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.