A majority of low- and moderate-income Americans’ legal needs are unmet. To tackle this crisis and increase access to justice, organizations have developed innovative web- or app-based platforms that leverage technology, data, and design. Each platform caters to the underlying reasons people are left without legal help—whether it is lack of time and resources, or unfamiliarity with available legal solutions and consequences of non-action. Exacerbating the problem is state ethics committees’ skeptical attitude toward attorney matching or referral services.
This article provides a review of technological legal service providers. Some tackle the access-to-justice problem by simultaneously providing attorneys opportunities to reach the underrepresented or grow their practice. Others break down information barriers for those interested in self-help. Some of these service providers are said to have violated ethics rules.
Quick Access to Legal Advice
Common barriers to justice stem from non-action based on the perception that lawyers are difficult to connect with, time-consuming to choose (e.g., scheduling an initial consultation at the office), and too expensive. Accordingly, some platforms weaken these barriers to justice and support action by app to instantly connect potential clients with lawyers, and for little to no cost.
The first we will consider is Text A Lawyer (textalawyerinc.com), billed as “the world’s fastest way to hire a lawyer.” [Disclosure: This is the authors’ company.] This smartphone app was recently developed to help the more than 200 million Americans who are financially unprepared for a legal emergency or don’t know how or where to start to address their legal issue. It offers quick and affordable answers to legal questions without subscriptions or chatbots. For $20, clients are connected to an attorney for a quick text-style chat to get their question answered. Clients may ask follow-up questions for $9 each. Attorneys are available to answer questions when they log in and wait in a “pool,” much like Uber or Lyft.
The legal services provided through Text A Lawyer are limited in scope, but the attorney and client can engage in traditional legal services outside the platform; these high-quality leads come free to lawyers. Attorneys can instantly earn extra fees, get leads, and pre-screen clients from anywhere at any time. Clients get peace of mind and can skip hours of iffy, online research that does little to lend confidence that they have a grip on their legal emergency.
Text A Lawyer also has a quality assurance system in place. Satisfied clients give lawyers better, but internal, ratings. Lawyers with better ratings get preferred access to clients. Text A Lawyer is starting with landlord/tenant law. Oregon is our beta test market; we’ll use what we learn to decide how to expand. One option is to expand state-to-state starting on the West Coast and moving east. Another option is to launch our immigration category in all 50 states as immigration is all federal law. In either event, scaling Text A Lawyer is our goal for 2019.
Next is One Touch Law (onetouchlaw.com), an app that was developed to provide a platform for free, initial consultations. Like Text A Lawyer, it instantly connects lawyers and individual customers. However, One Touch Law does so through live video or phone consultations and by charging the lawyer $35 to $75, and the app does not create an attorney-client relationship from the outset. On the plus side, One Touch Law does not charge the customer, and it allows customers to find lawyers by specialty, location, rate, and while seeing One Touch Law reviews.
Document Creation and Subscription Legal Services
LegalZoom (legalzoom.com) is a web-based platform that helps individuals and small businesses create basic legal documents. Because the documents supplied can be purchased for low, flat fees and completed by the consumer, legal costs are less than the cost of going the traditional route. It offers a plethora of standard forms for transactions, such as non-disclosure agreements, letters of intent, independent contractor agreements, quitclaim bills of sale, and promissory notes. Individuals can create and edit wills, trusts, simple divorces, and other clerical legal documents. It also offers different subscription packages with pricing ranging from less than $100 to more than $600. LegalZoom offers to connect its customers with participating attorneys and law firms if they have any questions or need help selecting or filing a form. Participating attorneys provide legal services through LegalZoom at a 25 percent discount from the attorney’s standard rates.
LegalZoom, which has operated since 2001, boasts that it has helped more than 4 million people with their business needs and has had more than 450,000 requests for attorney consultations. However, this did not come without many critiques from customers who claimed that forms were pre-checked for additional services that were not required for the issue at hand (consumeraffairs.com/legal/legalzoom.html); if true, this is misaligned with the mission of offering affordable legal services to the underserved population with low to moderate income.
Similar to LegalZoom in its focus on document preparation is Rocket Lawyer (rocketlawyer.com). Rocket Lawyer appears to target a broader range of consumers and focuses on subscription-based legal services. Rocket Lawyer offers monthly and annual subscriptions priced at $39.99 per month and $399.95 per year, which entitles members to a free 30-minute consultation per new legal matter, six general document reviews per year, 40 percent off participating attorneys’ hourly rates, the option to ask attorneys two questions online per month, and unlimited access to Rocket Lawyer’s library of documents. Customers can also ask a lawyer a question for $50 per question without a subscription. Rocket Lawyer is an attractive option for consumers who can identify and complete forms with limited guidance and can afford a subscription. The 40 percent discount off participating attorneys’ fees is also a big savings for consumers who know they will inevitably require more thorough legal services.
There’s also legal insurance through LegalShield (legalshield.com). It provides members with unlimited access to legal services, with packages starting at $25 per month. LegalShield’s basic plan appears to provide access to limited legal services such as document review, demand letters, and phone calls to opposing parties but not appearances in court. Plans that include trial defense services do not apply to bankruptcy, divorce, annulment, child custody, or any criminal charges. Although these omissions are specified in the plan, numerous consumers have complained about the “surprise” lack of coverage for their legal problem. Nobody likes to hear “you’re not covered” from their insurance company, especially when they’re experiencing a legal crisis. Furthermore, the coverage denial may put the attorney in the tough position of sending clients away if their services are not covered and negate the marketing benefit that LegalShield offers.
Additionally, the majority of low-income persons are not comfortable signing up for subscriptions of any kind. This is why prepaid cell phones are so incredibly popular with this group. The plethora of options, while great for those with the time or the ability to perform some level of research, may not be suitable for emergency situations, people pressed for time, or people who want quick advice.
Simplifying Access to Information
One of the problems facing the industry is that court records are isolated and organized differently across jurisdictions. Retrieving records can be a time-consuming and expensive process. This led to the development of UniCourt (unicourt.com), an automated solution that aggregates and standardizes court data across jurisdictions. It allows users to track and manage their cases on one docket-monitoring platform by customized docket alerts and scheduled docket updates. While the advanced search engine is attractive, pricing indicates it is best suited for analytics businesses. At $39 per month for personal use, it is steep in the access-to-justice context. For professional use it costs $99 a month and $199 for business and analytical use.
Justia (justia.com) is a free database, albeit without the advanced user interface of UniCourt. Justia advances the access-to-justice mission by increasing the availability of legal resources at no cost. Justia specifically provides free case law, codes, regulations, legal articles, and legal blog and twitter databases.
More recently, in October 2018, Caselaw Access Project officially launched its site (case.law), which provides access to all case law from federal and state courts, and all territorial courts published in books from 1658 to 2018. The collections were scanned from Harvard Law Library’s collection. There are 6.4 million cases, 627 reporters, and 40 million pages total. The project also plans to share page images and page-level OCR data for all volumes. Caselaw Access Project does not include new cases as they are published, cases not designated as officially published such as most lower court decisions, non-published trial documents, parallel versions of cases from regional reporters, and cases officially published in digital form, such as recent cases from Illinois and Arkansas.
Cutting Lawyers Out of the Equation
Do Not Pay (donotpay.com) is an app that seeks to improve access to justice and cuts lawyers out of the equation. With its message to “Fight corporations, beat bureaucracy and sue anyone at the press of a button,” it helps people help themselves. The app does not take any cut of money its users save using the app.
Do Not Pay was launched in 2015 by then-18-year-old Joshua Browder. The service uses a free chatbot that offers legal counsel. (A chatbot is a computer program that interacts with the user by simulating a conversation.) Do Not Pay claims success with parking tickets, reportedly saving people in the United States and United Kingdom some $16 million. The app generates parking ticket appeal letters using templates based off prior successful letters or defenses. Similarly, Do Not Pay claims to help people fight unfair bank overdraft fees, fix errors on a credit report, and earn refunds for late package deliveries. For the user with time to solve very simple problems, this app is the ticket.
Tech Platforms and Ethics: A Lesson from Defunct Advisors
Some companies sought to increase access to justice but faced swift rebuke from state ethics committees.
An example is Avvo Advisor, a platform that launched in 2016 and shut down in 2018. The platform allowed users to purchase limited-scope legal services from participating lawyers within the user’s jurisdiction for a relatively low, fixed fee. The fee was first paid directly to Avvo. Avvo in turn paid the lawyer the full amount of fees earned at the end of a billing cycle. With respect to quality control, Avvo Advisor promised a “satisfaction guarantee” such that dissatisfied clients would be redirected to a different participating lawyer for no charge and with a full refund. Avvo also charged participating lawyers a “marketing fee” that was based on the amount of the fees earned by the lawyer.
In reviewing Avvo Advisor, the Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission and New Jersey Advisory Committee on Professional Ethics, among others, were primarily concerned that the “marketing fee” charged to the lawyers was not a reasonably permitted advertisement cost (ABA Model Rule 7.2) (see tinyurl.com/yavle3ok and tinyurl.com/yc8n34nz). They found it to be an improper fee splitting with a for-profit nonlawyer (Model Rule 5.4) because the fee was a percentage of the total fee earned by the attorney (see tinyurl.com/yavle3ok).
The New Jersey committee also considered whether Avvo directs or regulates the lawyer’s professional judgment because it defines the scope of the legal services offered, receives payment from clients, sets the fee, and pays lawyers only when legal tasks are completed (see tinyurl.com/yc8n34nz). The committee found that Avvo does not insert itself into the legal consultation in a way that would interfere with the lawyer’s professional judgment.
So, the New Jersey’s ethics committee would likely green-light the type of limited-scope legal services offered by the platforms discussed above. This is a win for the access-to-justice movement given that legal services that are limited in scope are suitable for people who seek to limit their legal expenses by seeking professional legal advice on a finite basis. Avvo defended its Avvo Advisor platform but, amid numerous state bar committees finding that its service violated ethics rules, decided to pull the plug in 2018.
As technology advances and the practice of law becomes more efficient, lawyers may more easily help the portion of the population they have been previously unable to serve. Additionally, technology can and has made the legal world appear less cumbersome and more accessible to outsiders, from providing free legal information to providing a platform for affordable, flat-fee legal advice and document creation. n