Law Scribbler

Stop comparing your startup to TurboTax

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Jason Tashea

Jason Tashea. Photo by Saverio Truglia.

In January, I was preparing for an interview with Jonathan Petts, executive director of Upsolve, a legal tech nonprofit that helps people navigate Chapter 7 bankruptcy.

During my background research, I was reading an article about the firm’s software, and that’s when I saw it: a variant of my legal tech trigger phrase.

Upsolve is like “TurboTax for bankruptcy,” the piece explained.

I cringed when I read it. My heart rate spiked, and my eyes rolled into the back of my head. I despise the phrase “TurboTax for X.”

It’s a common refrain in the legal tech space—and tech generally. Companies and nonprofits looking to improve upon a common but complex legal or financial system through a simple, glossy user interface often rely on comparing their product to the wildly successful tax preparation software. Tech entrepreneurs have used the TurboTax analogy to describe their apps that help with expungement and employment law—and those are just my sins—among many other subjects.

While people often see TurboTax as a successful software company that makes tax filing easier, the reality is that TurboTax is not worthy of its vaunted rhetorical role. It’s a rent seeker that actively lobbies to keep the tax system complex, justifying its ongoing existence and profits.

This was at the top of mind when I spoke with Petts at the beginning of the year. I asked him if Upsolve felt similarly vested in maintaining a complex bankruptcy system.

“No,” he put simply. “We’re trying to help people get a fresh start.”

In fact, he indicated that he’d be happier with an administrative process where a court wasn’t involved, like in the United Kingdom, which he says would be less complex and costly. It could also potentially undercut the need for his current product, which walks people through the filing process and generates appropriate forms.

But that’s the thing, Petts sees Upsolve’s role as more than just a software provider—they’re stewards of an improved bankruptcy system.

“Upsolve is advocating a number of changes to reform bankruptcy to make it more accessible for low-income folks,” Petts explains, “including electronic filing for pro se filers and use of videoconference for 341 meetings,” where a court-appointed trustee verifies the filer’s identity and other information.

At its best, legal technology—whether for-profit or not—is centered around improving existing systems, not perpetuating broken ones. It’s why this tax season, I resolve to banish “TurboTax for X” from my writing and actively challenge those who use the analogy. Doing so can improve my writing’s accuracy and stop lending credibility to an undeserving company.

Since 2008, Intuit, TurboTax’s parent company, has spent no less than $2 million a year on federal lobbying, according to OpenSecrets.

This spending is explicitly meant to undermine better government, which the company sees as a major competitor. Not being coy about this, Intuit filed a Securities and Exchange Commission report in 2018 listed “governmental encroachment in our tax businesses” and “public policy affecting the preparation and filing of tax returns” as risks to their profitability.

This lobbying has had real implications. In 2013, a federal effort to adopt a simpler tax filing system led Intuit, through an industry association, to fund a PR company that created the appearance of grassroots opposition to the proposed policy that would disproportionately help lower- and middle-class people, as reported by Pro Publica. In 2016, with a coalition of other tax prep companies, Intuit spent heavily for legislation that would permanently stop the federal government from creating its own tax-filing software. The bill did not become law, but the beneficiary would have been the “Free Tax Alliance,” a cohort of 13 private-sector tax preparation companies, including Intuit.

This is a parasitic approach to public policy that comes at the cost of American taxpayers. Think if LegalZoom tried to kill every single effort to make trusts and estates filings easier or if DocuSign stopped courts or public defenders from developing their own e-signature software. Both propositions are outrageous, antithetical to the companies’ goals of improving the efficiency and access to the legal system, and would justly bring scorn for such blatant self-dealing.

With this understanding, when a company, commentator or journalist uses “TurboTax for X,” they are doing a disservice to the software they are analogizing and perpetuating the idea that TurboTax is good for society, which it is not.

Luckily, an end to this comparison doesn’t leave a verbosity vacuum. There are plenty of alternatives.

It may sound basic, but a “guided walk-through” for divorce, housing, personal injury or whatever conveys the same point. I’ve also seen companies and products call themselves a “concierge,” “self-help” or “navigator” for X. “Do-it-yourself” is also an option. A quick trip to the thesaurus offers dozens of other possibilities.

Whatever the phrase or analogy: If legal technology is going to live up to its most ambitious potential of servicing people, closing the access-to-justice gap and genuinely making our legal system better, then comparing its offerings to TurboTax does them no service.

For these reasons, join me in banishing “TurboTax for X” from the legal tech vernacular.

It’s one deduction we can all use.

Jason Tashea is the author of the Law Scribbler column and a legal affairs writer for the ABA Journal. Follow him on Twitter @LawScribbler.

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