Editor’s note: The author of this post is a fellow at CodeX: The Stanford Center for Legal Informatics and is a member of the California bar.
By Monica Bay, Fellow, CodeX: The Stanford Center for Legal Informatics
In October 2015, the American Bar Association and San Francisco-based online legal services provider Rocket Lawyer Inc. teamed up to address “the difficulty small businesses face finding affordable legal services.”
Dubbed ABA Law Connect, the pilot-project allowed small businesses to query a licensed lawyer for a flat fee of $4.95, and in the event that further legal services are needed, the questioner could follow up with the lawyer at a pre-negotiated rate. It launched last year with tests in Illinois, Pennsylvania and California, and was put forward as a way to connect lawyers from the ABA’s network with Rocket Lawyers’ clients, via its cloud platform.
The project proved short-lived: By January 10, 2016, ABA Law Connect was dead.
Rocket Lawyer CEO and founder Charley Moore said the project had been a “great success” while it lasted and said he did not fully understand the position of several bar associations that opposed the project.
“I think everyone involved is confused,” said Moore.
“Instead of recognizing the partnership and pilot program as an opportunity for attorneys to attract new clients,” he said, “they seem to be focused solely on price protection and throttling competition.”
Moore, who started his legal career at Venture Law Group representing Yahoo! and other tech companies, founded Rocket Lawyer in 2008. It provides legal documents, such as wills, certificates of incorporation and other forms — plus access to “affordable representation by licensed attorneys” for a monthly subscription fee. In 2011, the company received an $18.5 million investment from Google Ventures and August Capital and now has tens of thousands of users per day.
He also offered choice words for anyone who doesn’t accept the innovation occurring in the legal market: “Time doesn’t wait for anyone and this market will be no different — consumers will win and those who stand in the way of progress will find themselves where all reactionaries eventually do — on the wrong side of history.”
In a Q&A via email, Moore offered his insights about the demise of the ABA pilot project.
Bay:Were you surprised that the ABA shut down the project? Why did it happen?
Moore:Well, first, let’s clear up the facts. The project was always intended to be a pilot. We collaborated with the ABA to create a service that would deliver real-world information to ABA leadership about the efficacy of ABA-branded online legal services. It was a great success, providing the ABA with a window to see firsthand the positive impact technology is having on access to justice. Remember, the big picture problems here are that too many people can’t afford legal representation, while, at the same time, many lawyers are underutilized.
In light of the facts, I think everyone involved is confused by reactions from a few local associations. Instead of recognizing the partnership and pilot program as an opportunity for attorneys to attract new clients, they seem to be focused solely on price protection and throttling competition. ABA Law Connect was not created to take business away from attorneys. Quite the opposite, the service provided a modern and affordable way for more citizens and attorneys to successfully engage with each other.
Bay:William Pugh, president of the State Bar of Pennsylvania, was quoted as saying at the ABA mid-year meeting that his bar’s “leadership wants to withdraw from the ABA if we don’t have this program deep-sixed.” (The American Lawyer). And The Illinois State Bar called ABA Law Connect “misguided and ill-conceived.” What do you think triggers this reaction?
Moore: We’ll reserve judgement, as this is an internal ABA conversation.
Bay:Is there a perception that Rocket Lawyer and other self-help/lawyer referral organizations are competing with existing bar association referral services?
Moore:I’ve seen some public statements from a few associations that indicate this may be the case. But, that’s confusing and surprising, given our ostensibly shared mission to provide greater access to justice to the citizens of these communities. We also assume that these organizations are not seeking to use their market position to stifle fair competition.
Bay:James Sandman, president of Legal Services Corp., says, "The do-it-yourself movement is pervasive across all segments of the economy today. It’s not going away, and anyone who thinks law is immune to it is delusional.” With 80 percent of Americans unable to find — or afford — lawyers, why is there resistance?
Moore:ABA Law Connect was not at all a do-it-yourself service. Like Rocket Lawyer, ABA Law Connect enables attorneys to more efficiently work with clients, using modern tools like mobile devices, cloud-based document assembly and electronic signatures. The result is lower cost for clients, facilitated by lower costs to find and service clients for networked attorneys.
Bay:What needs to be done (or happen) to provide access to justice to the underserved?
Moore:The good news is that we’re already providing millions of underserved people with modern legal services. For example, the majority of small businesses that use Rocket Lawyer have never hired a lawyer before. That’s exciting and exactly why Rocket Lawyer was created.
We expect to continue to work with respected institutions like the ABA, as well as Legal Aid chapters across the U.S. And we will do so relentlessly in pursuit of our mission to bring down the cost of justice to the point that it is within reach for everyone. There can be no rational argument that affordable justice is counter to the public interest — so as long as we deliver services that lead to more people achievingtheir goals, we will all win together.
Bay: Will the ABA’s action set the stage for increasing cooperation between self-help providers (Rocket Lawyer, Avvo, LegalZoom, Nolo and others?)
Moore:It’s not that simple. The companies listed are very different. For example, Rocket Lawyer is not only a “self-help provider.” We partner with a network of licensed attorneys across the United States and the United Kingdom. From day one, our goal has been to deliver complete coverage for any legal situation, especially those that require attorneys.
We think that we offer customers significant advantages — lower cost, mobile access, better service, more choice — than any alternative and that’s how capitalism works. Customers have a choice in the marketplace and it’s our job to earn their business, over our competitors, every minute of every day.
Bay:Is the ABA controversy a blessing in disguise?
Moore:It’s not in disguise. The ABA is fortunate to have visionary leadership in this time of transformation. Several other bar associations are also led by forward-thinking, innovators. Time doesn’t wait for anyone and this market will be no different — consumers will win and those who stand in the way of progress will find themselves where all reactionaries eventually do — on the wrong side of history.
Moore:Here’s my recent statement:
“The fact is that a majority of American individuals and small businesses are priced out of legal representation. At the same time, many lawyers are underutilized. ABA Law Connect came about as a way for the American Bar Association to experiment with modern technology as a way to resolve this paradox.
We are disappointed that a few individuals chose protecting their lawyer referral revenue and high fees, over innovation, fair competition and the public’s need for wider access to attorney advice. Still, it’s inspiring that the ABA and California Bar Association leadership share our paramount commitment to bring the fundamental right of legal representation to everyone, regardless of their economic means.
Affordable legal help, from licensed attorneys is still always available at RocketLawyer.com and we expect to collaborate with forward thinking bar associations now and in the future.”
(UPDATED: This post has been corrected to reflect that August Capital is also an investor in Rocket Lawyer.)