February 18, 2015

Innovation touted in hearing on future of legal services

Many people with legal problems don’t realize they have legal problems, noted several experts who spoke at a hearing of the American Bar Association Commission on the Future of Legal Services Feb. 7 at the ABA Midyear Meeting in Houston. People who are evicted from their homes, lose their jobs for legally suspect reasons, face problems with an ex-spouse, or have other difficulties often attribute their problems to their lot in life rather than see them as something a lawyer can help them resolve.

That’s why lawyers need to expand their services in a proactive fashion, said Mark Britton, CEO of Avvo, the online lawyer directory and legal consultation website. Britton, one of 20 who testified at the 2 ½ hour hearing, told commissioners that the profession should strive for a day when “legal checkups are as common as medical checkups.” He said the legal profession needs to think big in a business sense, just as Bill Gates thought big by proposing long ago—in an age of room-size computers—that individuals could have computers on their desktops.

But some legal ethics rules and other regulations stand in the way of such innovation, said Chas Rampenthal, general counsel of LegalZoom, the online legal services company.

“If we want to take change seriously, we need to take a hard look at becoming more consumer friendly as an industry,” Rampenthal said. “We must continuously examine and re-examine the rules that we put in place to guide our professionalism and ethical behavior.”

Liberalization of lawyer regulation does not mean no regulation, Rampenthal said. “Instead, I like to think of it as right regulation,” he said. “Right regulation means finding a good balance of consumer protection and increased access. It requires us to compromise and understand that a legal solution that is never purchased or used by a consumer is no solution at all.”

Others who spoke pointed to a wide range of aspects for encouraging ways for lawyers to expand their services to the underserved. Representatives from the ABA Section of Dispute Resolution called for greater training of law students on mediation and arbitration. A speaker from the ABA Commission on Law and Aging noted that senior citizens are a growing market for legal services involving estate planning, incapacity, accessing government benefits, and detecting and preventing elder abuse.

Keith McLennon, chair of the ABA Standing Committee on Group and Prepaid Legal Services, touted prepaid legal plans where individuals pay annual premiums that allow access to lawyers throughout the year. Patricia Salkin, dean of Touro Law Center in New York, described her school’s incubator for graduates who want to practice as solos or in small firms. Incubators at Touro and elsewhere provide training and mentoring in establishing and maintaining community-centered law practices.

Buck Lewis, past president of the Tennessee Bar Association, described Online Tennessee Justice, a bar-sponsored website where lawyer volunteers answer legal questions for free. Lewis offered the website as a model for other states to adopt.

Chief Justice Scott Bales of the Arizona Supreme Court pledged the Conference of Chief Justices’ support for the work of the commission, formed last summer as an initiative of ABA President William Hubbard.

Not everyone who testified supported wholesale change in how the legal profession is regulated. The president of the New Jersey State Bar Association, Paris Eliades, said that existing regulations provide a sound framework for protecting the public. He opposed ideas for non-lawyers to own law firms or be allowed to provide limited legal services.

That said, most who gave testimony appeared open to innovative solutions. Lisa Foster, director of the U.S. Justice Department’s Access to Justice Initiative, offered advice that she attributed to Star Trek: “Go boldly where no one has gone before.”

More on the ABA Commission on the Future of Legal Services can be found at ambar.org/abafutures.