would like to learn more about how these management companies price their services to the law firms they serve. They can’t take a percentage of the legal fees or it would be a violation of Rule 5.4 How much of the cash generated by the law firm can be siphoned off by the management contract between the management company and the law firm? What is the pricing mechanism between the management company and the law firm? Is it a cost plus contract or are market rates charged for the services provided?

Why would an investor put funds at risk within the management company as there would be no easy exit. The law firm can’t go public and if the managing partners of the law firm were hit by a bus the law firm would go out of existence. The brand belongs to the law firm, not the management company. The financial return to the management company is limited because of the 5.4 prohibition. So where is the upside for the investors in the management company?

I think that these innovative law firms should be more transparent about the nature of the management agreement between their management company and their law firm, so that other law firms interested in replicating this business model can experiment.

Maybe these management agreement should be  scrutinized and approved by the ethics counsel from the bar associations in the jurisdictions where these law firms are located, so there is no question that there is no violation of 5.4?

 

Legal Documents On-LineThe American Bar Association’s eLawyering Task Force has compiled a draft set of best practice guidelines for legal document providers, which can be downloaded here*.  

An increasingly popular – and controversial – category of service providers are those that supply customer-specific documents over the Internet, using interactive software and/or human resources, without purporting to be engaged in the practice of law. There are literally hundreds of these legal documents Web sites. More of these legal document Web sites launch every month, of not every week on the Internet.

 

These Web sites include for example:

The Task Force believes that there are common principles that ought to guide these legal document sites, and practices that consumers should be able to expect.  The  eLawyering Task Force  also recognizes that consumers have different levels of knowledge in meeting their documentation needs.  Some believe, for instance, that it is simply a matter of getting “the” right form, and pay little attention to careful drafting and appropriate execution.  Others have a more sophisticated understanding of options and implications. Nevertheless there should be baseline expectations that meets the needs of all kinds of users. The goal is not to issue a "seal off approval" of these legal document Web sites. The objective is to encourage these Web sites to use acknowledged "best practices" in the development and delivery of their services.

These guidelines do not take a position on whether certain document services may constitute the unauthorized practice of law in certain jurisdictions if not performed by a licensed attorney, other than to urge providers to know and observe applicable law on that thorny subject.

The primary purpose is to aid consumers in making informed decisions about what they are buying.

Comments on these Guidelines are invited. They can be submitted on the eLawyering Task Force ListServ which any lawyer can join, Click here.

 

Hyatt Regency Incline Village Lake Taho, CaliforniaThe eLawyering Task Force is having a Quarterly Meeting at he Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe Resort, Spa and Casino on Friday, October 19, 2012 between 9:00 – 11:00 A,M,

This is an open meeting and individuals who want to submit comments on these Guidelines are invited to attend and participate.

Additional Conference details can be found here.

 

 

*(Disclosure: I am Co-Chair of the eLawyering Task Force. The Co-Chair of the Task Force is Marc Lauitsen, of Capstone Practice Systems, who is providing leadership to this project.)

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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 and SmartLegalForms, a web-based legal document 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.

 

 

Just Answer is a question and answer platform that provides answers to users questions for a flat fee of approximately $30.00 per question. It turns out that one of the fastest growing categories within JustAnswer is the answering of legal questions by lawyers.  

Here are other the JustAnswer terms and conditions that apply to lawyers that participate in this service:

"Experts in the Legal categories must be attorneys licensed to practice law, and be
in good standing in at least one jurisdiction in the United States or foreign
country. Such Experts shall provide general information only, such as providing
descriptions of general principles of law, and shall not provide legal advice. In
responding to questions, Experts in the Legal Category shall not apply their legal knowledge or skills to resolve or advise on the Customer’s specific factual circumstances described in the question, such as by proposing a specific course of action (other than advising the User to seek the advice of an attorney licensed to practice in the relevant jurisdiction). Experts in the Legal Category shall not form an attorney-client relationship on the Site."

To be qualified to answer questions as a lawyer within the JustAnswer platform, the lawyer has to take a test in the practice area and meet other qualification standards.

Disclosure: I answer legal questions on the JustAnswer.com website in my capacity as an attorney and a member of the Maryland Bar.

The Website is very well executed. Users can select from a panel of lawyers that are online at the time that the question is asked. You can name your price – indicate what you are willing to pay for an answer. You can see the credentials of the lawyers and their track record in answering questions, communications are secure and confidential, and the user can indicate the urgency of the answer, and the level of detail required. Answers are 100% guaranteed. If you are not satisfied you get your money back. You can select the State that you are located in, so answers can be state specific. Most questions are answered within minutes.

I have yet to see a state bar association offer such a service with the same level of Website sophistication and quality control.

 

Continue Reading Does JustAnswer.com Provide Legal Advice Online? Is this Site Ethically Compliant?

LawPIvotLawPivot, is a Silicon Valley legal industry start-up,  a new breed of online legal advice Web site that provides legal answers through a network of attorneys. Sometimes the legal advice or legal information is free like AVVO and LAWQA,  and sometimes you pay a fee, which LawPivot and JustAnswer require. See more:  American Bar Association Journal article on LawPivot.

I had a technical, corporate legal question that I needed a quick answer to, so I decided to try LawPivot’s Confidential Question and Answer Service, pay their fee, and see how well it worked. I knew that LawPivot has a pretty extensive panel of corporate lawyers, so I thought this would be a good starting place. Because my question involved a technical question, I think  if I had asked our regular outside counsel I probably would have generated a $450.00 legal fee and a long memo — which I really didn’t need at this point.

Instead for  $49.00, I received within 24 hours 8 answers from as many lawyers.  Of the 8 answers I received, I marked 5 as not helpful for my purposes. But 3 were very much on target, and one answer was exactly what I was looking for.

This service is "Confidential", but no attorney/client relationship is created, and the answers are supposed to be "legal information" rather than "legal advice",  The reality is that what I received was pretty good legal advice that applied to the particular facts of my situation.

Overall the site was very easy to use and I was very satisfied with the result. I think that even if I were not an attorney with experience in corporate law, I would have been able to recognize which answer to my question was the correct one. I am not sure that this would always be the case, so my conclusion is that this kind of online service for the average user is a starting point for more research, not an end point. The service helps you make a decision whether you need to retain an attorney for additional assistance. This is a good example of the use of the Internet to deliver "unbundled" legal services at an affordable fee.

The Ethical Issues

LawPivot makes clear that they do not share any fees with an attorney. The site also makes clear that it is not a legal referral service and that it does not promote any particular attorney. LawPivot properly avoids making claims about the lawyers in their network such as they are "the best", highly specialized in their fields", or the most experienced lawyers in their specialty.

Apparently, lawyers are ranked by an algorithm  on how well and promptly they answer questions. Whether this technology violates traditional legal referral rules, which prohibits profit-making organizations to be in the legal referral business, is the subject of a future blog post. 

Is LawPivot, as a non-law firm, permitted to charge a fee for legal advice? Is this the unauthorized practice if law? Not if the fee is paid by the user for the use of the Web site, and not for the legal answer or legal advice itself. There is a bar association opinion that holds that a Web site may charge a user for the user of the Website, when purchasing a legal service, and that this fee is not a fee for the legal service itself. See for example, Nassau County OK’s Tie with Americounsel.

In the AmeriCounsel scheme, which dates back to 2000, the Nassau County Bar concluded that:

"[S[ince AmeriCounsel does not charge attorneys any fee and since AmeriCounsel does not "recommend" or "promote" the use  of any particular lawyer’s services, it does not fall within the purview of DR 2-103(B) or (D). Rather, AmeriCounsel is a form of group advertising permitted by the Cod of Professional Responsibility, and by ethics opinions interpreting the Code."

I think this opinion is still good law.

However, LawPivot has been forced to create a business model, based on a work-around of a Rule of Professional Conduct that no longer serves any useful purpose.

In my opinion,  a regulatory scheme that enables private companies to take a share of the legal fee for referring client work to law firms would have a positive benefit.  It would result in providing more resources to the Web provider so that it could develop more nuanced quality control systems, more extensive marketing programs,and invest in innovative client referral systems. The prohibition on splitting fees between non-law firms and law firms doesn’t serve the purpose for which the rule was originally designed — to discourage "ambulance-chasing."

In fact, the ABA’s Standing Committee on the Delivery of Legal Services most recently sent a letter to the ABA Ethics 20/20 Commission recommending that Rule 7 (2) (b) be eliminated. 

Model Professional Rule (7) (2) (b) states:

(b) A lawyer shall not give anything of value for the recommendation of the lawyer’s
services except that the lawyer may:
 (my emphasis).
(1) pay the reasonable costs of advertisements or communications permitted by this Rule;
(2) pay the usual charges of a legal service plan or a not-for-profit or qualified lawyer
referral service. A qualified lawyer referral service is a lawyer referral service that has been
approved by an appropriate regulatory authority;
(3) pay for a law practice in accordance with Rule 1.17;

 

Comment [5] to the Rule merely states, “Lawyers are not permitted to pay others for channeling professional work."

The Standing Committee’s letter to the Ethics 20/20 Commission states: 

"The comment provides no rationale for this conclusion, which frankly is a position swallowed by the Rule’s exceptions. Law directories have channeled legal services for well over a hundred years. Lawyer referral services have channeled work to lawyers since the mid-twentieth century. Prepaid legal services have channeled work to lawyers for nearly 50 years. Public relations and marketing have joined lawyer advertising as vehicles that channel work since the Supreme Court ruled that states could not prohibit lawyer advertisements in 1977. Law firms providing services to corporations and institutions have in-house marketing staff, some of whom are paid well into six-figures, for the purpose of channeling professional work to their firms. And most recently, we have seen a proliferation of online third-party intermediaries that in some instances defy categorization as advertisements or referral services. Intermediaries are discussed in detail below, but suffice it to say here that the channeling of professional services in the marketplace in and of itself is not inherently
inappropriate. Collectively, these mechanisms create access to legal services for potential clients of all economic strata. They are, however, most important for those of moderate or middle class individuals who infrequently use of the services of a lawyer and need the information provided by these resources to help them make the decisions about the legal services most appropriate for them. "

The Ethics 20/20 Commission gave no serious consideration to the Standing Committee’s proposal so this reform is dead for the foreseeable future — unfortunately. 

The problem with Rule (7)(2)(b) is that it has been made irrelevant by the Internet and arguably is a deterrent to innovation in devising new ways of enabling consumers to access legal services. This is a Professional Rule that chills innovation, rather than preventing consumer harm.

AmeriCounsel failed as a company because it could not generate sufficient cash flow as it was limited to charging a relatively small administrative fees for use of the Web site, as distinguished from earning larger fees that could result from channeling work to lawyer’s in their network.

I hope that LawPivot does not suffer the same fate as AmeriCounsel.
 

 

The ABA Commission on Ethics 20/20 Working Group on Uniformity, Choice of Law, and Conflict of Interest has identified some issues related to defining limits on Virtual Practice under Rule 5.5. Model Rule 5.5 (b) (1) requires a lawyer to obtain a license in a jurisdiction if the lawyer has an office or a “systematic and continuous” presence there, unless the lawyer’s work falls within one of the exception identified in Rule 5.5 (d). The Commission has identified as a potential problem the situation where lawyers are physically present in one jurisdiction, yet have a substantial virtual practice in another. The problem is “that it is not always clear when this virtual practice in a jurisdiction is sufficiently “systematic and continuous” to require a license in that jurisdiction.”

This comment could be interpreted to mean that lawyers who have a virtual law practice, mostly solos and small law firms, may have an issue about whether they need to “secure a license” in the other jurisdiction.

This is a solution looking for a problem where none exists as far as the typical virtual law practice is concerned.

A virtual law practice is commonly associated with the online delivery of legal services. Lawyers engaging in virtual practice are only able to provide legal work that pertains to the laws of the state(s) in which they are licensed or they are in violation of 5.5. Whether or not their delivery methods or work with the clients takes place in a physical location other than where the lawyer is licensed, the key factor is that the lawyer is practicing the law of the jurisdiction they are licensed in and to which the client’s legal needs pertain. A law firm will have a website that anyone in any jurisdiction may find and read online. The lawyer places the appropriate disclaimers on the website and makes it clear in any registration process for a client portal that the law firm is only permitted to practice the laws of a certain jurisdiction. This is not misleading to the public nor is it the unauthorized practice of law.

For example, a client living in Florida who owns real estate in Maryland should be able to work online with a lawyer licensed in Maryland to handle the matter. That lawyer licensed in Maryland, whether he or she lives in Florida or New York, is not creating a “systematic or continuous presence” in the state of Florida to subject the lawyer to Rule 5.5(b). Contacts for the purpose of determining “systematic and continuous presence” in the context of determining “personal jurisdiction” have nothing to do with a virtual law firm that limits its practice to residents of the state in which it is primarily located, or serving out of state residents who have matters that are within the state where the attorney is licensed.

When an attorney creates a virtual law office, the gateway to the virtual law office is a Website that any other law firm would create and which is available for viewing by anyone in the world. The difference is the addition of a secure client portal where the prospective client and existing clients will register for assistance. The virtual law office Website states throughout where the attorney is licensed to practice law. The terms and conditions or disclaimers on the site should clearly explain where the attorney is licensed to practice law. This is no different than a traditional law firm Website.

Only residents of the state where the attorney is licensed, or out of state residents who have a legal matter within the state are permitted to register as clients of the law firm. Often the attorney may have the online client sign a traditional or digital engagement agreement that provides notice of which state’s law will apply should there be any dispute.

In addition, some virtual law office platforms have jurisdiction checks so that in order to register, the prospective client must provide their address. If the client is not physically located in the state, a notice is sent to the attorney reminding the attorney that before the client can be accepted as a client of the firm the attorney has to determined that the matter to be handled is a legal matter within the attorney’s jurisdiction. A notice is also sent to the client, reminding the client that the attorney is only licensed to practice law in the state in which the attorney is located. A client’s presence in a different geographic location than his or her attorney does not mean that a state’s ethics rules should come into play for the attorney handling a project that is unrelated to that state’s laws. Just because an attorney’s Website can be viewed in another state, doesn’t mean that a state should have disciplinary authority over that attorney because the Website and the law firm are not offering to provide “legal services” in that state. The alternative logic would suggest that a law firm should be available to be viewed only in the state in which the lawyer is a member of the bar – a truly absurd result – not worthy of further discussion.

To summarize: There are two separate questions about when a UPL claim would arise. First, what contacts does a state require to establish presence when the lawyer is not admitted there but is working with a client who physically resides in that state? Second, in the situation where the lawyer is admitted to practice in that state, but the lawyer physically wants to reside outside of that jurisdiction, what are the contacts that would need to be required to establish presence in the state where the lawyer is licensed? Again, the answer to both questions should be that the legal work that the lawyer provides to the client is what matters rather than where either the client or the lawyer is physically located. 

Stephanie Kimbro contributed to this post and see:  What constitutes virtual presence?  see also Carolyn Elefant’s post on this subject on her MyShingle Blog.

 

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.
 

Attorney Louis Pepe, a Connecticut attorney and Chair of a Connecticut Bar Task Force examining non–lawyer legal information web sites, believes that these web sites are breaking the law by providing legal services in a state in which they’re not licensed to practice, as reported in the Connecticut Law Tribune.

There are differences between  legal information web sites that provide legal information and legal forms only, and web sites that offer something called "legal document preparation services" where a paralegal or other non-lawyer reviews a document and assists in preparation prior to sending the form back to the client.  Rather than making a distinction between the different kinds of web sites, Pepe’s  Task Force lumps them altogether into a single "evil" category. If it’s not a  law firm web site, it has no place on the web, at least as far as the Connecticut Bar is concerned.

As reported by the Tribune, "the task force filed its report with the Department of Consumer Protection alleging that the on-line legal providers also were engaged in deceptive advertising because the companies are offering legal advice by providing relevant legal documents."

Can it be that the provision of just a legal form constitutes the "unauthorized practice of law?"  If that were the case why don’t we just ban self-help legal software and self-help law books from Barnes & Nobles book shelves? All of the legal information web sites that I know of,  have a clear disclaimer that they are not a law firm and do not purport to give legal advice.

Does Pepe think that a consumer can’t tell the difference between an attorney and a legal information web site? Is any publication – whether print-based or web-based –  that is a legal form the "unauthorized practice of law?"

In my opinion, there is a good argument to be made that a legal information web site that states that it’s services and products are the equivalent to what a lawyer provides is a misrepresentation. It would be a misrepresentation in advertising, and consumer protection agencies should monitor the claims made by these providers. However, the claim that the mere provision of a legal form is the "unauthorized practice of law" is an abuse of the legal profession’s self-regulatory power to protect the consumer from harm.

 

Catherine J. Lanctot has written an interesting article on the subject in “SCRIVENERS IN CYBERSPACE: ONLINE DOCUMENT PREPARATION AND THE UNAUTHORIZED PRACTICE OF LAW,” 30 Hofstra Law Review 811 (2002, 44 pp, pdf), where she argues that those who wish to apply UPL enforcement against such software products or document preparers ”must not lose sight of the broader implications.”  Not only do they risk constitutional challenges, but :

“[W]e must consider the ramifications of such enforcement. The public reaction would likely be negative. Enforcing unauthorized practice of law statutes against online document preparation services would be neither painless nor popular. The lay public, which already detests lawyers, generally perceives unauthorized practice of law enforcement as yet another way for the legal profession to line its collective pockets at the expense of consumers. . . .

“In addition, it is at least possible that these websites are managing to provide some consumers with a necessary service—basic legal documents at an affordable price. At a time when the bar seems to have abdicated its responsibility to provide routine, noncomplex legal services to the poor and middle class, it could well be counterproductive to try to shut down one vehicle for serving those unmet needs.”

If  the Connecticut Bar can’t distinguish between their self-interest in maintaining a monopoly over the delivery of legal services and the public’s right to legal information whether in the form of a book, a desk-top software program, or a web-based software program, perhaps the citizens  of Connecticut should either strip the bar of its self-regulatory power, or further define what the "practice of law" means. That is what the citizens of Texas did, when the Texas Bar attempted to ban self-help law books and self-help legal software from being sold in the State of Texas.