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. 

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 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.

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An editorial appeared in today’s (08/22/2011) Wall St. Journal , titled "Time to Deregulate the Practice of Law", by Clifford Winston and Robert W. Crandell, both Fellows at the Brookings Institution. [ Ungated version here ]. The editorial argues that it is time for the legal profession to be deregulated, as other industries have been, in order to create price competition for legal services, spur innovation in the delivery of legal services, and reduce the premium that lawyers get for pricing their services as a result of strict occupational licensing. The editorial is a summary of the conclusions of a book soon to be published by the authors, and Vikram Maheshri, titled, "First Thing We Do, Let’s Deregulate All the Lawyers" (2011, Brookings Press). This book is the opening salvo it what is sure to be an expanded debate about who should be allowed to provide legal services to the general public.

New Methods of Legal Service Delivery

With online companies such as LegalZoom, RocketLawyer, JustAnswer, LawBidding, Law Pivot and our own MyLawyer.com, pushing the boundaries of new ways to delivery of legal services,  there is renewed pressure on the organized bar to respond to consumer demand for affordable, transparent, competent, and reliable legal services. Law firms are exploring ways to delivery legal services online to compete with non-lawyer providers, but are often constrained by bar regulations.

Free White Paper: Virtual Law Practice; Success FactorsEssentially, the authors argue that lowering the barriers to entry into the legal profession would force lawyers to compete more intensely with each other, and  face competition from non-lawyers and firms not owned and managed by lawyers. The authors argue that legal fees are higher  because of occupational licensing and can be reduced by deregulation without sacrificing the quality of legal services.

Since heading the Philadelphia Institute for Paralegal Training, the nation’s first paralegal school and the institution that pioneered the paralegal profession in the United States,  I have argued that you don’t need a fully-trained and credentialed attorney to provide services to consumers for simpler, more routine legal problems, any more than you would need a brain surgeon to treat a headache, when a pharmacist will do. I am well aware of arguments that some lawyers make that there are no simple legal problems, but the reality is that many consumers will settle  for a "good enough" result, rather than spend thousands of dollars in legal fees.

On the other hand I am not comfortable with the idea that we should abandon all occupational licensing for legal professionals, lawyers and legal assistants, essentially converting the United States in a completely unregulated free market.

 

Arguments for a Regulated Legal Profession

1. The analogy between the legal profession to other deregulated industries, such as the airline industry, that the authors cite, is simply not relevant. There is fundamental differences between the manufacturing, mining, communication, transportation, and financial industries and the human service professions where the delivery of the service is expected to be of sufficient competence to accomplish the task at hand. If you follow the author’s logic, we should also deregulate the dentists, the teachers, the nurses, the social workers, and the doctors because it results in lower pricing and therefore would increase the availability of those services. e.g., Instead of going to a "Dentist" to get your root canal work, you would have the option of going to the "Tooth Fairy."

2. The authors assume that the quality of legal services would not deteriorate any more than when the planes didn’t stop flying when the airline industry was deregulated. Unfortunately the authors have no facts to back up this assertion. It is just wishful thinking.

3. When you look at the facts, however,  a more thoughtful response to reforming the delivery system for legal services is required.

On the anecdotal level, I can testify to the literally hundreds of botched legal matters that I have reviewed generated by "Immigration Specialists", Legal Technicians" and other non-lawyers operating in the grey area of offering document preparation services. In some instances, I have seen immigrants actually deported because of improperly prepared papers by "Immigration Specialists." I have reviewed "failure to discharge notices"  issued by U.S. Bankruptcy Court because of improperly prepared bankruptcy petitions. I have reviewed dozens of divorce petitions filed by "pro-se" parties, assisted by online document preparation companies that were rejected by the courts. I have seen enough of these cases to know that in many of these situations  incompetence and lack of knowledge and skill is evident. In some cases there is outright fraud and misrepresentation.

4. There have been almost no empirical studies that I know of that support the argument of the authors that the quality of legal services would not deteriorate in a completely deregulated marketplace – save one- and that study does not support the author’s conclusions.

Legal Services Consumer Panel Study

Very recently the Legal Services Consumer Panel of the Legal Services Board in the United Kingdom, the agency in charge of deregulating the legal profession in the United Kingdom, conducted an empirical study of the quality of wills prepared by both solicitors and non-lawyers.

 

The Panel concluded that on the issue of quality:

 "one in four wills in the shadow shops were failed with more than one in three of all assessments scoring either poor or very poor. The same proportion of wills prepared by solicitors and will-writing companies were failed. Wills were almost just as likely to fail when the client had simple or complex circumstances. Key problems where the will was not legally valid or did not meet the client’s stated requirements, were: inadequate treatment of the client’s needs; the client’s requests not being met; potentially illegal actions; inconsistent or contradictory language; insufficient detail; and poor presentation. Key problems relating to poor advice include: cutting and pasting of precedents; unnecessary complexity; and use of outdated terminology."

The United Kingdom has a legal market which is not only more deregulated that the US market, but will become even more deregulated in the future. Despite this more open environment, the Panel concluded that:

&q
uot;Inherent features of will-writing services place consumers at risk of detriment. Consumers lack the knowledge to identify technical problems or assess whether the additional services offered are necessary or represent good value for money. The reliance on extracting good information about the consumer‟s circumstances and preferences, combined with the range of possible ways to deal with these in the will, means there is potentially wide scope to give bad advice."

and

"However, there is a need to make consumers better aware of the suitability of online services as these received the highest proportion of fail marks in the shadow shopping, but wills sold over the internet are difficult to regulate."

Thus, the Panel proposes that:

"will-writing services should be made a reserved legal activity. Any business – not just a solicitors firm – satisfying an approved regulator‟s entry standards could provide will-writing services."

The UK approach is not to restrict will-writing just to lawyers, but to open up the system to any providers that can satisfy the educational, regulatory, and accountability standards within the reserved activity. This is a vastly different approach than eliminating standards all together, as the authors seem to suggest.

The compete UK Report on Regulating Will Writing can be downloaded here. See also our Resource Page on Regulation of the Legal Profession.  The Report is worth reading by any policy maker who is thinking about doing away with all regulation of the providers of legal services to the general public.

Some final thoughts:

The authors claims of the benefits of deregulation in general are not supported by current evidence.

Consider:

  • Deregulation of the mortgage baking industry brought the American economy to its knees;
  • Deregulation of the US banking industry has wreaked havoc on the world’s economy;
  • Lack of strong regulation of the proprietary higher education industry has resulted in thousands of graduates without an adequate education, low employment rates, and high default rates. (Of course, as the author’s point out, you could say the same about law schools and law school graduates, but then again the accreditation of law schools by the American Bar Association, it can be argued is another example of an "unregulated activity" without substantive standards that are meaningful).

The list can go on.

Perhaps I am premature in my judgment as the book has not been released, and I have just reviewed the salient conclusions. I can’t wait to give it a full read and review.

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Legal Software Program On August 2, 2011, Federal District Judge Nanette K. Laughrey, for the Western District of Missouri, the Judge presiding over the class action case against LegalZoom for unauthorized practice of law, released an opinion denying, in part, Defendant’s Motion of Summary Judgment. The Court held that document preparation by non-lawyers, under Missouri Law, is conduct, and not entitled to First Amendment protection. ( See full opinion here ).

This is consistent with my own view, expressed in a previous post. (Is LegalZoom just a self help legal software company?).

The court’s opinion rejects the logic in an article authored by Professor Catherine J. Lanctot, titled, "Does LegalZoom Have First Amendment Rights: Some Thoughts About Freedom of Speech and the Unauthorized Practice of Law." , which doesn’t surprise me, as it is hard to characterize LegalZoom’s activities as "speech", when they have 500 employees working on customer’s documents.

One paragraph in the Court’s opinion is troubling. On Page 21, the Opinion states as follows:

"Furthermore, LegalZoom’s branching computer program is created by a LegalZoom employee using Missouri law.  It is that human input that creates the legal document. A computer sitting at a desk in California cannot prepare a legal document without a human programming it to fill in the document using legal principles derived from Missouri law that are selected for the customer based on the information provided by the customer. There is little or no difference between this and a lawyer in Missouri asking a client a series of questions and then preparing a legal document based on the answers provided and applicable Missouri law. That the Missouri lawyer may also give legal advice does not undermine the analogy because legal advice and document preparation are two different ways in which a person engages in the practice of law. "

…..
"The Missouri Supreme Court cases which specifically address the issue of document preparation, First Escrow, Mid-America and Eisel, make it clear that this is the unauthorized practice of law. The fact that the customer communicates via computer rather than face to face or that the document prepared using a computer program rather than a pen and paper does not change the essence of the transaction."

This Opinion could be interpreted to mean that all legal software programs are a form of conduct, and not entitled to First Amendment protection. I would argue that the Court comes to this conclusion because the legal software is used in the context of a document preparation service, and is not a stand alone program. As the Court further explains that:

As in Hulse, First Escrow, Mid-America, and Eisel, LegalZoom’s customers are rendered passive bystanders after providing the information necessary to complete the form. Yet LegalZoom charges a fee for its legal document preparation service. …..The customer merely provides information and "Legal takes over."

The facts of this case make a difference, I would argue, in understanding the scope of the Court’s Opinion.

If we define a legal software program as a "product", where there is no service element and no conduct whatever, then it is hard for me to believe that the Court intended to ban legal software programs from distribution directly to consumers, whether on-line or off-line.

If that was the Court’s intent, then companies like Nolo and Intuit, would have to pull their products off the shelves of Barnes & Noble and Staples and Amazon, programs like LawHelp Interactive, supported by the US Legal Services Corporation, would have to be terminated, and the many web sites that offer interactive forms, without any service component would have to be abandoned. Courts that are experimenting with distributing interactive forms from their web sites, would have to consider whether this activity is the "unauthorized practice of law", a strange result.

A2J Guided InterviewsLaw Schools like Chicago-Kent Law School that are experimenting with new legal software interfaces that connect citizens directly with legal help through software, might reconsider their efforts.

Stop No Entry

The only way that such legal software could be used, would be by attorneys in the context of delivering of legal service through their law firms. I think this would be an unfortunate result.

 

Other possible negative consequences of such an interpretation would be:

  • The legal profession would be further attacked for attempts to restrict commerce and maintain higher legal pricing by the consuming public causing further damage to the profession’s already declining reputation;
     
  • Pro se litigants would not have access to tools that enable them to represent themselves, further restricting access to the legal system;

It would be helpful, if the Missouri District Court clarified its language on page 21 of the Court Order to distinguish between fact situations where interactive legal software is used as part of a document preparation service business and situations where the programs are distributed as stand alone programs — products–  like a book or other publication. What do you think?

 Increasng Profit Margins With Document Automation- Free White Paper

There has been much discussion recently in various venues about whether 5.4 of the US Rules of Professional Responsibility should be amended or revised to permit investment in law firms by non-lawyer, or non-lawyer entities, or even ownership of US law firms by non-lawyer entities. The ABA’s Ethics 20/20 Commission is circulating a paper on the subject and is soliciting comments.

Known in the United Kingdom as Alternative Business Structures (ABS), this new form of law firm organization, authorized by the UK Legal Services Act of 2007,  will be permitted after October 6, 2011. Alternative Business Structures are already permitted in Australia, where several law firms have already gone public.

Other than the State of North Carolina where there is bill pending to permit non-lawyer ownership of up to 40% of a law firm, there has been little movement in the US to make change Rule 5.4 Some hybrid models are beginning to emerge in the US,  but they are a workaround the existing rules.

There is no clear path for non-lawyer ownership or investment in a law firm in the United States, and as a result it is arguable that the legal services delivery system lacks the capital necessary to innovate and create the efficient systems that are necessary to serve not only the "latent market for legal services", but existing legal markets more effectively.

Now comes Jacoby & Meyers, a law firm that has pioneered in changing the way legal services are delivered, filing multiple law suits in the Federal District courts of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut against the presiding state justices in those states responsible for implementing and enforcing Rule 5.4, requesting that the Rule by overturned. The Complaint makes clear that Jacoby & Meyers "seeks to free itself of the shackles that currently encumber its ability to raise outside financing and to ensure that American law firms are able to compete on the global stage"

Click here for a complete version of the Complaint.

Andrew Finkelstein, the Managing Partner of Jacoby & Meyers, and also the Managing Partner of Finkelstein & Partners, said that "No legitimate rationale exists to prevent non-lawyers from owning equity in a law firm. The time has come to permit non-lawyers to invest in law firms in the United States,"

Now the fun begins!

Disclosure: Finkelstein and Partners is a subscriber to our  DirectLaw Virtual Law Firm Service.

 

 

 

 

Apparently LegalZoom is in the early stages of planning an IPO, (going public),  according to an unnamed source at VentureBeat. Employing more that 500 employees, and having raised over $45 million in venture capital over the last few years, LegalZoom is clearly the leading non-lawyer legal document preparation web site. This is a good example of a disruptive innovation in the delivery of legal solutions by a non-lawyer provider that continues to eat away at the market share of solo practitioners and small law firms.

Focusing on a market that is not served well by the legal profession, in the same way that Southwest Airlines first targeted people who traveled by bus, rather than by air because air travel was too expensive, LegalZoom is will undoubtedly figure out a way to move up the value chain, capturing even more complex business from law firms, without actually giving legal advice.

In the United States, because the definition of what constitutes the "unauthorized practice of law" is so vague. (perhaps unconstitutionally vague),  it would seem that even though LegalZoom does not actually provide legal advice, it would be prohibited from assembling legal documents, even when the document assembly is purely software-driven. 

The reality is that bar associations have a tough case to make against a non-lawyer provider when no actual legal advice is given. UPL statutes haven’t been truly tested on the issue of whether a non-lawyer can assemble legal documents without actually giving legal advice. In Florida, when the issue came up, there was a compromise between the bar and non-lawyer providers and non-lawyers can help a consumer complete court forms as long as no legal advice is provided. It gets murky when you move beyond courts forms, to more complex transactional documents such as a will,  a living trust, or a marital separation agreement, even if the user is making the selection through a software driven questionnaire. Some UPL advocates, have argued that the selection of alternative clauses is still UPL, because a person had to "program" the clauses. There is some precedent for this position, but the State of Texas on the other hand, specifically excludes software driven document assembly from the "unauthorized practice of law., provided there there are disclaimers which state "clearly and conspicuously that the products are not the substitute for the advice of an attorney."

I think the risk portion of the prospectus will make for fascinating reading, particularly since in many states UPL is a felony. I can just visualize this language: "Investors should be aware that the company may be violating unauthorized practice of law statutes in many states, and as a result, if convicted, one or more executive officers may be required to serve time in the pokey."

In the interest of full disclosure,  Epoq US,  of which I am President, and which is the parent company of DirectLaw, also provides legal document preparation services over the web directly to consumers through a network of legal web sites    So perhaps I should be worried as well.

 

LegalZoom has been beta testing a concept which links its marketing capabilities to a network of law firms that offer legal services under the LegalZoom brand. With some state bar associations accusing LegalZoom of  the unauthorized practice of law,  it might makes sense for the company to seek deeper alliances with networks of attorneys who are able to offer a full and ethically compliant legal service. Solos and small law firms, leveraging off the visibility and prominence of the LegalZoom brand, could reduce their marketing costs and enable these firms to better capture consumers who are part of the “latent legal market”  on the Internet. It could be a win/win for both parties.

Unfortunately, linking the capital and management resources of profit-making organization with private law firms is almost impossible in the United States, given the regulatory framework that governs law practice. Unlike, the United Kingdom, which is in the process of deregulating the legal profession, enabling profit-making companies, from banks  and insurance companies to retail chains like Tesco,  to actually own a law firm, and/or split legal fees with a non-law firm, these practices in the US are strictly taboo.

In the US, law directories can charge a flat marketing fee for a listing, but sharing legal fees with a marketing organization can get you disbarred.

During the dot-com boom around 1999-2000, a company emerged by the name of AmeriCounsel that tried to create a hybrid organizational structure similar to the LegalZoom experiment. The company sought to enable a network of attorneys to offer legal services at a fixed and reasonable price and to mediate between the consumer and the law firm in terms of guaranteeing the quality of the legal services offered. The company failed during the dot-com bust for various reasons, including lack of financing, but on the way to failure, secured some opinions from state bar associations that blessed their model and provides a blue print for hybrid delivery systems which combine the expertise of a law firm with the marketing, management, and technological resources of a non-law firm.

One such opinion was issued by the Nassau County Bar Association New York State.

The Bar Association reasoned that the AmeriCounsel scheme was permissible because:

[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 Code of Professional Responsibility and by ethics opinions interpreting the Code.

In this model, AmeriCounsel provided technology and administrative services to link the client with the lawyer, but the law firm made no payment to AmeriCounsel. Instead, a separate administrative/technology fee was paid by the consumer to AmericCounsel for using the web site and gaining access to the lawyer. (This is not a practical scheme in today’s web environment, in my opinion), Moreover, AmeriCounsel did not choose the lawyer. The client was able to compare the credentials of different attorneys and choose their own lawyer. Thus no legal referral was involved, which would not be permitted in New York, as only an approved non-profit organization can make legal referrals.

In my opinion, this model, forced on AmeriCounsel, by the Rules of Professional Responsibility, is cumbersome, hard to implement, and was not economically viable for AmeriCounsel. Perhaps this was one of the causes of its failure.

Almost a decade later, companies that want to enter into this kind of hybrid relationship with lawyers, have to follow the same rule structure, as the ABA Model Rules of Professional Responsibility as the rules have not changed in any significant way. changed.  It will be interesting to see whether the ABA Ethics 20/20 Commission, which was set up just last year, will address these issues at all.

Perhaps there should be a “safe harbor” that enables organization’s like LegalZoom to experiment with new patterns of legal service delivery that could operate for a limited period of time in a specific state, like California, The experience would be evaluated carefully as a basis for rule and policy change. The evaluation would be aimed to see if client’s interests are compromised in any way, and whether the delivered legal service is less expensive, without compromising the quality of legal service.

Instead of creating legal profession regulatory policies that are based on the legal profession’s idea about what is good for the consumer, policy could be based on real experience and facts. Experimentation is good. It leads to change, and in other industries improvement of methods and approaches over a period of time.

Of course, I don’t believe that this will ever happen in the US, at least not in my professional lifetime.

 

Unless you’ve been asleep for the last five years, you have probably heard of LegalZoom, the California-based, non-lawyer legal document preparation company that claims it has delivered over 1,000,000 wills to consumers, and that it is the largest incorporation company in the country.

LegalZoom is only one of hundreds of Internet-based legal form web sites that have emerged during the last 10 years and which are eating away at the market share of solos and small law firms. LegalZoom has been challenged by some state bars with the unauthorized practice of law, but hasn’t lost a case yet. They are serving thousands of customers who ordinarily would be served by solos and small law firms. They must be doing something that is in demand because they continue to grow at the expense of solos and small law firms.

LegalZoom, and non-lawyer legal form web sites like it, have a business model that consists of the following elements:

  • A legal service delivered purely over the Internet;
  • No physical offices, and thus no extensive rental costs to pass on to customers;
  • Limited services offered at a fixed price that can be easily compared with other providers including law firms;
  • The use of web-enabled document automation technology to reduce costs and increase productivity;
  • A secure customer portal where clients can execute legal tasks in their own personalized web space;
  • Access on their web site to thousands of pages of free legal information on hundreds of subjects;
  • Money-back guarantees to comfort consumers; and
  • Reliance on informed consumers to do part of the work, often called co-production, such as filing their own documents or executing their documents on their own based on provided instructions to keep costs down.

Consumers don’t seem to care that they are not dealing with a law firm. As lawyers, we know the service they are selling is risky for consumers, but for consumers it delivers a “good enough” result. LegalZoom would not be growing at this fast a rate if they weren’t offering something that consumers want and value.

How to Compete Against Legal Zoom and Other Non-Lawyer Providers

In the new, competitive environment that solos and small law firms face in the current economy, the keys to law firm survival are to expand the strategic options available by opening new client markets, reducing the cost of services, and delivering legal services in a way that distinguishes your firm from other firms in the pack. These strategic options should be mixed with more traditional approaches to differentiation such as specialization within a niche practice area.

It is time for solos and small law firms that offer personal legal services to the broad middle class to rethink their law firm business models. There are many opportunities for incorporating some of the elements of the LegalZoom business model into a more traditional law practice.

To name a few:

  • Consider offering "unbundled" limited legal services at a fixed price, both on-line and off-line;
  • Leverage a reputation in your local community and a physical office into an on-line brand that is both local to your community and extends throughout your state;
  • Add virtual law office functionality to your web site so that your clients can have the option of interacting with you on-line;
  • Figure out ways of using Internet-based technologies, such as web-enabled document automation to strip out costs from your overhead structure increasing profitability;
  • Figure out how to segment the market offering lower priced services for more routine matters in order to build trust so that when a client has amore complex problems they will turn to you for assistance;
  • Emphasize all of the advantages of using an attorney over a non-lawyer forms provider in your marketing materials and your elevator speech. Click here to see one such comparison.
  • Use web-based technologies to respond to both prospects and clients within hours rather than days.
  • Reduce the perceived risk that consumers have in retaining a lawyer by increasing transparency and structuring forms of performance guarantees.
  • Adopt project management technologies to better estimate costs and fees on more complex projects, translating that data into communications that clients understand.

The current depressed economy and its affect on the broad middle class is not going to change tomorrow. It is likely that solos and small law firms, will have to adjust to new pricing and market realities in the future as competition from non-lawyer providers of legal solutions continues to increase. Large law firms serving large corporations may be immune from these developments, at least for a few years any way, but the fact that Big Law is changing relatively slowly should not mask the rapid changes happening to solos and small law firm practitioners that serve consumers and small business.

I heard a report the other day that the volume of wills and estates practice in one state declined by 50% during the past year. I predict that this trend will continue and not reverse itself, despite any improvements in the economy.

Some commentators think that the monopoly will hold. History and the experience of other countries in deregulating the legal profession suggests otherwise.

Welcome to the "new normal."
 

ABA President B. Lamm has created a new Commission on Ethics called Ethics 20/20 to review  ethics rules and regulation of the legal profession in the United States in the context of a global legal services marketplace. Hearings will be held at ABA Meetings to get input from various interests on how to reform or modify the ABA Code to enable US law firms to remain competitive in an age where Internet  technology is pervasive.

I have been invited by the Commission to testify and submit a statement at the ABA Mid-Year Meeting in Orlando, where the Commission is holding one of its first public hearings.

My statement will discuss the following topics:

  • how the rules of professional responsibility function as a deterrent to innovation;
  • issues relating to the unauthorized practice of law and the definition of "the practice of law;"
  • legal referral concepts in the age of the Internet;
  • state rules of professional responsibility that require a "physical" business office in order to practice law in that state;
  • the potential for cloud computing;
  • enabling the delivery of limited legal services online;
  • law firm ownership structure as it relates to innovation in the delivery of legal services;
  • and the eLawyering Task Force Recommended Guidelines for the Delivery of OnLine Legal Services.

I am looking for suggestions and ideas about other issues that relate to the delivery of online legal services and the rules of professional responsibility. Any ideas are welcome. Just comment on this blog.