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October 01, 2016 Dialogue

Opinion and Perspective: The Place for LRIS in the Legal Technology Revolution

By Tony Lai

Over four days in Albuquerque at the 2016 ABA LRIS Workshop, I witnessed a renaissance being seeded by staff and leaders of the nation's Lawyer Referral Services, dedicated to access to justice and upholding the standards of the legal profession. This brief report reflects on a key theme from that recent gathering, offered from my perspective as CEO of a legal technology firm:  How can data better communicate and differentiate the value of lawyer referral services from the noise of commercial, online competitors?


Big data, marketplace infrastructure, machine learning, blockchain, and other disruptive innovations offer tremendous promise to scale the delivery of legal services to a greater number of people at a lower cost, and will redefine how consumers and businesses everywhere use, understand, and shape the legal system. Yet, how do we ensure these technologies are built with regard to the professional standards and public interest ethic of the legal profession, so that those in the greatest need are not unwittingly guided by entities less concerned—or not concerned at all—with consumer protection? This is where the LRIS community can shine.

The podcast Reply All recently examined the phenomenon of fraudulent scam artists who sought to use Google advertisements to target individuals seeking help online. The perpetrators (Google rejected 780 million ads for violating their policies in 2015) all sought to target people when they are at their most vulnerable.

The legal profession is, of course, not immune to similarly structured for-profit scams. The challenge is when over 70 percent of individuals now go online when seeking legal help, they end up on Google or Yelp and click through to the appealingly-priced alternatives being offered by notarios, document assistants, and other quick-fix online services. The urgency of the renaissance I noted at the Workshop was driven by a recognition of how these market forces are shaping the appetites of the legal consumer. Seth Chavez, Director of the Los Angeles County Bar Association’s Lawyer Referral and Information Service (who recently coordinated approval of a flat fee service offering via his LRIS) spoke eloquently of the need to adopt the tools, techniques, and technologies of the Ubers and Facebooks—and closer to home, legal market competitors like Avvo and Legalzoom—which focus on responsiveness, communication, and ease of use.

The key differentiator for LRIS (though a difference that could be enhanced in the legal service consumer’s mind) is the trusted, vetted, nature of the referrals, and the human-touch, public service commitment offered by trained LRIS staff. For decades, the LRIS community has fostered a public service ethic and taken seriously its responsibility to be a trusted lifeline in moments of crisis.

In response to the ABA and RocketLawyer short-lived pilot project shelved earlier this year, LRIS leaders highlighted that one of the differentiators for LRIS programs is that they offer support to seekers from across the economic spectrum, having grown a deep and broad set of connections to other local commercial, civic, and community service partners.


Combining the best that technology can offer with the trusted, public service ethic of LRIS programs makes for an opportunity to create a truly fair and inclusive system for offering access to legal services. The potential for artificial intelligence in legal services lies more in terms of its abilities to extend human intelligence. With the expertise of trained LRIS staff, bar associations have a resource comprising some of the deepest and most empathic human intelligence in the legal industry. Through LRIS operations, data sets are created comprising the challenges and resolutions for people and communities most often in need of services. These datasets can be collected, structured, and analyzed to make smarter decisions and create customized recommendation algorithms incorporating societal values—which will lead to faster and more accurate matches, higher conversions to engagements, more rapid response, stabilized revenues, and more people served.

Looking forward to this coming winter, we are excited to be working with a small, select group of LRIS leaders to create case studies of innovation that are both societally impactful and innovative for LRIS programs, the broader bar organization community, and its members. Stay tuned for more!

Tony Lai


Tony Lai is the CEO of, a leading developer of referral-network technology for the legal services industry.’s mission is to build technology and partnerships that democratize access to legal help.