H&R Block launched an experimental and innovative service in Texas in January to assist immigrants in completing USCIS forms. The forms were powered by software and H&R Block’s role was to provide a service to assist users in completing the forms within their offices– , but no legal advice was to be provided.
It didn’t take long for the organized immigration bar to shut this service down.
Here is a report from Crystal Williams, Executive Director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association to the Board of Directors of AILA about their efforts to make sure that H&R Block would not compete with the immigration bar:
“H&R Block. As many of you are aware, this large national tax preparer had been advertising an “immigration document service,” apparently as a pilot program in Houston. After some quiet diplomacy, H&R Block has agreed to cancel the program and remove any advertising related to it. They are in the process of removing what is out there on it. If, after another week, you or other members still see anything at a physical site, on the internet, or elsewhere about it, please let me know.”
“In addition, we had a meeting with another large national accounting firm that had been contemplating something similar, and it appears that they too will not be pursuing it. We will continue to work on this issue with other firms that seem poised to cross the UPL line. Chapter chairs, please feel free to share this with your members.”
It’s not clear where there is any UPL violation, as the Immigrant Assistants were simply helping users navigate through the software rather than provide any legal advice. It is well documented there is a huge demand for legal assistance and that the immigration bar only serves a small proportion of the total demand as most immigrants can’t afford the fees that immigration lawyers charge. For this reason that there is well documented fraud abuse by “notarios”, as scam artists move to service immigrants with services that are over-priced, fraudulent, and inadequate.
On the other hand, we have a Fortune 500 company that attempts to provide a needed service to fulfill this gap in service with the idea that evaluation and assessment would in the fullness of time result in a limited and valuable service that is software-powered, not unlike the tax preparation service that H&R Block provides to millions of Americans. Rather than permit this experiment, the organized bar moved quickly to intimidate Block into shutting this service down.
No wonder there is little innovation in the delivery of legal services to consumers. No wonder consumers hate lawyers. Non-lawyers helping pro se litigants navigate through intelligent and smart software is hardly the practice of law, and it is, as Prof. Renee Knake argues, a protected First Amendment right.
Surely there must be opportunities to experiment in the use software technologies to close the access to justice gap in America without interference by the organized bar. Regulation of legal services is too important to be left only to the lawyers. It is time to think about alternative schemes to regulate the delivery of legal services that involved interests other than protecting the income of the legal profession – despite the continued claim by the legal profession that their only interest is protecting the public from harm. There is little evidence to support that claim.