An independent legal research center will work with Utah officials to test what could be groundbreaking regulations on allowing nonlawyers to provide legal services.

The Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System announced Oct. 31 that its new “Unlocking Legal Regulation” project was devised in part to advance Utah’s plans to loosen restrictions on nonlawyers in the state’s legal system.

A recent report from the Utah Work Group on Regulatory Reform suggested changes intended to improve access to justice for residents unable to afford private attorneys in civil and family court cases. Panels in California and Arizona have made similar recommendations, using similar rationale.

The Utah report urged an increased role for nonlawyers in legal services, including tech companies, and mandated creation of a regulatory agency to determine how they could help.

“The restrictive rules that dictate how legal advice can be given, and by whom, need to change,” said IAALS manager Zachariah DeMeola in an Oct. 31 blog post. “For too long the rules have prevented the profession from taking a responsibility in this crisis.”

“This is our moment. The tipping point is here,” DeMeola wrote.

Pilot Test

A chief task force recommendation suggests that Utah loosen or possibly repeal the state’s Bar Rule 5.4, which restricts law firms and other legal services operations from sharing fees with nonlawyers.

Task force proposals gained speedy, unanimous approval from the state Supreme Court, but there’s still plenty of work to do to create the office, which will be independent of the bar.

Utah and IAALS officials hope the new office will be a model for a multi-state regulatory body.

IAALS will help Utah develop and test a “risk-based regulation system” based on a model the group created. IAALS’ goal is to see a system that ensures high-quality services, but doesn’t limit service providers to just lawyers.

IAALS also plans to evaluate how the new system is working over time.

New legal service providers will be allowed to test their services in a “regulatory sandbox” through which proposed innovations will be tested.

“We are extremely grateful for the connection with IAALS,” said Utah task force co-chair John Lund. “It’s really helpful to be working with a group with a strong national profile.”

The California Example

Each state considering access to justice reform is weighing how best to promote it while furthering attorney independence, and protecting citizens from increased fraud from unscrupulous legal service providers.

Satisfying both sets of concerns may be tricky, if California is an example.

During that state’s public comment period, rank-and-file attorneys overwhelmingly opposed the proposed reforms in written remarks. Some decried the notion that tech providers and other nonlawyers could understand or respect legal ethics. Others expressed alarm over the industry’s shifting dynamics and ways that might force them to change.

Some opponents also expressed concerns about the potential corollary impacts of law firm ownership. This includes the possibility of Big Four accountancies and other alternative legal service providers using rule changes to open legal shops in the U.S.

Equally impassioned reform proponents dominated California’s public hearing on the topic. They included several who have been working on the issue for years.