Back to The Future is Now: Legal Services 2.016. After a robust town hall meeting where attendees debated the costs and benefits of our future practice, four more speakers took the stage to address how startups are disrupting the legal profession, why client service should remain paramount, and the future role of ethics and professionalism in our practice.
How LegalZoom Increases Access to Justice
Chas Rampenthal, General Counsel of LegalZoom, challenged the profession to take up the gauntlet thrown down by former ABA president William Hubbard, who said that the legal profession “must develop a new model to meet the needs of the underserved.” Chas characterized our profession’s attempts to evolve the traditional model of delivery as paying mostly lip service to addressing the needs of the low and middle classes.
Chas set the imperative by saying that middle class folks can’t afford to avail themselves of a lawyer. Over 100 million people are living with civil justice problems, many involving basic human needs. The types of problems include money and debt, housing, insurance, employment, government benefits, children’s education, clinical negligence, personal injury, relationship breakdown and its aftermath.
Chas offered several suggestions as to how we evolve the practice of law to better serve the underserved, including:
- Educate the consumer and raise awareness about the value of lawyers.
- Offer more choice. Why don’t we have the legal equivalent of physician assistants and nurse practitioners offering legal services?
- Embrace ratings and reviews. Net promoter score, developed in 1993, is a widely used by service and goods providers to provide a simple, quick snapshot of the customer experience. Should lawyers use something similar? “Since we know that many people rely on word of mouth recommendations, why not find out if your current clients are out there promoting your services or detracting from them?”
- Reduce the cost. Chas recommended upfront pricing, arguing our lack of transparency is chasing potential clients away. What rational consumer buys services without knowing what they will be getting, how long it will take, or what it will cost?
Finally, Chas talked about the need to fund and fuel innovation and the importance of maintaining ethics over profits. He said that there is a lot of opportunity out there and if we served the unserved customers, lawyers could also profit.
Bringing the Law to the Living Room
Ed Scanlon, CEO of UprightLaw, introduced us to Denise Stanton. She lost her husband, has a disabled child, and fell behind in paying her bills. She was intimidated by the process of seeking a lawyer. She couldn’t miss work hours to take care of her child, let alone seek the advice of a lawyer, the closest one over an hour away. Will Denise ever get help?
Ed went on to cite statistics about how access to affordable high quality legal representation is a major problem. 80 % of low income people, and the majority of moderate income people, have trouble obtaining legal representation or otherwise accessing the civil court system to protect their property, family and livelihood. When faced with a legal problem, most represent themselves, get help from someone who isn’t a lawyer, or do nothing.
(Note: Many of our speakers quoted statistics about the access to justice problem. Interestingly, there are so many different surveys, studies, reports and sources generated on access to justice over the last decade or so that there was no overlap in citation. But the message was sadly consistent.)
Ed said the answer to the access to justice problem is to encourage the involvement of innovators and entrepreneurs. He identified four opportunities to support entrepreneurship: 1) simplify the current multi-layer framework of rules and regulations, 2) enable economic incentives and financing options, 3) reduce the “gotcha” mentality of the lawyer culture; and 4) celebrate accomplishments.
In the end, Ed’s hypothetical Denise Stanton received the help she needed without being intimidated or having to take time off work or pay for child care.
Will Proactive Management Based Regulation Happen in Illinois?
Jim Grogan, Deputy Administrator and Chief Counsel of the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission, speaks all around the state, making the work of regulating attorneys understandable, educational and entertaining to audiences. And he did not disappoint The Future is Now crowd. He got us laughing with the cartoon image of the Jetsons’ image of the future and sobered us up with some facts and figures about the current state of the lawyer population.
He cited figures familiar to most about the early careers of new lawyers as they graduate from law school: huge debt and the low percentage who find full-time long-term jobs requiring a law license. What was eye-opening were data points from the IRS showing overall constriction of the market for lawyer services. The IRS reported that in 1988, solos earned an inflation adjusted $70,747. By 2012, earnings had fallen to $49,130, a 30% decrease in real earnings.
Jim went on to discuss a new innovation in attorney regulation is a new acronym: PBMR or proactive management based regulation.
This type of regulation is the exact opposite to the current scheme (in Illinois and across the U.S.) where lawyers are disciplined in a reactive fashion after someone complains that an attorney violated the ethical rules. But in New South Wales and Nova Scotia, PMBR has been adopted, and several states, including Illinois, are considering this regulation system focused on prevention, not solely discipline.
Grogan explained the three major features of PMBR:
- Establish measures to complement traditional, reactive disciplinary processes, usually through the use of self-assessment tools;
- Educate lawyer/firm management to develop and employ an ethical infrastructure of policies, programs, and systems to prevent misconduct and unsatisfactory service; and
- Lawyer regulators and lawyer/firm establish an information sharing, collaborative relationship.
The ARDC has been talking about this concept for over a year. Grogan explained that the idea the ARDC is developing is an online self-assessment process in the nature of a CLE in which lawyers answer questions about their practices that will get them thinking about ethical policies and procedures, for example in the areas of confidentiality and client communications. (And there could be components focused on professionalism, including diversity. From my vantage point of promoting professionalism beyond mere compliance with the Rules, this development is truly exciting.)
Awakening our Call to Service
I ended the program with a talk centered on the individual attorney. I shared that as Executive Director of the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism, I talked with many attorneys across the state. Lawyers are feeling a lot of pressures these days, and technology can both liberate and handcuff us.
I felt a real connection with participants as I talked about being attracted to a career of service. We can’t focus only on ways to slice and dice a lawyer’s work into byte-sized information, processes, and packaged products. We serve our clients, the legal system and the public in unique ways that set us apart from those in business or other occupations. Those concepts of service are ensconced in the Preamble to the Rules of Professional Conduct. And neither the Rules nor the Preamble applies to those who are not lawyers but may nevertheless be delivering services in this space.
That means we lawyers can’t relegate innovations in the legal field to just anyone who want to provide legal products via the internet faster and cheaper. We are the ones who pledged to abide by ethical rules and professionalism principles. We have the right and the immense responsibility to serve that no one else in this space has.
Of course, it can be daunting to master technology and deal with the rapid pace of change. After all, all of our training and experience has taught us to stick close to precedent and minimize risks. But once we nudge ourselves out of our comfort zones to embrace opportunities, we may be giddy with excitement. We have the chance to reshape our profession and the very health of our republic. We can look at the changes around us as new opportunities to serve (rather than as a threat to our survival).
In talking about the pace of change, I analogized to my experiences whitewater rafting. I told folks that I liked rafting, but get nervous before entering a rapid. With swirling water in all directions, my guides remind me every time to keep paddling. Because if you’re in the middle of a rapid and you aren’t paddling, chances are very high the raft will flip or you’ll be thrown out. Now you can’t paddle indiscriminately. In order to end up where you want to go, there needs to be a plan and everyone needs to work together.
My close was; “Ladies and gentlemen, we are in the middle of a whitewater rapid. There’s no point in wishing we were back in the lazy part of the river or in hunkering down in the bottom of the raft. We need to paddle. We will coordinate our paddling and take control of our destiny. By reconnecting and recommitting to service, we will both solve the access to justice problem and reinvigorate our legal profession.”