I recently heard Chas Rampenthal, the general counsel of LegalZoom (the legal forms site), speak at Suffolk University Law School. He commented on how the practice of law needs to be modernized and made more efficient, accessible and affordable. He joined many commentators, most notably Richard Susskind who wrote The End of Lawyers?, in describing the practice of law as being behind the times, lawyers crafting single solutions for individual clients, which by its nature is expensive and inefficient.
The Legal Profession is Behind the Times
While other parts of modern life have changed dramatically in recent years—look at Amazon’s effect on retail stores—the practice of law has not. Most innovations to date are aimed at lawyers, not consumers, helping lawyers become more efficient, which should enable them to do a better and less expensive job delivering legal services. But they have had little effect on the relationship between clients and attorneys or on how clients receive and perceive legal services. As a result, wealthy individuals and corporations are well-served by the legal profession, Rampenthal says, but everyone else is left out.
Bar Rules Overly Restrict the Practice of Law
Rampenthal attributes this to regulation—bar rules on professional ethics—that restrict alternative forms of practice, namely:
- Restrictions in non-lawyer investment in law firms means that law firms do not have the resources to develop more efficient ways of practicing or sophisticated online interactions with clients.
- Requiring that attorneys have full responsibility for legal results once they become involved in a matter discourages limited representation. A lawyer can’t represent a client in court, for instance at a hearing on an alimony modification, without being on the hook for the ongoing litigation until released by the judge.
- Limitations on use of non-lawyers for routine, repetitive matters, such as will executions and proper titling of assets for estate planning purposes keeps costs up. While non-lawyers can do some tasks under attorney supervision, in most instances, they cannot set up shop to complete these tasks outside of a law firm.
Proposing a Consumer-Oriented Alternative
Rampenthal asks what consumer legal services delivered by Target would look like. What economies of scale, innovations and quality assurance could it deliver if it weren’t for current law practice restrictions? He asserts that 80% of the public is in effect denied legal services, meaning that there’s a huge unmet need that could be filled by consumer-oriented law practices. He cited two websites that have this goal in mind in the areas of divorce and bankruptcy:
In extolling the possibilities available to national law practice, Rampenthal reviewed some of the challenges faced by lawyers in solo practices and small firms, focusing on the fact that they cannot practice law full time. Instead, they must market their practices, send out bills, hire and supervise staff, negotiate office leases, and figure out what to do about their computers and software. To compound the problem, law school didn’t train them for any of these side issues, which in fact are necessary to the success of any law firm. The result is that the law office might not be so well-managed and the time available to actually practice law is limited. In addition, if they don’t specialize in a single field of law, they will never gain the experience necessary to become experts in their field.
He contrasts this reality with the prospect of a national firm that takes care of all of the extraneous issues, permitting attorneys to practice law full time. In addition to having more time and more cases for their own expertise to develop, these attorneys would benefit from companies’ learning and development of best practices based on thousands of similar legal transactions, rather than the dozens a solo practitioner may experience. In short, Rampenthal argues, the legal profession is at a crossroads and will soon change in a way that provides consumers with a full spectrum of legal service options in-between the DIY forms offered by LegalZoom and the typical full-service, hands-on law practice.