Access to legal services

Just a week after I read that the Florida Bar Association wants to place greater restrictions on the use of Avvo, I’m sitting in a class at Indiana University Law School where the use of Avvo is being taught to first year law students.

Maybe the law student who said she’d eliminate “old white guys” in looking for a lawyer on Avvo said it all. It’s a new world, damn those clinging to the past.

Professor Bill Henderson’s Avvo exercise was more about teaching students how consumers select lawyers than teaching law students how they should be prepared to use Avvo as a lawyer. As Henderson told his class, you, personally, may not use Avvo to find a lawyer, but Avvo can guide you in the way you present yourself as a lawyer – online, offline, on Avvo or not.

The Avvo assignment?

[O]ne of your team members has a serious legal problem. For the purposes of this assignment, they are a close friend who you care about, not your fellow LP team member. Also for the purposes of this assignment, you never went to a four-year college, much less law school. But you did graduate from high school. Not surprisingly, you are living paycheck to paycheck. You are not well read and your personal networks (unlike now) are not filled with well-educated, sophisticated people who can guide you to safety.

Your job is to assist your hapless team member find the best lawyer to solve his or her legal problem. Because you are an ordinary working class person (as opposed to the type of person who enrolls in a fancy law school), you head to the website Avvo (www.avvo.com) to help your friend find a high-quality lawyer. To make this exercise more interesting, limit your search to your hometown or somewhere nearby (alternately, you can use your hapless team member’s hometown). We will assume that all of your collective hometowns are adjacent to your team member’s hometown and that your friend is willing to travel the additional 30-minute drive for the right attorney.

Based on the information available to you on Avvo, locate and recommend a lawyer that your hapless friend should call. Areas of practice are likely to be useful, and Avvo can help you with that. Exclude attorneys you personally know unless they are under 35 and you have known them since childhood.

The legal problems students faced ranged from deportation, being arrested as a meth dealer, having their house foreclosed on, needing to file bankruptcy as a cancer survivor and more. Henderson’s good.

Students each presented in front of the class the lawyer they selected and why — based on a review of relevant Avvo lawyers.

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Totally ignored in the students’ selections of lawyers on Avvo were law school attendance, grades and law review. All the stuff law students focus on as important when in school. Henderson told them that’s not a surprise, many fine lawyers and legal tech entrepreneurs were very average students.

What did the students look at on Avvo? Here’s Henderson’s chalkboard with the checks indicating the most cited.

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  • Reviews of the lawyers by previous clients topped the list. People trust people similarly situated, even if they have never met them.
  • Looks like a good and caring person. Pictures were important and needed to be professional, lacking any semblance of scales of justice and court houses.
  • Experience in the area.
  • Ratings were considered as important and dismissed by an equal number of students. Stars were no way to select a lawyer, per a number of students.
  • Endorsements by lawyers.
  • Good “about section,” personalizing the lawyer as caring and knowledgeable.
  • Pricing, including free consultations were important for some students, while others wouldn’t select a lawyer because of low prices – they needed someone who’d been around the corner.

Two or three of students went “off track” and volunteered that they would not select any of the lawyers on Avvo. They would turn to someone they trust for the name of a lawyer.

A former real estate professional, now law student, indicated relationships and word of mouth within the industry would guide him in selecting a lawyer for a commercial real estate project.

Henderson’s class was not a scientific sample of how people select lawyers and use Avvo. I am sure Avvo has done some good work of their own on that front.

But Henderson’s Avvo exercise is a wake up call for students as to how lawyers are  perceived by consumers of legal services.

Law students also came to appreciate that innovate legal startups such as Avvo are doing more to make legal information and legal services available than traditional channels are.

As I sat back in Henderson’s class, I couldn’t help but think it was less than a decade ago that Avvo CEO and Founder, Mark Britton (@Mark_Britton) said nothing would come between Avvo and consumers. Now I am sitting in a law school studying the use of Avvo. And in the Midwest, where all the down to earth thinking and good stuff comes from.

I don’t know how you feel about Avvo being taught in law schools. I feel great about it. While law professors and career services professionals down the hall may be appalled. Henderson’s students were being prepared for their future — and as a 1 L’s. They’ll graduate more enlightened than those clinging to the past.

Sitting here at Skadden in Chicago at the Chicago Legal Innovation and Technology Meetup listening to speakers talk of access to legal services.

The point being that 85% plus of people never think of using a lawyer. Lawyers rank six on who people turn to for legal advice. Number one is friends and family members.

The reason, per Fred Headon (@fredheadon), the general counsel of Air Canada, is that lawyers have made themselves irrelevant by not communicating like everyone else.

The public engages each other on the Internet – Facebook, Twitter, blogs (real ones engaging bloggers, reporters, business people and consumers and not content marketing for attention) and more.

Yet it seems lawyers look for ways to not be real and authentic. Who would trust creatures that do not communicate like real people?

Heck, most people don’t even know a lawyer. Lawyers aren’t out listening, mingling and engaging people online.

If people knew of a lawyer, liked them and trusted them, they may call them and the lawyer would get work. But this is not going to happen if lawyers don’t use the Internet like everyone else. ‪

* Sorry about the cryptic nature of this post, just some quick notes at the end of the program.

Two weeks ago I wrote in a post here that I was struck that none of the 28 professionals on the Commission Roster of the ABA’s Commission on Future of Legal Services were technology entrepreneurs who had founded, guided or participated in legal technology companies or startups focused on the delivery of legal services. I went on to query why in the main thirteen recommendations of the Commission, the word technology was only mentioned once, that being that “All members of the legal profession should keep abreast of relevant technologies.”

David Lat (@davidlat), managing editor of Above the Law, and I then heard from Renee Knake (@reneeknake), Professor of Law at University of Houston Law Center and the Commission’s reporter, that the Comission felt there were inaccuracies in my post, particularly that there were Liaisons, Special Advisors and people who gave testimony before the Commission who had experience with legal tech startups. Though I still believe what I wrote is accurate, I thought it only fair to allow the Commission to respond. You can then draw your own conclusions. So for the remainder of this column, I turn it over to Rene Knake.

By Renee Knake

I write to correct inaccuracies in the post by Kevin O’Keefe on August 10, 2016, “No Legal Tech Entrepreneurs On ABA Commission On the Future Of Legal Services.”

The ABA Commission on the Future of Legal Services not only included members involved in legal technology, but we also actively sought input from legal tech entrepreneurs and innovators.

The Report on the Future of Legal Services in the United States, released by the Commission on August 6, 2016, may be viewed by some readers as controversial or not sufficiently bold by others (which we readily acknowledge in the Report’s introduction) but the Report cannot be critiqued for lacking input from the legal tech world.

The Report is a consensus document, and it represents the expertise and input of the entire Commission, as informed by written comments supplied by the public and the profession, testimony at public hearings and meetings, grassroots events across the country, a national summit on innovation in legal services, webinars, and dozens of presentations on the Commission’s work at which the public’s and profession’s feedback was sought.

Many members of the Commission have long been involved in legal technology and innovation, including:

  • Ruth Hill Bro (former chair of the ABA Standing Committee on Technology and Information Systems and author of the ABA Cybersecurity Handbook)
  • Chad Burton (founder of one of the first virtual law firms and CEO of CuroLegal, a next-generation legal technology consulting and software development firm)
  • Lisa Colpoys (executive director of Illinois Legal Aid Online)
  • Margaret Hagan (founder of Open Law Lab using technology and design to increase access to justice, and lecturer at the Stanford Institute of Design)
  • Stephanie Kimbro (author of the books Virtual Law Practice: How to Deliver Legal Services Online and Consumer Law Revolution: The Lawyers’ Guide to the Online Legal Marketplace and founder of Virtual Law Offices Technology, acquired by Total Attorneys)
  • Andrew Perlman (dean of Suffolk Law School and founder of Suffolk’s Institute on Law Practice Technology)
  • Marty Smith (founder of MetaJure, the smart document management system)
  • Ron Staudt (professor at Illinois Institute of Technology Chicago-Kent College of Law and director of the Center for Access to Justice and Technology)

In addition, the Commission received input from numerous leaders in the legal tech community, including the very companies O’Keefe identifies as good sources like Avvo and LegalZoom. The CEOs of both companies—Mark Britton and John Suh, respectively—spoke at the Commission’s National Summit on Innovation in Legal Services, along with other technology innovators such as Richard Barton (founder of Expedia, Glassdoor, and Zillow), Colin Rule (founder of online dispute resolution company Modria), and Richard Susskind (author of The End of Lawyers? Rethinking the Nature of Legal Services and the UK Civil Justice Council’s report Online Dispute Resolution for Low-Value Civil Claims). Many others testified at public hearings and submitted written comments in response to the Commission’s issues papers, again including experts identified by O’Keefe like Richard Granat, CEO of SmartLegalForms. All comments and testimony were carefully considered by the Commission. The Commission’s website documents this information.

Finally, the Commission culled expertise from leaders in legal technology and innovation by hosting webinars and compiling a special issue of whitepapers for the South Carolina Law Review. Webinar contributors included Michael Mills, founder and CSO of Neota Logic as well as John Mayer, executive director of Computer Assisted Legal Instruction (CALI). Whitepaper topics include Legal Startups by Dan Linna, founder of LegalRnD at Michigan State University College of Law; Watson, Esq. by Paul Lippe, CEO of LegalOnRamp; Online Dispute Resolution by Ethan Katsh, director of the National Center for Technology and Dispute Resolution at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and Colin Rule; Gamification and Online Engagement by Stephanie Kimbro; and Disruptive Innovation by Raymond Brescia, professor at Albany Law School and founder of the blog The Future of Change.

The contributions of this collective body of knowledge led the Commission to make several significant recommendations related to technology and innovation:

  1. All members of the legal profession, including lawyers, should keep abreast of relevant technologies.
  2. The recommendations contained in the Legal Services Corporation’s Report of the Summit on the Use of Technology to Expand Access to Justice should be implemented.
  3. Online legal checkups should be made available to the public.
  4. Virtual (online) access to courts should be expanded.
  5. Court-annexed online dispute resolution should be piloted and expanded, as appropriate.
  6. The legal profession should partner with other disciplines for insights about innovating the delivery of legal services.
  7. The ABA should create a Center for Innovation.

Three of these recommendations are already underway. The Commission received ABA Enterprise Grants to advance online legal checkups and to pilot a court-annexed online dispute resolution program, and the ABA Board of Governors approved the creation of the ABA Center for Innovation.

Technology innovators, entrepreneurs, and leaders—from within the legal profession and beyond—actively contributed to the Commission’s Report. The newly-approved ABA Center on Innovation will continue to work with these and other experts to further the Commission’s recommendations.

In August, 2014 the American Bar Association appointed a commission to examine the reasons why meaningful access to legal services remained out of reach to the vast majority of Americans.

The Commission on the Future of Legal Services was further charged with developing recommendations, including the use of technology, to ensure that both lower and middle income people would have access to legal services in the years ahead.

This week, at the ABA Annual Meeting in San Francisco, the commission released their “Report on the Future Legal Services in the United States.”

What struck me reading the report was that none of the 28 members of the commission were technology entrepreneurs who founded, guided or participated in legal technology companies or startups focused on the delivery of legal services. Most of the members appeared to be legal professionals from law firms, law schools and courts.

Technology and innovation is being driven in this country by innovative companies the likes of Facebook, Uber, Google, Amazon, Salesforce, Tesla, and IBM. Imagine a world without the value and conveniences they have brought us.

Maybe legaltech does not have such roster, but what about Avvo, LegalZoom, Fastcase, Justia and Clio, to name a few. Through the use of technology, these companies and their executive teams have done an awful lot in making legal information and legal services more accessible. They are going to accomplish a lot more in the years ahead.

Like other technology companies, legaltech companies not only work with technology day in and day out, they also look at how alternative technologies are being used by others. These companies abhor inefficiencies and look to technology to bring efficient solutions so as to improve people’s lives.

Yet no one from a legaltech company on the commission.

The commission’s findings were sound, perhaps obvious:

  • Despite sustained efforts to expand the public’s access to legal services, significant unmet needs persist.
  • Advancements in technology and other innovations continue to change how legal services can be accessed and delivered.
  • Public trust and confidence in obtaining justice and in accessing legal services is compromised by bias, discrimination, complexity, and lack of resources.

But among the eleven laudatory recommendations, there was only one reference to technology, that being that “All members of the legal profession should keep abreast of relevant technologies.”

Individuals should have regular legal checkups, the criminal justice should be reformed, the ABA should establish a Center for Innovation and resources should be vastly expanded were among other findings of the commission. But nothing specifically recommending the innovative use of technology and detailing how it could be done.

Though the concept of “legal startups” is acknowledged by the commission, their impact is dismissed by reporting that such companies providing innovative products or services to improve the delivery of legal services were “essentially nonexistent a decade ago” and that “little data exists to accurately assess the impact of legal startups.”

Legal technology startups sprang up twenty years ago. What about FindLaw, Prairielaw (later the legal information and community of LexisNexis’ lawyers.com), Richard Granat’s MyLawyer.com and FreeAdvice? These companies and others leveraged the net to deliver legal information and enable people to select an affordable lawyer in an informed fashion.

Little data exists to assess the impact of legal startups? Just turn on Mike and Mike on ESPN, where each morning millions of Americans are told to turn to LegalZoom for legal information, forms and, in 48 states, the name of an “independent lawyer” to speak with at a price you can afford.

What about Avvo with profiles of 97% of the lawyers in this country, 250,000 lawyers using the service, 8 million legal answers, the ability to talk to a lawyer for $39 and a legal services plan which delivers legal services at a low flat in a growing number of states. Avvo played a big role in driving a 150 year old legal directory (Martindale-Hubbell) out of business.

One reason that state bar referral programs are hurting are the alternatives Avvo and LegalZoom offer. Alternatives seamlessly and easily available on a smartphone in your pocket or purse. Services average Americans feel more comfortable with than calling a lawyer directly.

I am sure the commission membership plus special advisors, liaisons, reporters, and ABA staff worked countless hours over the last two years. Their findings and recommendations were well intentioned.

But without the active participation of technology innovators, entrepreneurs and leaders, how can you hope to make recommendations on delivering the future of legal services? It’s almost as if the ABA and the commission wanted to keep legaltech companies at bay.

The commission, in the introduction to their report, recognized the need for technology and innovation in addressing the legal services chasm.

The justice system is overdue for fresh thinking about formidable challenges. The legal profession’s efforts to address those challenges have been hindered by resistance to technological changes and other innovations. Now is the time to rethink how the courts and the profession serve the public. The profession must continue to seek adequate funding for core functions of the justice system. The courts must be modernized to ensure easier access. The profession must leverage technology and other innovations to meet the public’s legal needs, especially for the underserved. The profession must embrace the idea that, in many circumstances, people other than lawyers can and do help to improve how legal services are delivered and accessed.

However, I question their statement that the ABA is uniquely qualified to deliver.

The American Bar Association is well positioned to lead this effort. The ABA can inspire innovation, suggest new models for regulating legal services, encourage new methods for delivering legal services and educating lawyers, and foster the development of financially viable approaches to delivering legal services that more effectively meet the public’s needs.

Rather than let legaltech companies, who at times may have interests that conflict with the ABA and practicing lawyers, drive access to legal services through innovation and technology alone, why not seek the participation and guidance of legal tech leaders?

Otherwise the ABA is going to lose credibility on this front and ultimately fail lawyers and the people we serve.

Ben Goodman (@gardencove) and Josh Harder (@joshua_harder), a partner and investor, respectively, in Bessemer Venture Partners (@bvp) penned over a year ago that there were four areas of legal ripe for smart startups.

One that remains true, now more than ever, is making lawyers more accessible.

There is a major opportunity to improve the legal consumer experience, either by making legal services simpler and more affordable for consumers to use or by making lawyers more accessible and responsive. By improving efficiency in the workload of the lawyer, or possibly eliminating many mundane tasks that one must perform, lawyers can focus more hours on their clients’ cases or leverage new findings that may never have been discovered using traditional research tactics. There is also the potential to improve client interactions by utilizing new communications tools geared toward interacting between lawyers and those they represent

Consumers and small business people don’t benefit from efficiencies in the practice until they’re working with a lawyer. And a lawyer they can afford.

The problem is that most consumers don’t hire a lawyer. Some are scared to death of lawyers. Others believe they cost too much. Some wouldn’t know if they had a legal need. And others wouldn’t know what lawyer to call.

That’s where blogs published by decent, caring and passionate lawyers looking to make a difference and looking to make a name for themselves can make a heck of a difference.

People go to the Internet for everything today. Google remains the leading place when searching for information and services though social networks are running a close second.

If a lawyer is penning a blog on family law, startups, niche injury, class action/mass tort matter, probate or whatever they’re going to get seen. And seen by exactly the people who need their service.

Google and social networks see to it. Google knows the good stuff and pushes it to the top on relevant searches. Google also knows by what you write about where you are located and where the consumer looking for information is located.

As the consumer reads a post the more they get to know you. You care. You explain things in a way that they can understand it. You’ve talked about people calling you without the obligation to hire you.

Lawyers taking their blogs to social networks ala Facebook, much the way a New York Times reporter takes their stories to Facebook, make themselves and the law that much more accessible. Further visibility. Further engagement. Further trust.

Lawyers blogging and taking themselves to the Internet don’t have near the marketing and ad spend they’d otherwise have. Expensive websites, SEO, buying content and what not is the stuff that yellow pages and television advertising were made of. Tens of thousands of dollars a month in many cases.

Blogging lawyers don’t need to be in the heart of metropolitan areas subjecting them and their families to a high cost of living. They can live in cities and towns ten to one hundred thousand in size where making $75,000 may be more than enough in a two wage earner family. Such lawyers may be able to offer services at eighty to ninety bucks an hour and at reasonable flat rates.

I get that I have a dog in this hunt as far as blogs providing access to the law and lawyers – in mores than one. In addition to LexBlog providing the leading blog publishing platform for lawyers, I want more than ever for consumers and small business people to have access to the law and the best lawyers in their neck of the woods or niche.

Internet services matching consumers and lawyers, directories, question and answer sites, and more will all play a role in providing access to the law. But why not just good lawyers being good lawyers. Getting out mingling with people, sharing what they know and being there when the need arises.

Lawyers more accessible via blogs.

Image courtesy of Flickr by Frank DiBona

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