Panel plans ‘aggressive’ recommendations to help lawyers enter this market ‘before it’s too late’
By Gary Blankenship
Legal Zoom did more than 1 million wills last year. It’s now a benefit for members of Sam’s Club, whose stores may eventually have lawyers on site. Avvo, which started as a lawyer rating service, now links a potential client to a lawyer every eight seconds and is setting up a service where anyone can speak to a lawyer for 15 minutes, for $39.
Typing the words “buy legal forms in Florida” into a Google search will return 17.4 million hits. That was as of last month. RocketLawyer, another legal document provider that also offers lawyer review of finished paperwork, is partnering with the ABA on a pilot program, but skipped Florida because of the Bar’s regulations.
The statewide Internet portal that provides electronic filing for the state court system could, as soon as this spring, offer anyone the ability to go through a “TurboTax” process that will result in documents ready to file in evictions, small claims, and simple divorces without children.
Those are just some of the signs that the legal landscape is changing so rapidly that the Bar will have to make adjustments even before its ongoing Vision 2016 process is completed, according to Board of Governors member John Stewart.
Stewart, who chairs the Vision 2016 Technology Committee, warned the board at its December 12 meeting that his committee would likely be making recommendations for board action, no later than its March meeting, to deal with the rapidly transforming marketplace for legal services.
He said most of the new legal services are not aimed at the top 15 percent of consumers who can afford traditional legal help or the bottom 15 percent who qualify for legal aid, but rather the 70 percent in the middle who have trouble paying for traditional legal work.
“The convergence of these activities right now is enormous. Every single person I’ve spoken to — and I’ve spoken to many people— all say the same thing,” Stewart said. “The time for us, unfortunately, to be our normal, thoughtful, and deliberative selves and study these actions is really behind us. The market is correcting what it is not getting, which is service to a huge population.
“Frankly, I disagree with the notion they cannot afford lawyers. They cannot afford the way that we provide them service right now, and we need to be in the position to offer our lawyers the opportunity to compete in this marketplace, because it is enormous.”
He gave some examples.
“Avvo, over a defined period of time, generated $8.5 billion of revenue not for themselves, but for lawyers,” Stewart said. “The three largest law firms in the United States, over that same period, generated $7 billion. Avvo right now says they get 7 million hits on their website from consumers looking for lawyers; they put a consumer in touch with a lawyer every eight seconds.”
“LegalZoom in 2013 did over 1 million wills. They have a contract with Sam’s Club; they are a Sam’s member benefit. If you are a Sam’s member, you can now get LegalZoom even cheaper. . . . Their end game with Sam’s is to have lawyers in box stores in Sam’s Club, just like they now have optometrists.”
Stewart said RocketLawyer, another online legal and forms provider, has partnered with the ABA for a pilot project on providing affordable legal services.
“When I spoke with the ABA about their partnership with RocketLawyer, I said, ‘Hey, you didn’t include Florida. . . . Why don’t you try your program on RocketLawyer out in Florida?’” he said. “And the answer was very quick and very direct: ‘Florida’s restrictions are far too strict for us to even consider a pilot program; the advertising rules, the unlicensed practice of law rules, we can’t even recommend to the ABA to try a program in Florida.’”
Aside from those private enterprise challenges, Stewart noted the simple forms that will likely be added to the court system’s e-filing portal through built-in software called A2J, short for Access to Justice.
“As early as the spring of next year, pro se users will be able to access the portal so they can go and perform simple divorces and your basic landlord/tenant issues. It goes through a TurboTax system that asks them questions to which they only have to fill in blanks and provide answers, and they will have filed a complaint,” Stewart said. “That, by the way, is without the use of a lawyer. This has no income requirement. This is not only for people who can’t afford lawyers.”
Stewart said the Vision 2016 Technology Commission will be considering all of that and then recommending solutions, which he hopes to bring before the board no later than at its March meeting. He offered no insight on what those solutions might be.
He did say the committee will offer “very aggressive recommendation about how we can enter this market before it’s too late. Because, I believe if we wait until June of 2016 for us to get involved in this . . . it will be too late.”
Bar President-elect Ramón Abadin said he went to Google search and typed in “buy legal forms in Florida” and got 17.4 million hits, showing there is a demand for the services. And he and Stewart also talked with Avvo CEO Mark Britton about the changing marketplace.
“I was surprised by his willingness to work with us. Over and over he said, ‘I want to work with you. We need to work with you. We believe in regulating lawyers. We believe lawyers can be regulated. We want to come in your space as partners, and we want you to partner with us,’” Abadin said.
The focus of the Bar’s efforts, he said, needs to be on the 24,000 young lawyer members and the 60,000 members who work in firms with five or fewer attorneys.
“How are we going to set the rules so they can flourish?” Abadin asked. “We need to know what’s going on outside the walls of our profession.”
Bar President Greg Coleman said the Vision 2016 process has woken up the profession and the Bar to the shifting marketplace, and he said the Bar will be working with the Supreme Court when the board acts on solutions.