The COVID-19 crisis is accelerating change across industries, and the legal profession is no exception.
On April 24, the Utah Supreme Court proposed sweeping reforms to the way the legal industry is regulated. According to a press release, the Court proposed these changes in light of the fact that “the lack of affordable legal services can be devastating for many people.”
In addition to more permanent reforms, the Court announced that it would expedite reviews and approvals for attorneys who can offer free or low-cost legal services to people and businesses impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.
“Americans need and deserve access to affordable legal services,” said Utah Supreme Court Justice Deno Himonas, who leads the Utah Implementation Task Force on Regulatory Reform. “The Utah Supreme Court’s regulatory reform efforts offer a way to harness innovation and market forces to improve the delivery of much-needed legal services to all.”
The press release called these rule changes the “largest reforms to [the] legal profession in a generation.” If passed, they will trigger a two-year “pilot regulatory sandbox” in which to test the reforms, as well as creating an Office of Legal Services Innovation to regulate nontraditional legal services and professionals.
Nonlawyers Would Be Able to Own Law Firms, Share in Fees
One of the most significant proposals would allow nonlawyers to own or invest in law firms and share in legal fees. This would mean fee-sharing would no longer be limited by division of labor.
“We are envisioning a combination of lawyer and tech people working together to use the platforms of the 21st century in providing legal services,” Justice Himonas told the ABA Journal. As with the other proposed reforms, the ultimate goal is to encourage innovation and increase access to justice.
There is international precedent for allowing nonlawyers to own firms and share in fees; it’s permitted in the United Kingdom and Australia. Though in the past it has proven unpopular stateside, momentum seemed to be shifting the other way even before the Utah court’s proposal.
Like the Utah task force, last fall the Arizona Task Force on the Delivery of Legal Services advocated opening up law firm ownership to nonlawyers.
“The legal profession cannot continue to pretend that lawyers operate in a vacuum, surrounded and aided only by other lawyers or that lawyers practice law in a hierarchy in which only lawyers should be owners,” the Arizona task force’s report stated. “Nonlawyers are instrumental in helping lawyers deliver legal services, and they bring valuable skills to the table.”
New Conduct Rules Would Streamline Solicitation Laws
The Utah Supreme Court also proposed paring down advertising and solicitation rules to the following:
- “A lawyer shall not make a false or misleading communication about the lawyer or the lawyer’s services.” (This provision includes a definition of “false or misleading communication.”)
- “A lawyer shall not interact with a prospective client in a manner that involves coercion, duress, or harassment.”
These changes could make it easier for attorneys to reach clients, and vice versa.
Among the many other reforms the Utah Supreme Court wants to implement: permitting fee-splitting between attorneys from different law firms, and permitting referral fees. Again, more flexibility could allow firms to deliver justice to consumers more effectively, without getting caught up in regulatory red tape or roadblocks.
Whether or not Utah permanently adopts these changes, the tide appears to be turning in favor of tech-friendly, accessible legal services. Law firms simply cannot afford to continue with business as usual. If they do, they will be left behind by more agile, data-oriented firms.
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