Fred Ury (Alexandra Hootnick)
It’s time for the legal profession to wake up and begin discussing what it will look like in five years.
A recent editorial in the Connecticut Law Tribune, which takes a stance against nonlawyer ownership of law firms, and columnist Mark Dubois’ neutral piece reciting the facts about nonlawyer ownership around the world tee up the ball for the argument in support of the proposition.
I have been beating the drum for change for a long time. I was privileged to serve on the American Bar Association’s Commission on Ethics 20/20. I, along with some other members, fought for proposals to change the rules to allow nonlawyer ownership. But we lost that fight before it even started. But what is the big deal here? Just the mention of nonlawyer ownership or multidiscipline practice and most lawyers would jump to side with this paper’s Editorial Board against such changes. Most lawyers believe it will be the end of the legal profession as we know it.
However, the fact of the matter is that we already have nonlawyer-owned law firms and legal service providers providing legal services. Axiom is a 1,000-person firm owned by nonlawyers providing legal and other law-related services. Notice that I did not use the term “law firm.” Why? Because Axiom’s own website does not identify itself as a law firm but rather as an entity “in the business of law…” In cyberspace Axiom is just as much a law firm as any firm in Connecticut.
What about law offices in this state that are owned by insurance companies? These so-called in-house law firms are funded by insurance companies owned by nonlawyers. The fact of the matter is that our present business model is dying. Look around. The facts on the ground are telling us what we already know but don’t want to admit because we are so afraid of disruptive change.
As a profession we are failing to offer legal services to the middle class, not to mention the poor. Why do 85 percent of all the divorces in Connecticut have at least one self-represented party? The reason is because most people cannot afford an attorney or they believe that an attorney will only complicate an already difficult situation. We are graduating 45,000 law students each year, yet we only have 22,000 jobs nationwide. Still, there is a significant part of the population that is unable to access an attorney.
Big Law is coming apart at the seams because the power has shifted to in-house counsel. More than 40 years ago, the profession began to abandon our bread and butter, the individual consumer, in favor of representing large corporations, which were willing to pay ever-increasing hourly rates to support hordes of young associates willing to work obscene hours for large salaries. Today, corporations have decided they are not going to continue to pay the large fees charged by these firms. They are looking for the same value that the consumer is looking for.
The reason that LegalZoom, Rocket Lawyer, and myriad other online legal service providers have eaten away at our core business is that we have let them do it. They may not be better than the lawyer down the street, but they are cheaper and faster. And if you think the Internet revolution is limited to the commoditized parts of legal practice, you are wrong. Look at Fairoutcomes.com, Completecase.com, Squaretrade, Cybersettle, Virtual Courthouse and many other online dispute resolution websites. Internet providers have made themselves accessible and easy to use, which is what consumers in today’s world want. And these sites are only going to become more robust as they add artificial intelligence to their platforms. Not only will they provide the consumer with forms, they will work with the consumer to help find the correct solution to their legal problem. Sounds like practicing law?
We are the last of the self-regulated professions. Both the accounting and the medical professions are now regulated by various governmental agencies. Ask doctors and accountants if they are happy with their new governmental regulators. They are no longer in control of the direction of their profession and their destiny. We still are.
But standing still while the rest of the world is changing is not good stewardship. Refusing to change while large segments of the population have no access to an attorney is just one problem inviting a governmental response. Disruptive change is occurring all around us and we are not participating. We act as if we are above it all.
We need to become part of the solution. If nonlawyer ownership is not an answer then what is? Saying no to change is not a solution. Relying on our 100-year-old business model is not going to work in today’s 21st-century Internet world.
The following changes are good starting points for the discussion:
1) Allow multidiscipline practice to permit accountants, financial planners, counselors and attorneys to form new entities to allow one-stop shopping for consumers. All employees and shareholders will have to live up to the high standards of the Code of Professional Responsibility.
2) Allow nonlawyer ownership in stages over the next five years. This will allow those bright new, tech-savvy attorneys to formulate new forms of law firms that have computer programmers and social networkers as owners.
3) License and regulate paralegals/legal technicians so they can offer commoditized work to consumers at a reasonable cost.
4) Offer a two-year master’s degree in law, which is in between a paralegal and a juris doctorate. It would allow someone who is interested in a specific area of the law to learn and concentrate in just that area.
5) Modify the ABA accreditation requirements for law schools so they can really innovate and experiment with new models and programs without any fear of losing their accreditation.
Let’s begin the discussion. The legal profession is made up of many of the best and the brightest. We should be able to come up with some great ideas and solutions so that we can remain independent, relevant and self-regulated in the 21st century.•