Vol. 39, No. 4

ABA President William C. Hubbard urges NCBP members to focus on future

by Marilyn Cavicchia

“This is a critical time in the life of the legal profession and the justice system in America.”

That was the key message from ABA President William C. Hubbard, who spoke during the future-focused Saturday plenary at the National Conference of Bar Presidents’ 2015 Midyear Meeting in Houston.

Currently, 80 percent of the American population is underserved when it comes to their legal needs, Hubbard said. In 60 to 90 percent of family court cases—depending on the jurisdiction—one or both parties are not represented by counsel. In some states, Hubbard noted, that figure is as high as 95 percent.

‘The world as it exists’

Many consumers now go online to solve disputes outside of any regulation or protection from the legal profession and justice system, Hubbard said. Why? Because, unlike in the traditional legal model, he explained, they can receive “immediate access to support.”

Added Hubbard, “They don’t want to call a law firm and be told they can get an appointment in three weeks.”

What’s happening now in the legal profession is in line with similar, earlier trends in banking, investing, and travel, Hubbard said: Consumers who once saw a professional for these needs are now quite comfortable doing it themselves online.

“Knowledge is now dispersed in wider curves,” he said, noting that this is true even in medicine; consumers now consult Web MD or Mayo Clinic online in addition to or instead of seeing their doctor.

Rather than continuing to fight this trend, Hubbard said, “We need to understand that this is the world we live in” and to accept and even embrace “the world as it exists.”

Hubbard stressed that his intention in prompting this discussion and in the work of his Commission on the Future of Legal Services was not to hurt or supplant lawyers and their ability to make a living. In fact, he said, there are real opportunities for lawyers and law firms who develop new models for delivery of their services—which many are doing, to great success.

The ABA’s role as a convener

Two weeks prior to Midyear, Hubbard said, the Commission met in San Antonio with a committee from the Conference of Chief Justices, and the message was clear: The judicial branch knows that change is urgently needed, and wants to meet with bar associations to discuss new ideas.

The ABA’s role is to “use our strength as a convener,” Hubbard said, but “real reform will come from the states.”

Joking that these concepts are something that Frederic S. Ury, past president of the Connecticut Bar Association and of NCBP, has been advocating “since before it was cool,” Hubbard said that there’s now a recognition, not only among bar leaders but also among rank-and-file bar membership, that the world has changed and the legal profession must catch up.

Hubbard cited the State Bar of Michigan as a bar that “wants to lead the nation” when it comes to embracing the future and its attendant changes—a sentiment that was echoed later in the plenary by the president of that bar, who said of the profession, “Our models don’t match what consumers want.” The Michigan bar hosted a grassroots meeting through the ABA Commission in November, Hubbard said, noting that The Missouri Bar has also taken a leadership role.

Additional resources

Hubbard cited consultant Jordan Furlong, particularly an analogy he makes to an iceberg, to illustrate what a small portion of the total unmet need is readily visible to most in the legal profession. He also recommended a webinar produced by Stephanie Kimbro on ways to tap the “latent market” of consumers who need legal services and can pay for them, but who reject current delivery models.

Hubbard reiterated a point made by the panelists throughout the plenary: that the public’s needs and lawyers’ needs are not in opposition. As hard as it may be to confront the prospect of change, he said, this will ultimately “better serve the public and create more opportunities for lawyers.”