Earlier this summer, the California State Bar’s Task Force on Access Through Innovation of Legal Services met to discuss proposed rule changes regarding the legal practice of law in the state. The meeting was particularly focused on addressing the ongoing issue in California – and across the nation – of access to justice. The results of the CA Task Force’s meeting were many, including some more controversial ones: allowing non-lawyers to deliver legal services and have an ownership interest in law firms as well as allowing technology-driver legal systems to provide legal advice to the public. While these would be allowed under proper regulation, the details of how they will be regulated was not addressed at the CA Task Force meeting. Should other states follow suit, this can change the landscape of the legal industry quite significantly.
Not a New Conversation
The discussion over allowing non-lawyers to practice law is one that has been going on for quite some time. Part of the reasoning behind the support for the idea is to increase access to justice for individuals who are unable to afford to pay a lawyer. The presumption is that when non-lawyers are allowed to enter the legal marketplace and provide services, the increase in supply of legal services will decrease costs (or, at least, provide incentive to decrease costs).
The American Bar Association’s Task Force on the Future of Legal Education issued a report in 2013 recommending allowing non-lawyer technicians into the legal marketplace to increase the public’s access to justice. In 2012, the state of Washington implemented a limited license legal technician program. Under the ABA’s proposed amendments to the rules technology-driven legal systems, in addition to licensed technicians, would be able to practice law. The idea seems to be that artificial intelligence (AI) would be able to provide legal advice – once the technology becomes available and is regulated properly.
Solo and Small Firms Likely Affected
Should non-lawyers be allowed into the practice of law, it is likely that the hardest hit legal service providers will be solos and small firms. This is because these types of firms are the most likely to provide legal services for low-income and middle-class markets. These firms may have to lower their legal fees to compete and may not be able to without going into the red. Notably, the California Lawyers Association has yet to issue a statement regarding the CA Task Force’s recommendations.