Access to lawyers and legal services: appealing to the Virginia State Bar

Posted in Policy, Avvo, Ethics

On Friday October 27, 2017 I spoke to the Virginia State Bar Governing Council regarding their proposed ethics opinion that could affect Avvo Legal Services, LEO 1885.

Avvo opposes LEO 1885 for many reasons, but the comments that I shared with the Governing Council encouraged the Council to think more broadly about innovation and growing access to lawyers and legal services. While the vote ultimately didn’t go our way, we’re appealing the Governing Council vote to the Supreme Court. The feedback we have received to date suggests that our comments were well received.

 

Ladies and Gentlemen of the Virginia State Bar Governing Council:

My name is Dan Lear and I am a licensed attorney in the State of Washington. I am here on behalf of my employer Avvo. And while I’m here to urge you to reject or at least reconsider Legal Ethics Opinion 1885, I believe that our aims are not that different.

The problem is simple:

There is an enormous gap between consumers and lawyers. This gap isn’t limited to those who can’t afford legal services (pro-bono clients). In fact, many middle-income folks say they can’t afford lawyers. I won’t ask you to do this here, but I’ve asked groups like this to raise their hands if they can afford themselves for any significant amount of time. Most lawyers don’t raise their hands.

We all want to close that gap.

We all agree that in most cases meeting with and having needs met by a lawyer is almost always the best way for consumers to solve a legal problem.

We all want more work for lawyers.

We need informed innovative solutions to close that gap and we need informed policy and regulatory actions as a result.

LEO 1885 is not that.

Avvo Legal Services is a simple attempt, one of the simplest attempts really, to close that gap. Believe me, there are much more sophisticated much more “innovative” ideas being worked on right now to close this gap. We took unbundled services that lawyers should already be offering to clients and put them on the web in a common marketplace.

It’s not just that LEO 1885 has some technical legal problems it’s that it will act as a chill on lawyers exploring and implementing innovative solutions to close the gap between lawyers and consumers. It will also risk stifling the communication of crucial legal information to the public.

And that’s precisely what we don’t want. To the extent that lawyers believe trying new things will result in ethics violations or, worse, unauthorized practice of law prosecutions, they won’t do those things.

At the same time, other innovative individuals outside of law will continue to see the massive gap between lawyers and consumers and try fill it.

Approving LEO and ideas like it could have many possible outcomes. Here are two that I think are, at least, possible:

First, consumers will continue to do what they are already doing – which is finding alternative ways of addressing their legal needs (using these innovative solutions) – solutions that bodies like this are not able to regulate. And lawyers will be left competing for an ever-shrinking body of legal work from a small number of affluent corporations and individuals.

and/or

Second, the same thing will happen in the United States that happened in the UK: lawyers will lose self-regulation. For those of you who don’t follow this kind of thing about 10 years ago the British parliament stepped in and relieved UK lawyers of their authority to self-regulate because, at least in part according to the British government, licensed lawyers weren’t effectively serving the legal consuming public.

But neither of these results in lawyers getting more work. In fact, it’s a pretty bleak, increasingly irrelevant, future for lawyers.

So, here’s what we need to do. Or here’s what I’d do if I were you.

We must spend more time understanding (1) exactly what it is that legal consumers want, (2) whether or not there is any actual harm in any of the existing or new models that are being proposed (and regulating to limit or eliminate that harm when it does exist – but not when it doesn’t), and (3) then working together to try to more effectively to meet those needs.

That is the way that we will grow the legal services pie. That is the way that we will get more work for lawyers: by educating ourselves and then working to develop innovative solutions that bridge the existing massive gap between lawyers and people (both paying and not) who so desperately need their services.

The way that we will not get there is by issuing opinions like Legal Ethics Opinion 1885 which condemn attempts to bridge that gap and connect those consumers with lawyers but also, in general, discourage new thinking to solve this massive problem.

Let’s grow the pie. Let’s give more clients the protection of the legal system and get more lawyers more business.

 

Please reject or reconsider LEO 1885.