Report on the Future of Legal Services

An estimated 80 percent of the poor and those of moderate means are without meaningful access to the US-American Justice Systems, says the American Bar Association (ABA).

For all who seek innovative answers to enhance the access to and the delivery of legal services, they published a Report on the Future of Legal Services in the United States.

The Background

Faced with a challenged and ever-changing legal profession, the American Bar Association established a Commission on the Future of Legal Services in 2014. The Commission consisted of 30 members of the legal establishment and spent two years engaged in research to document the challenges and propose solutions to the issues confronting the legal profession. Shortly after its creation, the Commission arranged itself into six working groups. At public hearings, for example, the Commission heard from numerous individuals who represented a range of interests, including practicing lawyers, legal services providers, the judiciary, state bar associations and members of the public.

Specifically, the Commission examined the access to justice gap and why meaningful access to legal services remains out of reach for many Americans. The Commission also studied traditional and evolving legal service delivery models, scrutinized the strengths and weaknesses of the profession as well as the justice system as such, and developed recommendations to ensure that the next generation of legal services meets the needs of everyone more effectively.

The Recommendations

The Commission presented its Report on the Future of Legal Services in August 2016. In addition to the difficulties and obstructions to the delivery of justice, the Report highlights several broad recommendations. These recommendations are:

  • RECOMMENDATION 1) The legal profession should support the goal of providing some form of effective assistance for essential civil legal needs to all persons otherwise unable to afford a lawyer.
  • RECOMMENDATION 2) Courts should consider regulatory innovations in the area of legal services delivery.
  • RECOMMENDATION 3) All members of the legal profession should keep abreast of relevant technologies.
  • RECOMMENDATION 4) Individuals should have regular legal checkups and the ABA should create guidelines for lawyers, bar associations and others who develop and administer such checkups.
  • RECOMMENDATION 5) Courts should be accessible, user-centric, and welcoming to all litigants, while ensuring fairness, impartiality and due process.
  • RECOMMENDATION 6) The ABA should establish a Center for Innovation.
  • RECOMMENDATION 7) The legal profession should partner with other disciplines and the public for insights about innovating the delivery of legal services.
  • RECOMMENDATION 8) The legal profession should adopt methods, policies, standards and practices to best advance diversity and inclusion.
  • RECOMMENDATION 9) The criminal justice system should be reformed.
  • RECOMMENDATION 10) Resources should be vastly expanded to support long-standing efforts that have proven successful in addressing the public’s unmet needs for legal services.
  • RECOMMENDATION 11) Outcomes derived from any established or new models for the delivery of legal services must be measured to evaluate effectiveness in fulfilling regulatory objectives.
  • RECOMMENDATION 12) The ABA and other bar associations should make the examination of the future of legal services part of their ongoing strategic long-range planning.

The Role of Legal Tech

The Report points out that the legal profession must leverage technology and other innovations to meet the public's legal needs, especially for the underserved. Hence, the Report calls all members of the legal profession explicitly to keep up with relevant technologies. In the words of former ABA President William C. Hubbard, "we must open our minds to innovative approaches and to leveraging technology in order to identify new models to deliver legal services. Those who seek legal assistance expect us to deliver legal services differently. It is our duty to serve the public and it is our duty to deliver justice, not just to some, but to all".

Innovation is an ongoing process that requires sustained effort and resources as well as a culture that is open to change. To sustain and cultivate future innovation, the ABA already heard the call of recommendation 6 and established a Center for Innovation. This Center will seek input from and collaboration with technologists, innovators and consumers of legal services.

Furthermore, the Report states that the legal profession must embrace the idea that in many circumstances people other than lawyers can and do help to improve how legal services are delivered and accessed. In this regard, companies that use technology to deliver legal services, the Commission has found that in many instances, these special legal service providers have positively contributed to the accessibility of legal services. The Commission analogizes them to the medical profession's use of nurse practitioners to competently fill gaps and lower costs in the delivery of the service and is calling on the states to explore how legal services are delivered by entities that employ new technologies and inter-based platforms.

Even where the recommendations stop short of being bold, the report as a whole makes it clear that significant change is not just an option, but a necessity. In addition, this change will require innovative delivery models and innovative technologies.

The Criticism

All Commission members were representatives of the legal establishment. None belonged to the group of legal technology entrepreneurs, who are a vital part of those actively building the future of legal services delivery at scale. This reflects, in the words of LegalZoom Co-Founder Eddie Hartman, an "ingrained attitude in the legal community that non-lawyers do not really matter". Those outside the traditional model are lumped in the "not real law" bucket and denied an opinion about the future of the profession which is worth considering. Unfortunately, the Commission didn't obey its own recommendation 7, to partner with other disciplines for insights about innovating the delivery of legal services.

Nico Kuhlmann, Hamburg


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