Internet Wars: The Bar Against the Websites
Gerard J. Clark
Suffolk University Law School
December 1, 2013
Suffolk University Journal of High Technology Law, Vol. 13, p. 247, 2013
Suffolk University Law School Research Paper No. 13-40
Consumers are increasingly consulting the internet to find providers of legal services. Sites that respond to this demand are proliferating. This new supply and demand system is changing the nature of the delivery of legal services and challenging a profession which is resistant to change. The tension between the new providers and the traditional bar appears to be escalating. This article will describe the tensions and will highlight the ethical and legal questions that these changes present. Three of the more popular sites will be used as examples of the huge number of legal service delivery systems that are available on the internet: LegalZoom, Rocket Lawyer and Nolo. These sites provide legal services to the public in a variety of ways: first, by providing legal information in a format to be understood by a lay audience, second, by offering to find the customer an appropriate lawyer, third, by maintaining a bulletin board and inviting the public to post questions to be answered by lawyers who are registered with the site, fourth, by selling memberships which entitle the member to free or discounted legal services on a continuing basis as the needs arise, and fifth, by selling legal forms, either in blank, or, customized to the particular needs of the customer by interactive branching software which will use customer information to develop the appropriate document.
At least twelve states have raised as many as eight separate legal objections to various aspects of internet based legal service delivery systems. The objections include lack of a home office, insufficient consent to a disaggregated legal service, non-lawyer ownership of the delivery enterprise, fears about the unintended creation of an attorney-client relationship, advertising misstatements, consumer fraud, malpractice, incompetence, and the unlicensed provider.
Although, lawyers remain hostile to the new digital providers of the law, they have enthusiastically embraced technology for their own purposes. The most revolutionary development over the past twenty years is the development of interactive document production software. Clearly thousands of hours of tedious effort by accountants, lawyers and technology professionals was needed to produce software like Turbo-Tax. Similar software can produce any legal document for which there is a sufficiently large market to pay for the creation of the software. That creation is on-going at law firms, consulting firms and outsourcing locations around the world.
Document assembly software has already penetrated a large segment of the legal profession. Small law firms and legal departments most commonly use document assembly for routine or high-volume paperwork, like residential home closing documents, purchasing off-the shelf templates or producing their own. Larger firms and law departments are more likely to develop custom in-house applications, drawing upon their own experience. Some practitioners in both settings are increasingly interested in sophisticated, high-end drafting applications that combine advanced models of complex documents with rich layers of annotational guidance. And firms of all sizes are experimenting with outward-facing applications aimed directly at clients and non-client customers, in competition with LegalZoom. At a more sophisticated level law firms are outsourcing document production, e-discovery compliance, cloud management and public relations to technology firms. The world of legal service delivery is rapidly changing. The changes advance efficiency, cost and access. The bar should abandon its opposition and embrace the future.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 51
Date posted: December 8, 2013