By Natalie Anne Knowlton
Attorneys have long maintained a monopoly on legal services delivery. But this is changing.
It’s not unheard of for bar associations and lawyers to oppose the expansion of legal service providers beyond those who graduated from an accredited law school. Oh, and also those who passed an antiquated exam that reflects none of the realities of current law practice.
Even before these new tools, new providers, and new technologies came onto the scene, the assumption that people will turn to lawyers first for help with their legal issues was losing ground. Self-help information is available online. DIY hacks are everywhere. And lawyers are prohibitively expensive for many people. This last point is the crux of the issue. People who need legal help are turning to whatever source of help they can afford. In many cases, this isn’t much. In many cases, this isn’t attorneys.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not criticizing attorneys. Not right now and not through this post, at least. I am, however, challenging attorneys.
There’s a growing market for affordable legal advice and information: upwards of 80 percent of people in some of our cities are going to court without an attorney (and likely without any idea of what to do once they get there). There’s considerable opportunity within this market for attorneys to compete. There’s a good chance within this market that attorneys can succeed.
People want attorneys. I know this because I’ve spoken with, at this point, hundreds of people in the course of my user research who wished they had an attorney, who wished they could afford an attorney, who wished they had some (any) legal advice. My user research shows that people are forgoing attorneys because they are forced to, not because they are taking some principled stance over navigating a Latin-riddled and confusing process alone.
Even David Bowie couldn’t make it through the complicated procedural labyrinth that characterizes some of our state courts. And until that changes (which it will at some point, but probably not for awhile), there is going to be a need for attorneys.
But if attorneys want to compete against the growing number of alternatives (which includes going to court without any help at all), they’ll need to rethink and redefine the value they bring to clients. They’ll need to rethink and redefine how they provide legal services. And we can start this conversation by turning to an existing model: limited scope representation or “unbundled services.”
This really isn’t a new model: it means undertaking discrete tasks for a client as opposed to the entire legal case. But it still hasn’t taken hold in many places, despite the realities of self-representation, the (in)affordability of legal help, and the absolutely incredible opportunity presented by the latent legal market.
The hitch is in implementation, as it usually is. To that end, IAALS at the University of Denver recently released a report on a conference that we hosted in partnership with the American Bar Association Standing Committee on the Delivery of Legal Services: the Better Access through Unbundling Conference. I served as Reporter.
What distinguished this conversation from many others is the focus on strategic planning around the redesign of legal service delivery.
Practitioners, court staff, judges, legal tech providers, law librarians, representatives from attorney regulation, and other justice system stakeholders developed state strategic plans, tailored to the level of the unbundled service model’s integration into the existing legal market.
Early Stage Integration:
- Change rules & regulations
- Frame the need
- Understand community needs
- Expand attorney education & training programs
- Begin engaging late-adopter attorneys
- Develop messaging around the model
- Solidify referral pipelines
- Make outreach to community organizations
- Increase public education
- Refine & expand messaging around the model
This is only a start to a much broader conversation on how to more efficiently mobilize the legal profession as a whole around customer-centric legal service models. The more attorneys can listen to and respond to needs of today’s legal consumer, the better they will fare in an evolving and guaranteed-to-expand legal services market.
This is your challenge, my colleagues, should you choose to accept it.
Thoughts? Questions? Concerns? Cat pictures? Comment!