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The Way of the Dinosaurs?

Warnings of need for change fill legal services hearing

Posted Sep 1, 2008 8:10 AM CDT
By Jill Schachner Chanen

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Lawyers throughout the pro­­­fession have embraced technology to help make their law practices more efficient and com­munications with their clients and colleagues more effective. Yet few, if any, lawyers have been able to transform their practices through technology to make legal services more accessible to the middle class.

The Standing Committee on the Delivery of Legal Services held hearings at the annual meeting to try to understand why this goal has remained elusive despite all the advances in technology that lawyers, law firms and corporate law departments regularly use. “We are trying to find out what is happening and whether technology can provide access to legal services for the middle-income [client],” said the chair of the committee, M. Catherine Richardson of Syracuse, N.Y.

Richardson said the committee is not trying to solve the problem; rath­er, it is trying to identify stake­holders and help foster communi­cation among them as a way of meet­ing its goal of providing access to legal services for the middle class.

BARRIERS GIVE NONLAWYERS EDGE

For three hours, the committee heard from witnesses who testified about their use of technology to enhance their professional lives and business interests. But the witnesses were almost unanimous in the belief that too many barriers exist within the profession to allow wider access to legal services through that technology.

Barriers include regulations against cross-jurisdictional representation, definitions of unauthorized practice, and rules of professional responsibility that limit the unbundling of legal services.

Madison, Wis., lawyer Nerino J. Petro Jr. warned the committee during the hearing that he feared the profession was regulating itself into extinction. Many nonlawyer businesses are stepping in to fill the void and provide services to the middle class such as online legal-document completion.

Petro testified that the regulations were giving these nonlawyer businesses a competitive advantage over lawyers. On the other hand, he said, consumers should know with whom they are dealing and what they are getting when they turn to nonlawyer, online businesses for help that they cannot obtain from the legal profession.

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