Future of Law Friday: Is The New Generation of Legal Tech Entrenching Old Ways?

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There is nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency that which should not be done at all. –Peter Drucker

Oh how the mighty have fallen.

Recently, there’s been a backlash against “disruptive” tax preparation companies like  Intuit  (which makes Turbo Tax, a DIY tax prep product) and HR Block (tax form-fillers)  that enable consumers to bypass pricey CPAs to file taxes. The reason? Seems that these companies, which have a vested interest in the tax system remaining complex have been aggressively lobbying  against new measures that would simplify tax filing considerably,  and potentially eliminate the need for tax prep companies entirely.  These stories got me to thinking:  is the new generation of legal tech merely perpetuating and entrenching old and inefficient ways of providing legal services, and as these companies grow, will they too lobby against adoption of systemic changes.

Take for example the soon-to-be-launched service, Run the Call, a mobile app that helps solo practitioners locate back up attorneys to cover court call  recently covered in Chicago Business.  As I wrote in an earlier post there’s already a proven market for this type of “spot coverage,” and while I’m skeptical that this type of service might suit my practice, there are several alternative use cases that I can envision. To be sure, RuntheCall, StandIn and similar services address a real problem for solos: the need to cover multiple and often simultaneously scheduled status calls and scheduling hearings. But is that a problem we ought to be solving? Isn’t the real problem the fact that courts continue to require in-person appearances for matters that in most civil cases are relatively trivial and could be handled by phone conference or Skype? [NOTE: status calls in criminal defense are a different animal as even a seemingly minor change might forfeit a defendant’s constitutional right to speedy trial – but for this reason, they may not be suitable for an on-demand service at all] In fact, in the federal courts where I primarily practice, scheduling hearings, discovery motions, in limine motions and even emergency contempt motions are routinely handled by phone which allows for more flexibility in scheduling and saves clients the cost of attorney travel and waiting time in court.

The same is true with lots of other legal tech.  At TechShow, I noticed that many law practice management platforms integrate with LawPay, a company whose unique selling proposition is facilitating attorney acceptance of credit cards by directing payments into the lawyers’ trust account rather than operating account (MyCase has taken a different approach, announcing plans to build a credit card payment system directly into the platform ). Again, while Law Pay solves a current problem for some attorneys – the ability to accept credit card payments and avoid chargebacks to trust accounts – hasn’t the concept of trust accounts run its course now that most consumers use credit cards which can protect them against attorney non-performance.

Even some of the services offered by companies like Legal Zoom  and Rocket Lawyer  – once embraced as disruptive – are now arguably obsolete, or should be.  Consider incorporation services. Back in 2001 when LegalZoom was founded and up until two or three years ago, Legal Zoom’s user-friendly online forms made it easier for consumers to self-file incorporations. At that time, many states did not even have downloadable forms for consumers to complete by hand and submit and so Legal Zoom, even with its hefty markups ($359 for an LLC ready to ship in 7-10 days, plus state filing fees) was a deal. But that’s all changed. Now many states – at least the District of Columbia and Maryland – have incorporation forms online (along with explanatory information) that consumers can complete entirely on their own, submit through the website with a filing fee and have their incorporation approved within 48 hours. Of course, most people aren’t familiar with that option because LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer have superior SEO to a Secretary of State’s office. But it’s difficult to understand what value form filling services offer over a government filing system.  In many ways, these services are really just solving yesterday’s problems.

Probate reform won’t come as easily as upgrades to state business divisions because it will require legislative action. For example, many states impose all kinds of signature formalities which could readily be replaced with blockchain technology. If that legislation were to be proposed, however, would companies like LegalZoom and RocketLawyer, with millions of dollars in their coffers and a vested interest in maintaining the status quo oppose it, just as Turbo Tax and HR Block are doing now with tax reform.

Honestly, I don’t have a dog in the fight here. I’m all for figuring out ways to use technology to develop new products and services to give consumers options – and if those services eliminate the need for lawyers, well so what? If lawyers can’t figure out a way to compete against forms, we don’t deserve to be in practice. But what does concern me is when we attribute more credit to these new services than they deserve by praising them solving the problem of access to justice  when in fact, they simply reinforce the inefficiencies in our judicial system that technology could eliminate all together.