My research into the more than 50 year history of the legal plan was assisted by a comprehensive 2014 law journal article by Jeremy Tomes, titled “The Emergence of Group and Prepaid Legal Services: Embracing a New Reality.” Tomes’ paper outlines the “tortured history” of the legal plans that started in the early 1960s as a response to the access to the justice problem. After battling ethical concerns, the plans benefited from the new model ethics rules in the late 1970s and grew from trade union into group and prepaid plans via employee benefits enjoyed today by some 20-40% of Americans. Unfortunately, the fight against the unauthorized practice of law was battled out, mainly by Legal Zoom, in most states to allow for the web-based, self-service, automated documents required to make the legal plan economical.
In May, the Group Legal Services Association (GLSA) will hold its Annual Educational Conference. There, the association will host a technology panel, featuring some of the brightest minds in legal tech and legal plans):
- John R. Wachsmann is the principal at Wachsmann & Associates, PC, a Colorado law firm. He’s worked as a provider with legal plans for more than 25 years.
- Keri Coleman Norris is general counsel and vice president of regulatory affairs for LegalShield, which has been providing legal plans and benefits in 49 states and four provinces in Canada for more than 44 years.
- Allen Rodriguez is co-founder of ONE400, an LA-based law innovation agency that helps law firms and legal tech startups acquire clients, build user platforms, and establish brands.
- Brian Caron manages the customer service and panel management departments at Hyatt Legal Plans, where he is responsible for the member experience.
- Jean Clauson currently serves as the GLSA’s secretary of the board. She also is the chair of the organization’s Education Committee and member of the Future of Legal Services (Access to Justice) committee. Jean also leads provider network development at ARAG.
- Charley Moore is the founder and CEO of Rocket Lawyer. Before that, he represented some of the most important early-Internet companies, including Yahoo!
- Dan Lear is the director of industry relations at Avvo and co-founder of the Seattle Legal Tech Meetup. He was a technology lawyer before becoming a legal tech expert.
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing these panelists.
What is the next big thing in legal innovation? Or the next big innovation to impact group legal plans or services?
John: As provider attorneys, we closely follow the innovations, disrupters, and the legal market—both for services and employment. We adopt and try new technology and ideas as our ethical rules allow. I think legal plans, as they have been widely adopted in European countries, will be instrumental in bringing meaningful change to the United States. They have the ability to adopt technology but yet properly involve the lawyers.
Keri: I am both a consumer and a provider of legal services. I am constantly searching for new technology, services, and gadgets to make my job easier and our legal services more efficient. [That includes] any technology that provides faster access to more lawyers for more consumers. This will be mobile, web-based, telephone-based and any technology that gives consumers instant access to qualified attorneys.
Allen: The next big thing in legal innovation is machine learning, and the next big innovation to impact group legal plans or services are the huge changes in social norms creating new niche plan opportunities (think legalized marijuana). Also, changes in consumer behavior such as collaborative consumption and subscription-based business models.
Jean: While it is not a new concept, a movement is occurring to promote a deeper understanding of the solutions group legal plans provide to both attorneys and people with legal needs. Leveraging or applying what already exists on a broader scale is innovating if it increases awareness and helps to meet a need. Leveraging technology to change the speed of legal service delivery demonstrates the value technology offers attorneys and consumers.
Charley: Technology is the only viable way to solve the access to the justice problem. As we know, the traditional legal system is broken. Justice takes too long, costs too much, and is simply out of reach for most individuals, families, and businesses around the world. So, automation and machine learning will continue to drive down the cost of routine legal services, while opening up enormous opportunities to bring more people into the market. Lawyers should view technology as a tool, not a threat. By taking advantage of document automation, mobile devices, and data analytics, we can all do a lot more. Group plans and services will be able to offer a broader spectrum of legal services and enhance their delivery via software applications. As use of technology, such as smartphones, becomes more mainstream in delivery of legal services, legal plans will not be just about getting legal consultations and reduced rates for engagements. Rather, customers will get access to a wealth of legal information, on-demand legal advice, and legal document assembly. Along with those core legal services, modern software will enable legal plan customers to use e-signature services, cloud-based document storage, and e-government apps.
Brian: I think the way in which services are delivered will continue to become even more automated. People expect to be able to handle most things via today’s technology and not in person. This is not an innovation, but the digital afterlife—what happens to your email, social media, and other electronic media when you pass away is going to become the next “hot” legal topic.
Dan: I know it’s old-school, but I think eDiscovery has had some really interesting movement lately. The fundraising rounds by both Logikcull and Everlaw (the last being led by the well-known venture capital firm, Andreessen Horowitz) to me represent the realization in law of Marc Andreessen’s statement in his Wall Street Journal editorial that “software is eating the world” and his expectation that “many more industries to be disrupted by software, with new Silicon Valley companies doing the disruption in more cases than not.” I think that group legal plans offer consumers an interesting way to pay ahead and have legal coverage when they need it. We’re betting on a model in which consumers pay flat fees for discrete, unbundled legal services delivered by a quality lawyer in a transparent and on-demand fashion. At the end of the day, however, we’re for any program, system, or risk-pooling that ensures consumers get access to high-quality legal services.
Any theories on the slow adoption of technology within the legal practice?
Keri: Legal plans were revolutionary 40 years ago in America. We fought the fight to gain our ground as a viable, valuable, and real solution to the access-to-justice solution. Lawyers were unsure [about legal plans] then, but the business model has [since] thrived. It is time [legal plans] reemerged as a viable and valuable solution again to the same access to justice problem. The goal and the mission is not new. The problem is not new. However, the means by which all legal plans get to the solution is new and evolving with technology. We must provide more services to more people. We must continue to be relevant to today’s discussion and the evolution of legal services.
Allen: Ethical concerns; lack of guidance from regulatory bodies on fast-changing tech; if-it-ain’t-broke-why-fix-it mentalities.
Dan: In a variety of different venues, I’ve speculated on the answer to this question with a variety of answers. It’s a tricky question. Today, I’m going with psychology and the solitary nature of legal practice. Studies on lawyer psychology indicate that lawyers are significantly more skeptical than the average population. This means they’re much more likely to not only identify but focus on what might go wrong with a given course of action. Furthermore, tech adoption in other sectors is often driven by the collaborative nature of work in those sectors and, to some extent, a herd or hive mentality that stems from how closely individuals in other sectors collaborate. Lawyering even in the early parts of the 21st century remains largely a solitary endeavor, and this is as true for large firms as it is for small ones or among solos. Beyond that, lawyers’ skepticism keeps them from the herd mentality seen in other sectors. As a result, collaboration tech doesn’t catch on or spread quickly among lawyers.
Charley: There has long been a slow adoption of technology within the legal field for various reasons. For one, lawyers make money via the billable hour model, which does not necessarily encourage efficiency and productivity. Second, lawyers tend to be risk-adverse, which lowers technology adoption as a whole. The profession has relied on paper filings for hundreds of years, so the idea of storing sensitive information in the cloud creates heartburn. Our law schools, on the whole, do a good job of teaching how to research, write, and advocate, but they do not adequately teach law students about the importance of practical technology and customer service. Additionally, the industry has resisted technological change because of a misplaced fear that it will displace jobs (or that [the work] is not as lucrative as it once was). In fact, the majority of Rocket Lawyer users have never hired a lawyer before. So, by expanding the market for affordable legal services, technology brings more clients into the legal market and offers lawyers the tools to serve them more efficiently. When harnessed by attorneys, technologies like Rocket Lawyer provide more opportunity for client engagement, not less.
Brian: Lawyers tend to be a cautious bunch and not always the best business people. They would rather see how a technology plays out before making an investment, and making certain that the technology does not have any consequences that may run them afoul, albeit unintentionally, of any ethical considerations.
Jean: Demand. Consumers previously expected to receive legal services through “traditional” methods, which afforded attorneys the ability to conduct services accordingly. However, the consumer market has evolved, and as accessibility to information increased and efficiencies through technology are offered by other types of services/industries, consumers expect and have created demand the same be available for legal services. Nontraditional methods of service are the new normal in all industries. The positive news is the legal industry has recognized the need to evolve with consumer expectations. Group legal plans are assisting this transition in the legal industry by leveraging technology to optimize the value attorneys offer and connecting them to individuals with legal needs more efficiently.
All of the above speaks to the need for efficiency and effective solutions to satisfy the growing consumer demand for affordable, innovative legal services. Technology is needed in law, and lawyers cannot hide behind ethical considerations. As Jean explained, “Nontraditional methods of service are the new normal in all industries.” And John’s comment that “we lay awake at night worrying about our client’s cases; we have a unique view as long as we pay attention” emphasizes the need for technology to improve the efficiency and increase access to justice.
Learn more about the annual GLSA education conference here. #onwards.