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Embracing the Interdisciplinary Approach to Legal Services Delivery

by Jingwei Fan, Vanderbilt Law School Class of 2020

In the 2019 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 its 2016 Report, the ABA Commission on the Future of Legal Services made various important recommendations regarding the delivery of legal services in the United States. Recommendation 7 addresses the need for an interdisciplinary approach to the delivery of legal services. This approach has become more popular today as evidenced in two areas: online legal services and states’ multidisciplinary initiatives.

Online legal services incorporate technology, from internet platform to artificial intelligence, into law. In 2015, Richard Barton, the founder of Expedia and Zillow, predicted that online ratings and digital marketing will eventually become the dominant way for individuals to find lawyers. Although online legal services have not yet become dominant, multiple online legal service providers have appeared on the horizon.

For example, LegalShield, also known as Pre- Paid Legal, provides pre-paid legal plans for legal services through a network of more than 6,900 independent attorneys across North America. For a monthly fee of less than $25, subscribers can access these attorneys without having to worry about hourly bills. LegalShield’s services include speeding ticket assistance, contract and document review, IRS audit services, and estate planning. This online platform, which links the clients to attorneys, is a fantastic model to provide affordable services for personal legal issues.

Another interesting example is LawDepot. It is like the lay version of Westlaw Practical Law. It automatically generates legal documents for end users. For example, when I typed in “rent out my house,” the website directed me to a customizable Personal Property Rental Agreement. The agreement form would update instantly as I filled in the information the website asked for, including parties, rental information, terms, signing date, etc. After I filled in all the information, I simply clicked Print and Download and had a customized rental agreement! I was surprised that the clauses actually looked very professional! LegalShield and LawDepot are two nice examples of different online legal service providers.

There are many more platforms that have different models and specialize in different areas of law. It is probably only a matter of time before Richard Barton’s prediction comes true.

The increasing popularity of the interdisciplinary approach is also due to states’ multidisciplinary initiatives. For example, the California State Bar established the Task Force on Access Through Innovation of Legal Services in July 2018. The task force studies the use of artificial intelligence and other tech-driven legal service delivery systems, including online consumer self-help legal research, document production, and dispute resolution. California has considered the Fully Integrated Model, under which a single firm has organizational components that provide legal, consulting, accounting, and other professional services. This model is a one-stop shopping center for clients, and legal services may be provided independently of other services.

Michigan has two types of multidisciplinary practices. The Ancillary Services allow attorneys to operate non-law businesses offering services to clients under certain conditions. The Joint Services allow attorneys to make agreements with other service providers to deliver services to clients.

North Carolina has a Cooperative Model which allows attorneys to employ nonlawyer professionals on their staffs to assist them in advising clients, as long as the professionals’ conducts are compatible with the professional obligations of the lawyers.

The interdisciplinary approach has been proven to be efficient and effective. Adam, a law student at Georgia State University College of Law, interned at a legal clinic which emphasized the interdisciplinary approach. At the beginning, Adam was overwhelmed by the extensive medical records he received. Fortunately, Adam was helped by teams of medical students who summarized everything from the medical records that he should know about the cases. Through this experience, Adam realized the efficiency of the collaborative approach. According to Adam, this approach has “alleviated much of the difficulty in reconciliation between law and medicine by: 1) the convenience of in-house medical expertise; 2) different perspectives and backgrounds contributing to a central agenda; and 3) educating both parties on better and more reasonable outcomes.”

In conclusion, ABA Commission’s recommendation about the interdisciplinary approach is a very important one among all the recommendations in the 2016 Report. It is surprising that the ABA Commission merely devoted less than a page in a 116-page report to address this recommendation. A solid implementation of this approach across the legal profession will help solve many other problems that the Commission addressed at Part I of its report. For example, it will become the main force to provide indigent clients with access to more affordable legal services, given the fact that pro bono alone is far from sufficient. It will also help reduce the unemployment of lawyers and recent law graduates by providing them opportunities to collaborate with other non-law professionals. Overall, the interdisciplinary approach is well implemented today, and a bright future lies ahead.