One Answer to the Access to Justice Question

Earlier this month, I moderated an Evolve Law panel in Minnesota where we discussed alternative business and delivery models for law firms, including pricing. Statistics, whether national or state, all point to a huge gap between the client’s need for legal help and his or her ability to find affordable services. On the panel, we all agreed that there is an access-to-justice problem and that change is needed. Technology, whether used for firm administration or to support the practice, will help bridge the gap.

Almost ten years ago, the UK adopted the Legal Service Act, which allows non-attorney ownership of law firms, or Alternative Business Structures (ABS). In a recent Above the Law article, Joe Borstein discussed four advantages of ABS:

  1. Multidisciplinary teams
  2. Better hires
  3. Lawyers freed up from administrative and tech tasks
  4. Improve client experience and reduced errors through workflow-technology integration

The latter two can become competitive advantages for attorneys. Why not have knowledgeable non-attorneys handle the firm management or back-end tasks? Why not provide clients with the same level of automation, technology, and self-service that they enjoy in other areas of their lives or businesses? Smaller law firms have been outsourcing much of the back-end administrative tasks, many using cloud based systems. However, client-facing technology is still largely untapped—and in addition to it being a competitive advantage, it also helps with access to justice by making attorneys more efficient.

In 2015, Washington State launched Limited Legal License Technicians (LLLTs), allowing for limited legal services to be delivered by non-attorneys for family law matters. Washington State’s 2003 Civil Legal Needs survey identified an almost 80% access gap between those of low or moderate income with legal needs and those who could access assistance. The WA Supreme Court allows LLLTs to draft specific approved legal documents for court and prepare clients to represent themselves in court on family law only.

Up next for LLLTs are the areas of elder, landlord tenant, and immigration law. Online intake forms and document automation are two ways that the cost of these legal services can be further reduced. The attorney is not using up precious hours on routine tasks. Time is finite, but technology is not. Employing simple, time-saving software will allow LLLTs and lawyers alike to represent more clients.

Now, the practice of law is about professional judgement—not routine documentation or routine client questions. This technology handles the latter, so attorneys shouldn’t fear software replacing them. They should note, though, that widespread adoption of client technology by other lawyers and alternative service providers may reduce the price that they can charge for their services. This will drive attorneys to use more technology to gain efficiencies. Some argue that this is the commoditization of the law, but from a client’s point of view, they wish to only pay for the professional judgment or legal expertise. However, since there is still a huge latent market of potential clients that are not currently using attorneys, there should still be plenty of work to go around.

By expanding ownership, increasing provider options, and creating new delivery methods by employing technology, more Americans can obtain legal services. This goes beyond pro-bono work to prepaid legal services plans and lawyers offering legal help using subscription models or flat fees. We need to coordinate the various effects to not only increase access but ensure value. The use of technology and alternative fee arrangements have expanded in the past few years, but prepaid legal plans have been around for more than 40 years! On April 19, 2016 ,the White House Forum on Increasing Access to Justice discussed how these ongoing legal needs derail people regularly and that access to legal help is necessary, just like medical. Again, the legal plan attorneys need to employ technology to be competitive and profitable.

Fear of change or fear of automation: it’s human nature. Most lawyers have smart phones, yet there is still resistance to trying new approaches. However, the access to justice problem is real across the country, and like every other area of our lives, why would we not find innovative new delivery models or technology to enhance delivery of legal services? #onwards.

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