Any attorneys out there have nightmares about the Big Bad Wolf of Technology huffing, and puffing, and blowing away our law firms?
The American Bar Association’s Rule 5.5 regarding the unauthorized practice of law notes: “The definition of the practice of law is established by law and varies from one jurisdiction to another. Whatever the definition, limiting the practice of law to members of the bar protects the public against rendition of legal services by unqualified persons.” Rule 5.5 makes it clear that the key element in the unauthorized practice of law is “personal advice” as opposed to “general advice,” where the latter is permitted and the former proscribed.
This, of course, has given rise to the most disruptive and revolutionary technology in the legal profession: the application of self-help services at the user’s specific direction. These “general advice” services (the fastest growing of which is Rocket Lawyer) have demystified the legal profession and offered everyone the opportunity to access and create legal documents and on their own or with an attorney at a discounted rate.
Many of us, as attorneys, wring our hands and lament how our profession is rapidly changing and forcing us to work with more sophisticated clients who demand more and expect to pay less. In fact, there’s a whole new series of technologies that are right around the corner which won’t do much to quell such fears.
New startup Legal Sifter uses natural language processing to scan a document (Word format only at this point) and assign that document a score based upon how favorable the terms are to the user. The service provides a general explanation of the clauses and provisions in the document and can even suggest potential changes, additions, or deletions that are most likely not in the user’s best interest.
Google Scholar can be extremely powerful if you know all the tips and tricks for using the service. For one thing, Scholar has a fairly significant cache of articles and case law that runs back about 60 years and encompasses federal district court cases, state and federal appellate decisions, and other topics generally reserved for the legal community. Anyone can use Scholar to see how a case was previously cited and even provide hyperlinks to other cited precedent.
There are even a variety of “Legal Generator Engines” that will provide extensive privacy policies for website operators and even provide terms and conditions. On a surface level, this would appear to take away the need for any Dot Com to seek legal counsel for their business.
Many attorneys have become very vocal about the need for the Bar to take action against these services, arguing that these up-and-coming providers are blurring the lines between legal self-help and legal advice. For now, the Bar seems to be conflicted about how to best deal with these new technologies.
Ultimately, I think the legal profession will need to come to grips with the fact that our profession in the very near future will be materially different from what it is today. Indeed, I would argue that all of these new services and technologies will increase our value as attorneys and solidify our role in the marketplace if — and only if — we embrace these technologies and learn how to leverage them to serve our clients’ interests. Consider these three points:
First, while it is true that these different types of search capabilities empower our clients to become more educated and sophisticated, it also adds to their confusion as to the best course of action they should take to resolve their particular legal matter. They may bring several different printouts of case law, statutes, and forms to our office, but ultimately, they are going to rely on us to make heads or tails of the data they collect. Think of it this way: a patient may print out lists of symptoms from WebMD, but will ultimately rely upon a doctor to provide a diagnosis and treatment plan.
Second, a sophisticated client who has done the research prior to meeting with you can be much easier to work with; a level of prerequisite understanding can deepen your relationship with them, and make it easier to expand your practice. For example, I have a client who recently asked me to form an LLC for them and in passing, briefly mentioned that they saw an article about adding a written operator agreement into the LLC. This led to a complex discussion about setting up an operating agreement and I was able to secure that work on top of forming the LLC.
Finally, tools like Rocket Lawyer offer attorneys opportunities to serve potential clients that they may not have had previously. As a member of Rocket Lawyer’s On Call® Network, I receive many requests and questions from potential clients through the company’s user-friendly, online Q&A platform. While I may offer my services at a discounted rate in some cases, these initial discounted services often lead to other full-service opportunities and longer-term relationships.
So, I think it’s best to sum things up this way: My wife and I continually go through the same argument. She asks me to call my plumber Herman to fix our toilet or change a faucet. I proceed to tell my wife that I’m capable of performing the task on my own, go to Home Depot to buy the tools, and watch some videos on YouTube before getting to work. In the middle of the job, I wind up having to call Herman to pick his brain or ask him to come out to fix a bigger problem that I created myself. When Herman eventually does come over, he encourages me to continue repairing things on my own because he’s confident in the outcome.
Which reminds me, if you’re reading this Herman, I’m hoping you can come out next Tuesday and fix the leak I created under my sink.