Charley Moore founded Rocket Lawyer in San Francisco in 2008.
Charley Moore founded Rocket Lawyer in San Francisco in 2008. (Jason Doiy)

Facing strong opposition from state and local bar groups, the American Bar Association has quickly backed away from a pilot project aimed at helping small business owners find lawyers for a reasonable price.

The project, ABA Law Connect, was launched last October in partnership with Rocket Lawyer, a company backed by Google Ventures (now GV) that takes a mass-market approach to helping consumers consult with lawyers and create legal documents. In an Oct. 1 press release, ABA president Paulette Brown lauded the program as an “exciting opportunity” to provide small businesses with affordable legal services, while offering lawyer members a chance to serve new clients. Customers would pay just $4.95 to ask an ABA-member lawyer a question online and a follow-up question. The lawyer and client could negotiate for further services.

ABA Law Connect was tested in California, Illinois and Pennsylvania for roughly three months before being shut down in January. In two of the three test states—Pennsylvania and Illinois—the state bar associations struck back against the program, in part because they feared it would take business away from state and local bar referral services, which generate revenue for bar groups.

Rocket Lawyer founder and CEO Charley Moore said in a statement that he still expects to collaborate with “forward-thinking” bar associations. “We are disappointed that a few individuals chose protecting their lawyer referral revenue and high fees, over innovation, fair competition and the public’s need for wider access to attorney advice,” he said.

ABA President Brown said in a statement that the Rocket Lawyer pilot program was limited in scope and duration from the start. “Serving our members is one of the four goals of the ABA,” she said. “Prior to the commencement of the pilot, all bar associations were notified and communications continued thereafter. … There are no current plans to continue the pilot.”

William Pugh, the president of the State Bar of Pennsylvania, denounced the program at the ABA’s midyear meetings in San Diego earlier this month. “My leadership wants to withdraw from the ABA if we don’t have this program deep-sixed,” said Pugh during a public meeting of state bar leaders. Pugh, a partner at Philadelphia’s Kane, Pugh, Knoell, Troy & Kramer who defends doctors and hospitals in medical malpractice suits, said it was “unconscionable” that his group and others had not been consulted about the alliance with Rocket Lawyer.

The Illinois State Bar posted a statement calling ABA Law Connect “misguided and ill-conceived.” Both the Illinois and Pennsylvania state bars criticized the program for reflecting “a ‘Blue Plate Special’ mentality.” The Illinois Bar runs a lawyer referral service that charges clients $25 for an initial consultation. Pennsylvania offers a similar service for $30.

The State Bar of California, in contrast, didn’t object to the program. The group’s executive director, Elizabeth Rindskopf Parker, told The American Lawyer that she met with Rocket Lawyer’s Moore soon after the project was announced and came away impressed.

“I thought it was exciting that they’re really interested in serving this huge group that is underserved,” she said, referring to the millions of people who have trouble affording a lawyer but aren’t poor enough to qualify for free legal aid. (Parker is a former dean of the University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law who became executive director of the state’s bar association last September.)

“The fact is that a majority of American individuals and small businesses are priced out of legal representation. At the same time, many lawyers are underutilized,” said Moore. “ABA Law Connect came about as a way for the American Bar Association to experiment with modern technology as a way to resolve this paradox.”

The growth of law-related companies such as Rocket Lawyer and Legal Zoom has unsettled large swaths of the profession, particularly lawyers and bar groups that view the companies as a threat to small firms and solo practitioners. Others, meanwhile, hope that these alternative providers will help to address the nationwide need for civil legal services for those who have trouble affording a lawyer or are confused by the legal system.

During the ABA’s San Diego meetings, delegates also fought over a hotly contested resolution that simply offered a set of guidelines for state courts to consider if they want to expand the roles that “nontraditional legal providers” could play in their states. The resolution eventually passed despite opposition from several large state bar groups, including those of Illinois and New York.

In an interview on Thursday, Pennsylvania State Bar president Pugh said the ABA Law Connect program threatened to usurp the role of local bar associations.

“It just flies in the face of what the ABA should be—promoting bread-and-butter mainstream lawyers across the country,” Pugh said. The program also raised ethical red flags, he said, citing what he described as misleading advertising that promoted quick and easy answers to potentially complex legal questions. “That’s creating unjust expectations for the client,” Pugh said. He also mentioned concerns about client confidentiality and conflict checks.

The State Bar of California’s Parker suggested one explanation for the differing attitudes among bar groups. In some states, including California, bar membership is mandatory: The bar serves as the state’s licensing body, and lawyers must join it to practice in the state. Other bar groups, such as the state bars of New York, Illinois and Pennsylvania, are voluntary and don’t have an official licensing function. These voluntary bar groups have to worry more about pleasing lawyers to recruit and retain them, Parker said.

“Many local bars use lawyer referral services as revenue-generating vehicles,” she said. “When the Rocket Lawyer project was announced, the voluntary bars said, ‘You’re undercutting an important revenue source for us.’” In San Francisco, where Rocket Lawyer is based, the city bar mentioned its referral service in a statement opposing ABA Law Connect, saying the venture with Rocket Lawyer didn’t meet the ABA’s own lawyer referral standards.

Parker said the backlash against ABA Law Connect may discourage the ABA from pursuing other innovations to help expand access to justice.

“The reaction has sobered [the ABA] in terms of what to do next,” Parker said. “I think it’s too bad. The ABA leadership has really tried to move the profession forward.”