ABA access to legal services

One of the objectives of the American Bar Association (ABA) is to assure meaningful access to justice for all persons.

Try as the ABA may, the best chance of assuring access to justice and affordable legal services today may be innovative companies leveraging new technology.

So it was a surprise to see the ABA terminate, after less than six months, a project with Rocket Lawyer aimed at providing low cost legal services.

As Susan Beck of the American Lawyer reported a couple weeks ago,

Facing strong opposition from state and local bar groups, the American Bar Association has quickly backed away from a pilot project aimed at helping small business owners find lawyers for a reasonable price.

The project, ABA Law Connect, was launched last October in partnership with Rocket Lawyer, a company backed by Google Ventures (now GV) that takes a mass-market approach to helping consumers consult with lawyers and create legal documents. In an Oct. 1 press release, ABA president Paulette Brown lauded the program as an “exciting opportunity” to provide small businesses with affordable legal services, while offering lawyer members a chance to serve new clients. Customers would pay just $4.95 to ask an ABA-member lawyer a question online and a follow-up question. The lawyer and client could negotiate for further services.

Why the about face? State bar associations such as Illinois and Pennsylvania pressured the ABA to end the programs for fear it would take away work from lawyers.

At the same time, Elizabeth Rindskopf Parker, executive director of the State Bar of California, may have been speaking the truth about the program.

I thought it was exciting that they’re really interested in serving this huge group that is underserved.

Then today, Attorney and founder of Solo Practice University, Susan Cartier Liebel says:

The ABA is the greatest hurdle to providing access to justice for the millions in this country who need affordable legal services.

She argues that the ABA’s refusal to acccedit lower cost law schools results in graduating only those willing to take on life altering debt.

Access to justice requires that those who wish to get a good legal education in a more innovative and cost-effective way should not be prevented from doing so because of the ABA’s outdated requirements keeping innovative law schools at bay.

I don’t question the desire of the ABA and the practicing lawyers who volunteer their time to serve on ABA programs and committees to provide meaningful access to legal services. But when I read things like this, I start to wonder if the ABA is capable of having an impact in this area.

I graduated from law school 34 years ago. We had a crying need then for access to legal services for the middle class. The ABA and state bar associations worked on the problem then and for the last three decades. If anything, the problem is worse. Expecting the ABA to bring closure to the problem now is a bit of stretch.

It’s probably time for the ABA to move aside or at least empower innovative and technology driven “for profit” companies to use creative solutions to provide meaningful access to legal services.

Image courtesy of Flickr by Beth Jusino