How Technology is Changing the Legal Profession

Person on a laptop searching for legal adviceSo many industries have already been "disrupted" by technology. For example, people are using Uber instead of taking taxis, and travelers are staying in Airbnb rooms rather than hotel rooms.

Will the legal profession be the next target for "disruption"? It's already happening, and lawyers are worried.

They should be. Recent studies from McKinsey & Co and MIT showed that from 13 to 23% of what lawyers do can be automated.

Lawyers are Worried

The American Bar Association is the leading organization for attorneys in the US. Recently, the ABA’s Commission on the Future of Legal Services published an “Issues Paper Concerning Unregulated LSP Entities.”

An "LSP" is a "legal service provider." Lawyers, of course, are "legal service providers." They're also regulated by state bar associations. You have to be a member of a state bar in order to practice law, and lawyers are subject to discipline (including disbarment) if they're dishonest or incompetent.

What the ABA is concerned about is UN-regulated entities that provide legal services to consumers. But the ABA hasn't yet figured out exactly what kinds of LSPs lawyers should be worried about.

At the very broadest, a definition of LSPs could include publishers of legal information like FreeAdvice that also help consumers find lawyers to help them.

LSPs also include services that provide automated legal services online or via mobile app. For example, LawGeex (a company I work with) uses artificial intelligence to review contracts. Shake enables the creating, signing, and sending of legally binding agreements via a mobile app. Willing allows people to create their own wills.

The Practice of Law

In addition to not being clear about what types of LSPs should be worrisome to lawyers, the ABA also couldn't agree on a definition of "the practice of law." The ABA suggested that this should be left up to the individual states.

States are already working at revising their definitions. For example, North Carolina House Bill 436 would exclude from the statutory definition of "the practice of law" the operation of a website that gives consumers access to interactive software that generates legal documents.

Agencies of the US government have issued a statement in support of the Bill.

The staffs of the Federal Trade Commission and the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice noted that

Overbroad scope-of-practice and unauthorized-practice-of-law policies can restrict competition between licensed attorneys and non-attorney providers of legal services, increasing the prices consumers must pay for legal services, and reducing consumers’ choices.

The agencies noted that for millions of Americans, especially those with low and moderate incomes, there's a "well-known crisis in access to legal services." The ABA's own LSP white paper recognized that:

[a]ccording to most estimates, about four-fifths of the civil legal needs of the poor, and two- to three-fifths of the needs of middle-income individuals, remain unmet. (Prof. Deborah Rhode, Stanford Law School)

Online legal service providers, including publishers like FreeAdvice, can help meet the needs of those underserved consumers.

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