Wednesday, 28 June 2017

State supreme courts and bar associatons are limiting access to legal services

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.

Why 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 An outdated Self-Help Resource Center web site with limited information.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, ignores 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 who get it on board.

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.


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