Access to legal services

Law schools have an obligation to introduce innovation and technology disciplines into their curriculum, not just to prepare graduates for the future, but to increase access to legal services.

This from Dan Linna, a professor of law at Michigan State and Director of LegalRnD – The Center for Legal Services Innovation. Talking with Ed Sohn about Linna’s Law School Innovation Index:

Everyone needs to get behind solving the “access to legal services” problem. We have this stench, this terrible problem, where approximately 80% of people in the U.S. lack access to civil legal services, not to mention the myriad of problems with our criminal justice system and public defense.

A huge portion of our citizens are disconnected from the law. How is that sustainable for us as a society?

Acting is the right thing to do for all of us in the legal profession.

I’ve tried to answer [President of Legal Services Corporation] Jim Sandman’s call to accelerate legal-service delivery innovation and technology adoption across the legal industry. The overall mission is to increase access to legal services, because it’s the right thing to do, and because the current disenfranchisement of so many threatens the rule of law and democracy.


I believe that we need a shared mission and vision. Why are we part of this profession? How can we help people and contribute to something bigger than what’s right in front of us?

The Law School Innovation Index measures the extent to which law schools have incorporated true legal-service delivery innovation and technology disciplines into their curriculum.

Too many legal innovation discussions get stuck talking about efficiency. But we can improve quality and outcomes. We can prevent problems and improve the user experience. We can expand access at all levels and help preserve and expand the rule of law! We can contribute to multidisciplinary teams solving “wicked” problems. We must innovate and think big, especially in law school.


Schools have been called innovative for a wide range of activities. Some have built curricula around legal-service delivery innovation and technology disciplines. Others are called innovative because they offer classes about the law of technology, which is great, but it doesn’t address the need for improvements in the delivery of legal services.

Law and technology, a phrase I hear every day (and 55 times a day at conferences), is not enough, per Linna.

If you tell students to take engineering courses because they’ll be better patent lawyers, that’s great, but that sounds like it falls into the “law and” technology category.

Yes, lawyers should work with technologists to learn and shape the law of technology. That’s incredibly important. But we also need law students working with engineers, product managers, behavioral scientists, and other scientists to improve the delivery of legal services.

I recall dinner with Linna in East Lansing a couple years ago in which he presented me a draft of the mission statement for a soon to be LegalRnD. Focused on a the delivery of legal services and the 80% of people who didn’t have access to legal services, I liked it.

Truth be told, I wondered how great an impact he and the Center could have.

But with the Law School Innovation Index and earlier, the Legal Services Innovation Index measuring law firms’ use of tech and innovation, Linna and the Center are having an impact. An impact measured in talk, dialogue and pressure on law firms and law schools to act. But it’s a big start.

Like many legal tech entrepreneurs, I left the practice to help others through innovation and the effective use of technology. But when you get your face up against it in everyday business, it’s easy to lose sight of the end game.

Linna’s work is pulling me back in and motivating me to think big in my use of innovation and technology to bring access to legal services. Asking, “Why are we part of this profession? How can we help people and contribute to something bigger than what’s right in front of us?”

Maybe I’m naive, but I’ve always thought the legal profession as a whole, some lawyers more than others, stood up for the little guy, the consumers if you will.

In that bar associatons are run by lawyers and talk about pro bono work and access to legal services, it would seem to be a natural that they would champion consumer causes — such as access to legal services.

But amongst the good work of bar associations stands the effort of many bar associations to snuff out the use of technology and innovation to bring consumers access to legal services.

The latest comes from the New York State Bar Association (NYSBA) in their advisory opinion of a couple weeks ago finding that Avvo’s Legal Services program violates ethics rules.

As reported by the ABA Journal, consumers using Avvo’s Legal Services purchase specific services, such as an uncontested divorce, for a flat fee. For example, when a client receives services from a lawyer through Avvo for $149, Avvo collets a $40 marketing fee.

All of this done on a website, and most probably on Avvo’s mobile site. Makes sense in that consumers purchasing legal services on Avvo would want to do so just the way they purchase everything today. A whopping 70% of Amazon consumers purchase on mobile.

What does the NYSBA offer for access to legal services?

A dated website with limited legal information, much taking consumers to pdf’s on government sites, resulting in a disjointed and confusing experience.

The bar association does have an 800 number call-in lawyer referral service and $35 service for talking to a lawyer. I question how the NYSBA numbers compare to New York consumer traffic on Avvo.

Avvo is a technology company with financial partners whom backed the likes of Zillow, a household name. With a fleet of developers, Avvo brings regular upgrades and feature enhancements. A non-profit voluntary bar association, understandably, could never bring the consumer experience and service Avvo does.

What does the NYSBA find so wrong with Avvo’s access to legal services program?

Avvo benefits finacially from the service. Seriously.

From the ABA Journal, quoting the NYSBA opinion:

Because Avvo lawyers are assigned a rating on a scale of 1 to 10, and “the Avvo website also extols the benefits of being able to work with highly rated lawyers,” While this opinion doesn’t forbid lawyers from using ratings generated by third parties in its advertising, “Avvo Legal Services is different. It is not a third party, but rather the very party that will benefit financially if potential clients hire the lawyers rated by Avvo.”

Rather than looking to leverage technology to improve service, like every other industry, the NYSBA heads in the opposite direction.

I agree with Avvo’s Chief Legal Officer, Josh King in his response to the opinion.

[The NYSBA Opinion] …actively discourages lawyers from using technology to reach out to clients who see an increasing gap between them and meaningful access to the legal system. And if there is one opinion, one voice, in this discussion that should be amplified, it is not that of the New York State Bar Association or of Avvo, but that of the consumer.

Rather than jumping on the NYSBA for limiting access to legal services, all I saw from lawyers and law firms was joy that Avvo took in it the shorts.

There’s plenty I don’t agree with about Avvo, but I’m not going to say good for limiting consumers access to legal services because I don’t like that Avvo salespeople called the lawyers in my firm or that Avvo rates lawyers, the same as Martindale-Hubbell did for 100 years.

I also wouldn’t cheerlead the prevention of lawyers willing to do so from offering fast, simple and cost effective flat fee legal services. It didn’t work for cities looking to prevent drivers from Uber lifts and it shouldn’t work for a trade association looking to prevent lawyers from helping consumers.

Of course we can split hairs as to “If only Avvo just did this or that, the NYSBA would have said all’s good.” I don’t buy it. I see bars, with some exceptions, jumping on Avvo, LegalZoom and RocketLawyer as if it were sport.

Lawyers, if they truly care about access to legal services, are going to need to come to grips that the solutions to do so are likely to come through the private sector. It’s the private sector which has driven change and consumer services across the Internet.

The delivery of legal services will look different than in the past. Companies, and their investors, will make money in the process.

But that’ll be okay for those of us standing up for the little guy — consumers.

Spending four days this week at AALL (American Association of Law Libraries) I was blown away by the amount of legal tech driving the law. I was also struck again by legal tech companies failure to use Internet engagement to learn, to collaborate with other legal tech companies and to get known.

Legal tech entrepreneurs don’t seem to use the net to share their thoughts on what they are following in tech, to engage other legal tech folks, to share what they are working on so as to learn and get feedback or to get known.

It’s a little odd since much of the technology driving legal technology is open source. A lot of legal tech is driven and supported by the collaboration of open source tech communities regularly sharing, networking and learning online.

It’s also odd in that a lot of legal tech companies are starved for attention. They’ve got cool stuff of value to companies and law firms. They just don’t get heard among all the noise and wrongly think it’s going to take money for ads, booths, PR and marketing.

I have followed numerous people share openly online what they were learning and what they were working on. The result was their getting known, being trusted as an industry leader and getting business.

I was one of them. I didn’t have a clue what blogs were nor the technology they ran on – software, machines for hosting – and a lot more. I followed smart people online and shared what they said and wrote along with my take on my blog, Twitter and other social media.

I learned by what I read and from the network that I grew. The network in turned talked about me and what I shared. My company and I got known, trusted and we got business. I also got smarter from just formulating my ideas by what I read and blogged — “you don’t know what you know until you blog it.”

I talked to one legal tech entrepreneur at AALL about the idea of a legal tech network of blogs, kind of like the Law School Blog Network we started early this year. Everyone gets their own blog and the benefit of LexBlog’s WordPress platform for the law (seven turnkey elements), including coaching, visibility and a network site of curated legal tech posts.

I mentioned it to another legal tech entrepreneur online today. Both seemed interested. Rather than free, as with schools, we’d probably charge something around $50 per month to keep it affordable.

Legal tech is critically important. As Ed Walters, the CEO of Fastcase, said at AALL, “software is going to drive access to justice and access to legal services.” It’s not going to be people alone.

We need to help legal tech companies get better at what they do, collaborate with each other (for learning and integrating solutions where it makes sense), to get known so they have customers make use of good legal technology, to make legal services more accessible and to make money so as to fuel more development and growth.

I think publishing/blogging can help.

Could state supreme courts and state bar associations be trying to limit the public’s access to legal services?

It sure seems that way when looking at how some of them prevent the use of innovation and technology to make lawyers relevant to the 85% of Americans who don’t think of using a lawyer when a legal need arises. Let alone providing access to justice to the poor in this country.

The latest comes from the New Jersey Supreme Court, the governing body for lawyer licensure in the state, which last week blacklisted services from Avvo, LegalZoom and RocketLawyer that match consumers with attorneys because of concerns over fee-sharing and referral fees.

Avvo allegedly facilitated improper fee-splitting, while LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer operated legal service plans that aren’t registered with the judiciary.

Being part of the solution that such services offer is now unethical for a New Jersey Lawyer.

New Jersey is not alone. The services from these and other companies have met resistance from any number of other states.

When these companies leveraged technology, innovation and efficiencies to bring access to legal services, something that bar associations, courts and law firms couldn’t dream of getting done themselves, states cut them off at the knee.

New Jersey State Bar President, Robert Hille, who represents health care institutions and insurance companies, seems a million miles away from the reality of average consumers in his comments about the court’s opinion.

The New Jersey State Bar Association has in recent years frequently expressed concern about the growing number of organizations that have sought to open the door to fee sharing, which could interfere with a lawyer’s independent professional judgment. The opinion provides clarity and practical guidance for New Jersey attorneys about whether and to what extent they can practice in such programs.

Through Avvo Advisers and Avvo Legal Services, Avvo enables a consumer to call a lawyer for forty dollars or to procure legal services at set fees, with Avvo being paid a marketing fee.

In addition to legal service products, LegalZoom offers a network of vetted lawyers as part of a service that receives a Net Promoter Score from its customers which rivals that of Amazon, Apple, and Southwest Airlines.

What does the New Jersey Supreme Court offer? An outdated Self-Help Resource Center web site with limited information. For further questions you call your “Local Ombudsman.” Get real.

People today expect to be able to do a quick Google search, find an app or a service and get what they need – even if it means paying a few hundred dollars. The court, by splitting hairs in their decision making to stop services they and other lawyers dislike, is ignoring reality.

Do they really think someone is going to call a law office, get vetted, be told they’ll get a call back later that day or tomorrow and then drive ten miles to sit in a waiting room before meeting a lawyer?

All this to pay many times more than they’d pay to get better service from innovative companies which have lawyers in their network (in states where they wouldnt be disbarred for participating) who actually “get it.”

Rather than dismiss services like Avvo, D.C. Attorney and long time champion for solo’s, Carolyn Elefant says:

…[Y]ou’d think that solos — who are often interrupted multiple times a day with clients who want a quick answer, and not a $175/hr consult would cheer for Avvo Advisor as well – because instead of having to act rudely or unresponsively towards these callers, lawyers can direct them to a place where they can have their question answered. Likewise, solos can also accept Avvo calls during downtime to earn lunch money and gain access to a new contact – without the hassle of performing intake, opening up a client file and then sending an invoice — because Avvo’s done all of the work for them.

The regulators’ decisions are so illogical Elefant says it’s hard to believe that they are are actually lawyers.

The percentage that Avvo retains from these transactions is no different from the service fees charged by credit card companies. Just as credit card companies collect a charge from each transaction to cover the cost of the service, Avvo’s percentage reflects the service that it provides to users – not just marketing, but also the convenience to lawyers of not having to perform intake or send out an invoice.

Lawyers, courts and bar associations talk a good game when it comes to public service and making legal services more accessible. But it’s not happening.

When businesses everywhere are seizing technology to reduce prices and improve services, bar associations and courts governing lawyers are sticking their heads in the sand and digging in their heels.

This is a real shame — for the public who don’t have access to the law and for lawyers who are increasingly becoming irrelevant to the average person in this country.

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 ( 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.


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.


  • 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’, Richard Granat’s 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