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Does the Answer to the Future of the Legal Profession Lie in the Hands of Non-Lawyers?

By Cameo Huggins, Vanderbilt Law School Class of 2020

In this year's series of student blog posts for Legal Problem Solving, students are digging into the American Bar Association's 2016 Report on the Future of Legal Services to explore how far we've come in 2019 and what remains to do in the innovation of legal services delivery.

In the 2016 Report on the Future of Legal Services, the ABA Commission found that, contrary to what many believe, lack of civil legal assistance does not only affect the poor. In fact, the majority of moderate-income individuals do not receive the legal help they need. “Conservative estimates… suggest that as many as half of American households are experiencing at least one civil justice situation at any given time.”

The Commission recommended that to help remedy this problem, the legal profession should partner with other disciplines and the public for insights about innovating the delivery of legal services. Law firms have not been delivering the efficiency, predictability, and cost-effectiveness that their clients have been demanding. The 2016 Report on the Future of Legal Service recognized that the legal profession continues to be resistant to change. Not only is this resistance hindering the public’s use of legal services — it is also an obstacle to the success of the legal profession as a whole. Allowing lawyers to collaborate with members of other professions would encourage innovation and hopefully bring change to the delivery of legal services to the consumer. As the report states,

"[T]he innovations that disrupt and transform an industry, bring down the cost of goods and services, and ultimately help the public—are not created by incumbents alone. Rather, they are created with the assistance of outsiders who bring fresh perspectives and new approaches."

Some have proposed that the legal profession take this one step further and collaborate with other disciplines to solve clients' legal problems. In fact, the Commission in the 2016 Report on the Future of Legal Service found examples of providers, other than lawyers, who were providing affordable and competent legal help.

This sort of collaboration would allow individuals without a law degree to utilize their various skillsets to provide solutions to legal problems in addition to finding innovative ways to meet clients' needs. Many problems do not consist of solely a legal problem — they may only have a legal element within the problem. Relaxing the restrictions on who can provide legal help would not only benefit the consumer; it would help lawyers now that specialization is no longer enough in the competitive, globalized world that we live in.

Shortly after the 2016 Report on the Future of Legal Service was released, an article was released about a law firm in Pennsylvania that utilized non-lawyer experts to provide better services to its clients. For example, the firm employed engineers as well as lawyers in its energy practice group. The chairman of the firm noted that this approach provided value to its clients because the hourly rate for engineers was closer to that of paralegals than attorneys.

Likewise, a legal market landscape report described how the U.K. and Australia, two other common law jurisdictions, have relaxed their regulations to allow lawyers to collaborate with other professionals. Their version of ethical rules focuses on the consumer’s needs first, shifting it away from the lawyer.

Most recently, a report came out of California in 2018, recommending that the California Bar remove the prohibition of non-lawyer ownership of legal services to begin driving innovation. The report found that

“Modifying the ethics rules to facilitate greater collaboration across law and other disciplines will (1) drive down costs; (2) improve access; (3) increase predictability and transparency of legal services; (4) aid the growth of new businesses; and (5) elevate the reputation of the legal profession.”

However, the commentary on the report also pointed out that even if the ethical rules do change to allow non-lawyers to help provide legal services, it could still be a long time until we begin to see innovation in the legal profession. The legal profession’s aversion to change supports the decision to change the ethical rules now in order to better serve consumers and allow the practice of law to be more successful in the future.

In conclusion, the future of the legal profession may lie in the hands of non-lawyers. Not only will collaboration with allied professionals hopefully provide for a more innovative way to deliver legal services — such collaboration will help solve clients' problems holistically instead of just the legal element of a problem.

This collaboration will require a change to the ethical rules that restrict those without a law license the ability to work in the legal profession. While this will be an obstacle, the most difficult obstacle will be the law’s resistance to change. Lawyers need to realize that the future of the legal profession lies in providing the best services to their clients, including services that may extend further than strictly “legal problems”.