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Friday, 30 July 2010 11:04

Don't Sue Them; Join Them

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Online document preparation has been around for years, and will hopefully continue to thrive, despite the efforts of the organized bar to restrict consumers' access to this low-cost avenue for legal help.

While some lawyers use accusations of the unauthorized practice of law to try to shut down online providers using lawsuits, others have decided that competition is the best way to challenge these providers.

This article features John Gerber, a lawyer who has created an online portal, UpstartLegal.com, to provide self-help document preparation services to startup companies. In addition to self-serve document preparation, the site offers additional services that a lawyer can perform, distinguishing Gerber's service from other online providers and showcasing the unique value that a lawyer can provide. By adding his own innovation to the model for legal service delivery, Gerber is doing good business while expanding the range of choices available to the public.

The American Bar Association's Coalition for Justice has released its Report on the Survey of Judges on the Impact of the Economic Downturn on Representation in the Courts. State court judges nationwide were asked about their courts' caseloads, whether parties were represented by a lawyer, and what impact lack of representation had on individuals and on the court system.

The four types of cases where the most judges reported an increase were foreclosure, domestic relations, consumer issues, and non-foreclosure housing issues. Sixty percent of judges said there had been an increase in self-representation, with only three percent saying reporting a decrease in self-represented parties. Nearly half of the judges said there had been an increase in self-representation among those who did not qualify for legal aid. There was also consensus that the increase in self-representation harms both the courts (78% of judges) and the people who represent themselves (61%).

The four types of cases mentioned above are areas where consumers can most benefit from inexpensive help from non-lawyers. For example, if the bar and courts were to allow it, divorcing couples could use social workers with some limited legal training short of a law degree to help them get divorced. Other non-lawyer advocates with some legal training could help with housing or other consumer matters. At a minimum, the crisis in access to the courts should lead to increased support and training for self-represented litigants, online form completion, and unbundling of legal services. However, when asked for a solution to the problems of self-represented litigants, 73% said that legal services funding should be increased and 68% thought there should be more pro bono attorneys. More training for self-represented parties was supported by only 44%, online self-completing forms by 36%, and unbundling of legal services by just 19%.

Courts and lawyers have created a very complex system for the resolution of disputes. Now, the system's creators, recognizing that the complexity is causing problems for both them and the system's users, propose maintaining the system's complexity by injecting more lawyers into it. In the current economy, however, neither individuals nor the government can afford more lawyers. A more rational approach would be to find ways to make the legal system simpler, so that people can access it without such difficulty. Allowing innovative approaches--like the ones rejected by the judges surveyed--would ease the burden on both consumers and the judiciary.

Monday, 05 April 2010 20:00

New Jersey bans virtual law offices

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The New Jersey State Bar Association's Advisory Committees on Professional Ethics and Attorney Advertising issued a joint opinion on March 26th effectively banning lawyers from creating virtual law offices. The decision requires every attorney to maintain a permanent address. This comes as virtual law offices, in which the attorney maintains an online or "virtual" law office and rents office space as needed, are growing in popularity. According to New Jersey State Bar Chief Allen Etish, "[t]he need for a bona fide office is necessary," while acknowledging "that the idea of a virtual office needs more study," noting that virtual law offices are "not totally wild-eyed or preposterous."

It is very good to hear that the New Jersey State Bar is interesting in further examining the use of virtual offices, but in rendering its opinion has shown a reluctance to embrace current trends in legal practice that might help make the law more affordable for consumers. The decision effectively requires an attorney to either maintain a permanent office or to create one in their home, which creates problems for attorneys who'd like to keep a home office, but do not want to use it to meet with clients or to list the address for privacy and security reasons. For consumers, office space contributes to the attorney's overhead, which can increase the costs for that attorney's services. Allowing attorneys to maintain virtual offices would help them provide consumers with lower cost alternatives to a traditional law office.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010 20:00

Popularity of online law rising

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In a recent commentary on the Wisconsin Law Journal's Blog, Karl Robe noted the increasing popularity of online legal services like LegalZoom, warning that such sites pointed to a trend toward the commoditization legal services. Robe notes that this potential trend toward commoditization "means the profession and its ability to maintain profit margins is in jeopardy of value erosion. Unless more traditional practices and firms enhance their online status to rise above the din, they risk being drowned out of the conversation."

Perhaps things aren't quite as desperate as Robe makes it seem, neither for lawyers or consumers. It is understandable that the legal profession has concerns about its services becoming commoditized; legal advice can be one the most important services a consumer pays for. But just because someone purchases a will online, for example, doesn't make a will a "commodity." There may be a great many people for whom an online will is more than enough to suit their needs. But not everyone will buy their law off the rack, so to speak. And for those individuals, establishing a traditional attorney/client relationship might be the best choice.

While I doubt that traditional law will ever be "drowned out of the conversation," Robe does offer good advice to attorneys in the sense that traditional lawyers need to reconsider how they make their services available to consumers. Far from deflating the value of traditional legal services, alternative providers may well open new markets to attorneys by allowing entry into the market for legal services to people normally excluded.

That consumers seem to be embracing new ways of receiving legal services merely reveals that the market for legal services may be broader than attorneys may realize. Sound legal advice is just as in demand and just as essential now as it ever was and that advice is has the same value whether it is provided online on an as-need basis or across a desk in a law office conference room. The important thing is that the advice finds its way to the consumer who need it.

Sunday, 21 March 2010 20:00

Better living through the law

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Right now, much of the country's attention is focused squarely on Washington DC and on healthcare reform. No matter your political opinion of the bill that just passed the United States House of Representatives late last night, one thing is clear: new laws regarding your healthcare are likely on their way. That bill (which can be downloaded in PDF format here) is very long, very complicated, and may change many things about the way you receive healthcare coverage. One thing is clear: having affordable access to legal services will be as important as ever.

The more the law changes and the more comprehensive and complicated it becomes, the more people without adequate access to the legal system risk being victimized by the law -- regardless of how well-intentioned those laws might be. In a recent national study conducted by The Legal Services Corporation, less than one in five of the legal issues facing low-income legal consumers ever receive attention from a private or legal aid attorney. The study concludes that a likely reason for this is that low-income legal consumers often don't realize the legal implications of some of the issues they face and therefore do not seek assistance, even in the rare instances when it may be accessible to them.

As you find yourself adrift in a sea of political rhetoric about healthcare reform, don't forget that access to your legal rights can have every bit as much an effect on your life and your health as access to healthcare. So get engaged in the process of reforming the legal system. After all, while healthcare laws may be about to change, the unmet needs of legal consumers remains sadly constant. And whether you have to fight an insurance company, a doctor, or the Government, or even if you just need to know how the new laws may affect you; having access to effective and affordable legal services may be just what the doctor ordered.

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