Posted Sep 01, 2008 01:10 pm CDT
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.
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.