Online Legal Service Platforms and the Path to Access to Justice
As Bob Dylan so eloquently says, “The times they are a-changin’. ”
When I was born in 1979, there were approximately 26,000 lawyers in Florida. When most lawyers graduated law school in 1979, they had a job, relatively little debt, and a mentor to show them the ropes. Lawyers in 1979 communicated by using a landline or writing a letter, and a lawyer’s competition was the law firm down the street.
stark contrast, today there are over 100,000 lawyers in Florida (26,000 of which are young lawyers). Most new law school graduates have between $100,000 and $200,000 in student loan debt, and nearly 16 percent of law school graduates are unable to find any employment. A lawyer’s life today revolves around the iPad and the iPhone, and lawyers communicate and socialize by using Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Lawyers are not only competing with other law firms, but with online legal service providers and the plethora of free legal advice/forms available on the Internet.
Yet, despite these drastic changes, the most pressing issue facing the legal profession is the lack of access to justice. The World Justice Project ranks the U.S. 65th out of 99 countries in accessibility and affordability of civil justice. It is estimated that 80 percent of low- and moderate-income individuals are without the representation they need. Moderate-income families are not the working poor. They are a family of four making $94,000. Individuals considered middle-income go without the representation they need 50 percent of the time and most others do not realize that they have a legal problem and seek assistance by a nonlawyer or do nothing at all. At the same time, lawyers are chasing after the same top 20 percent of potential clients who can pay their high hourly rates; or who have a personal injury case; or who are pursuing a claim for which the attorneys’ fees can be paid under a fee-shifting statute or otherwise recovered from the defendant.
So, what do we do? How do we connect lawyers with the underserved? In recent years, most states have developed commissions or committees to examine ways to close the justice gap. Last year, Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Jorge Labarga began The Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice to study the unmet civil legal needs of disadvantaged, low-income, and moderate-income Floridians. I believe the answer lies with embracing technology and working with (not against) the growing number of technology-based companies that are offering easy-to-use, low-cost online legal service platforms that can serve our clients while expanding access to justice.
Below is a sampling of online legal service platforms that are in today’s marketplace, with a brief description of what they offer:
• Avvo Advisor is available as an online tool or through an iOS app where users pay $39 for a 15-minute conversation with an attorney. Users enter their ZIP code and the nature of their legal inquiry before providing their credit card and contact information. Users then receive a phone call from an attorney within 15 minutes or they get a refund. After the call is completed, the fee is deposited into the attorney’s bank account.
• LawGives is a legal technology platform that allows users to instantaneously submit legal help requests to relevant attorneys. Lawyers on LawGives offer free consultations and fixed fee services for a wide range of legal issues. This way, consumers can compare options while keeping their legal bill in check. Best of all, it’s free.
• Rocket Lawyer offers consumers and businesses access to a network of lawyers who can review customers’ legal documents, answer questions, and provide other legal services. For example, if a user needs assistance in creating or editing a legal document, he or she can be connected directly to a local attorney who can provide guidance.
• Legal Hero is an on-demand legal services provider for startups and small businesses that want to find quality lawyers at reasonable and fixed prices. Unlike most legal services providers that rely on retainers and hourly billing, Legal Hero shows the full price of 30 common projects on their website. After a customer chooses a project, the customer is provided a selection of vetted lawyers to complete the project at that price.
• UpCounsel provides a screened network of lawyers who can help small- to medium-size companies receive quick legal expertise when confronting issues like contracts, stock options, or patents. For the companies, this can represent a faster and cheaper alternative than law firms. Many lawyers on the UpCounsel platform are refugees from “big” law firms, and the platform offers independence and a more measured pace of work.
• LegalZoom offers its customers a lawyer network, in addition to do-it-yourself documents. To date, independent legal plan attorneys have completed 200,000 consultations with LegalZoom customers searching for legal help. “One of the challenges we have faced is the fear-based notion that technology will replace lawyers,” said John Suh, CEO of LegalZoom. “We are proud to have reached this substantial milestone of 200,000 legal consultations with our network of attorneys. The key to continuous evolution of the legal system is for more lawyers to embrace technology that can increase quality and efficiency. Everyone has a right to quality legal help.”
Utilizing online legal service platforms, such as those mentioned above, not only provide access to justice to the underserved, but utilizing such platforms provides opportunities for lawyers to tap into a new market of potential clients. This untapped market is estimated to be valued at more than $45 billion. Just think how lucrative it could be for lawyers who operate virtual law firms or those that are able to keep their overhead expenses low!
The opportunities with online legal service platforms have not been unnoticed by investors. In 2012, investors pumped $66 million into legal technology companies, $456 million in 2013, and more than $1 billion in 2014. Recently, Avvo announced a $71.5 million round of financing led by Technology Crossover Ventures (TCV). In a press release, TCV founding general partner Jay Hoag stated, “TCV seeks to partner with rapidly growing companies that are disrupting their marketplace. Avvo fits that profile perfectly, as they continue to make legal services easier and more accessible to more consumers and businesses around the world.”
Unfortunately, as of the writing of this article, there are several potential ethics issues that may prohibit Florida lawyers from partnering with online legal service providers. The three potential hurdles are 1) whether fee-sharing is taking place [Rules Reg. Fla. Bar 4-5.4(a) and 4-7.22(a)(2)]; 2) whether the service comes within the definition of a lawyer referral service [Rules Reg. Fla. Bar 4-7.22(c)]; and 3) whether the advertising rules are being followed [Rules Reg. Fla. Bar subchapter 4-7].
Thankfully, however, there are ways The Florida Bar can address these hurdles. One way is to amend the Rules Regulating The Florida Bar (these amendments would require approval by the The Florida Bar Board of Governors and the Florida Supreme Court). A different route is for The Florida Bar to partner with a technology company and provide the online platform as part of The Florida Bar’s Lawyer Referral Service. Both options are currently being examined. The Florida Bar Young Lawyers Division, with the help of others, is in the process of developing a proposal to transform the Bar’s Lawyer Referral Service into a comprehensive online service — as it is without dispute that the Internet will be the primary method for the public to find legal services in the near future.
In his book, Glass Half Full — The Decline and Rebirth of the Legal Profession, University of Tennessee law school professor Benjamin Barton writes about LegalZoom’s impact on the profession. Initially, LegalZoom had little or no impact on lawyer billings, Barton writes. Thereafter, in the early 2000s, the American Bar Association sought to prevent LegalZoom from entering the legal marketplace by creating a model definition of “the practice of law.” The Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission quickly objected that the definition was overbroad and anticompetitive. Today, LegalZoom is taking away business once dominated by lawyers. For example, in 2011 LegalZoom generated 20 percent of the new limited liability company filings in California. “The loss of 20 percent of that business in California is not a promising sign for traditional lawyers. LegalZoom (and its competitors) seem unlikely to stall at only 20 percent of that business,” writes Barton.
Online legal service platforms are here to stay — whether lawyers like it or not. Lawyers do not have to sit on the side of the road and watch this train travel by. As the well-known economist John Maynard Keynes once said, “The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as escaping from old ones.” It’s time for lawyers to become proactive and innovate as we attempt to address the needs of the 80 percent of the population that has unmet legal needs. It’s time to embrace technology and online legal service platforms. It’s time to take advantage of the opportunities that are now before us and thrive in this new reality. We can and should provide access to justice to all.
Gordon J. Glover is the president of The Florida Bar Young Lawyers Division.
This column is submitted on behalf of the Young Lawyers Division.