Access to Justice and Routine Legal Services: New Technologies Meet Bar Regulators

From Access to Justice and Routine Legal Services: New Technologies Meet Bar Regulators by Benjamin H. Barton and Deborah Rhode:

We are in the early stages of a technological revolution in legal services. Technology is displacing lawyers in a wide array of tasks such as document drafting, review, and assembly, and is also reshaping the way that lawyers find clients and deliver assistance. For most consumers, these are welcome developments. Such innovations generally reduce costs and increase both accessibility and efficiency. The potential gains are particularly great for low- and middle-income consumers, who lack access for a vast array of basic, often urgent, legal needs. Yet for lawyers, the consequences of technology have been more mixed. Many feel that their professional independence and livelihoods are threatened by the growth of online forms, computerized algorithms, and price competition with internet providers. Responding to these concerns, bar regulators have often fought back through ethics rulings that attempt to rein in organizations such as LegalZoom, Rocket Lawyer, and Avvo Legal Services. This article explores the contested technological terrain of legal services for low- and middle-income Americans and uses the battles brewing over Avvo Legal Services as a case study of how bar regulators are, and should be, responding to innovations in the legal market for consumers of limited means. We cover the rise of the online provision of legal services, with a special focus on the three big players in consumer-oriented internet legal services, Avvo, LegalZoom, and Rocket Lawyer. We then assess the recent objections of bar regulators to the latest entry into this market – Avvo Legal Services. We argue that these concerns are largely incorrect. The argument relies partially on the controlling law and partially on business and common sense. As a business matter, small firm and solo practitioners are trying to survive in a brutally competitive market for consumer legal services. Avvo Legal Services attempts to connect these lawyers to clients directly, albeit with inexpensive, fixed-fee legal services. But LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer are already driving the prices for these services down. Avvo Legal Services just allows regular lawyers to try to compete. The business case is also the public interest case: Avvo Legal Services can help lower the barriers to hiring a lawyer and the cost. This will, in turn, increase access to justice in a country that was recently ranked sixty-seventh (tied with Uganda) of ninety-seven countries in the accessibility and affordability of civil justice. We can and must do better and technological innovations such as those pioneered by Avvo are part of the way forward. Our central argument is that lawyers should embrace the inevitable. Technological innovations are here to stay, and the organized bar should be looking for ways to harness their potential to help underserved constituencies, and the legal profession itself, not try to hold back the inexorable.

— Joe

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