News Analysis: Allowing Non-Lawyers to Provide Legal Services Could Help Profession

Topics: Access to Justice, Client Relations, Law Firms, Talent Development

Artificial Intelligence

The medical profession boasts a ton of professionals working to support doctors — been seen by a nurse practitioner lately? So why not unbundle jobs the same way in the field of law?

That could lower prices and cut down on the required three years of law school — and debt — for all legal tasks, argue some critics.

However, the medical analogy only goes so far, says Brian Mahany, a whistleblower attorney who specializes in complex corporate cases. “It is easy to allow physicians and engineers to be licensed in multiple jurisdictions. Disease and mathematical computations can easily cross boundaries. Legal systems vary widely, however,” he notes.

Still, deregulation can’t be stopped, noted the Brookings Institution in a recent paper.

Breaking Down Barriers

The noted think tank in May published research by two authors — Clifford Winston, Brookings senior fellow in economic studies; and Quentin Karpilow of Yale University — arguing that the legal profession is screaming for change, a la Southwest Airlines and Uber.

The paper decried current barriers to entry, arguing that a law school degree doesn’t mean your lawyer gives good, affordable advice — but instead is only well-educated. The paper also cited examples of non-lawyers providing valued legal services — including a 15-year-old high school student who became the most requested legal expert on the website, and a legal secretary who established a successful business preparing and filing papers for those seeking a divorce.

Some states already are lowering barriers to entry. Washington State last year issued a new limited license legal technician (LLLT) program, which formally allows non-lawyers to deliver legal services independently, without a lawyer’s supervision.

Paula Littlewood, executive director of the Washington State Bar Association, noted the licenses are similar to those in the medical profession where physician assistants work under a doctor’s supervision, and nurse practitioners operate on their own. In the legal profession, paralegals work under a lawyer while LLLTs are independent, although many work for law firms. “Not every medical problem needs a doctor and not every legal problem needs a lawyer,” Littlewood said in a statement.

Others states are looking into the LLLT model, including California, New York, Utah, Colorado and Oregon. For now, LLLTs can only work in family law, notes Michele Pistone, law professor at the Charles Widger School of Law at Villanova University. But that could easily change. “A lot of people in law think because it’s highly regulated we’re immune from disruption,” Pistone said.

But similar to a nurse practitioner and doctor, “if you unbundle the lawyer job, there are a lot of tasks lawyers do that could eventually be done by computers through technology — or by non-JDs,” says Pistone.

Technology-Aided Legal Services

In a paper entitled Disrupting Law School, published by the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, where she is a fellow, Pistone and co-author Michael Horn note that access to a lawyer is “expensive and out of reach for many potential customers because the market for legal services is opaque and the provision of legal services has been restricted through licensure.”

That’s led to the rise of such legal disruptors as LegalZoom, Modria, Rocket Lawyer and e-discovery startups such as Ross Intelligence, the world’s first artificial intelligence attorney. Ross Intelligence uses IBM Watson’s cognitive computing system to enhance legal research. Users ask legal questions in plain English and Ross searches legislation, case law and secondary sources. Now, the legal establishment may have no choice but to partner with the disruptors.

In September 2015, the American Bar Association and Rocket Lawyer began testing a joint venture, ABA Law Connect, that connects ABA-member lawyers in Illinois, Pennsylvania and California with small business-related legal questions through Rocket Lawyers cloud-based platform. ABA Law Connect “will be an affordable way for small businesses in those states to get answers to fundamental legal questions.” For $4.95, a small business owner or representative can ask a question online of an ABA-member lawyer. Those interested in additional legal advice can discuss legal matters further in a lawyer-client relationship.

Teledoc? or Tele-Attorney?