Essential? It depends.

So, I have now been exclusively working from home for . . . a number of days that … who am I kidding? Just like you, I barely can keep track of time at this point. March seems to have been 3 years long so far. It’s definitely been a while. And, importantly for context of this post, I’ve been doing it now for longer than the time that my firm’s office has now been closed.

My firm’s office, the Memphis office, of our multi-office firm, closed at 6pm on I think it was Tuesday of this past week. We did this because the “safer at home” order entered by the Mayor of Memphis went into effect at 6pm that day and it indicated that lawyers delivering legal services were only “essential services” exempt from the stay-at-home restrictions when we were delivering legal services necessary to the delivery of others who were providing essential services.

Our office had to go a different route than our Nashville office because Nashville’s “safer at home” order treated the delivery of legal services as essential services without exception.

This discrepancy from municipality to municipality in our state has prompted the Tennessee Bar Association to issue a public statement lobbying for the idea that lawyers should be treated as essential services under any such orders. Discrepancies elsewhere have also caused the American Bar Association to lobby for the same outcome: that any order requiring people to stay at home should include an exception for lawyers as essential services.

But, here’s the thing. In the context of orders for public safety designed to keep people in their homes for social distancing and prevent people from commuting to common spaces for the performance of work — most of us lawyers are not performing that kind of “essential services.”

Most of us with law licenses and an internet connection can do our jobs from the safety (both our own safety and the safety of others) of our home.

The taking of nuanced positions is difficult in normal times. It is incredibly difficult in the middle of a pandemic, but I feel obligated to say to both the TBA and the ABA that it is fundamentally irresponsible to stake out a non-nuanced position on this topic.

In the middle of a pandemic, certain things are undeniably essential services: healthcare, food, water, things related to infrastructure… the list is admittedly longer than that… but reasonable people should be able to agree that, in such circumstances, only certain lawyers in certain situations should qualify as essential services.

Lawyers representing criminal defendants? Absolutely. Lawyers working as prosecutors? Absolutely. Lawyers who somehow actually have a trial that is actually going forward despite the circumstances? Certainly. Lawyers representing juveniles defending themselves in delinquency proceedings where the juveniles could end up in prison? Yes.

But, the rest of us? No matter how important what we are doing is – and I’m NOT trying to gainsay the importance…I’m doing quite a few things that I would defy anyone to argue are not important right now (well, not “right now,” right now I’m just writing an incredibly unimportant blogpost) — but in the context of a discussion about whether we have to go to a business location, and require other staff members to do the same, the answer has to be simply no.

Lawyers are exceedingly important. But so many of us can do the things we do on a daily basis using only technology and so much of what we do can routinely be pushed off for 30 days at a time that, if the circumstances weren’t so grave, it would be almost laughable for us to be arguing so hard to be treated as exempt from stay-at-home requirements.

Change seems like it never comes … right up until it does.

So, I’m not a public health expert and I try to pride myself on not talking too much about conversations to which I am unable to meaningfully contribute. Thus, I’m not going to purport to speak directly to how to be dealing with the pandemic looming over everything. I’ve been doing what little I can to try to help “flatten the curve,” because I’m economically privileged enough and have robust access to technology to be able to do so. If you are in a similar situation, I hope you will do the same.

I’m going to instead focus on something much smaller … the disappointing news out of California yesterday that goes a long way toward kneecapping the efforts of the California ATILS task force. As mentioned in an earlier post, the ATILS task force itself had already scaled down its efforts but the California State Bar voted down significant aspects of even the watered-down proposal.

If you’d like to read the details, you can do so at this The American Lawyer article. If you’d like a sense of what comes next, you can read this Twitter thread from Andrew Arruda, a very irked member of the task force.

All I want to say for today is that I don’t think the California State Bar is going to have the last word on this, not by a long shot.

Beyond the fact that the post-pandemic world is going to be different, I’m not prepared to predict what different exactly looks like. But it seems clear already that, at least in the United States, we are learning quickly that a lot of things people have been told weren’t possible actually are.

Your job likely can be done remotely through telecommuting. The for-profit health system can make allowance to discount costs. A quality legal education can be obtained through online classes. Courts do not have to have as many in-person hearings in order to dispense justice.

The list is much, much longer.

It is hard not to think that there are going to be a variety of businesses, large and small (including law firms), that will not be able to survive in an environment where large swaths of the population do not venture out of their house for much of a 30 or 60 day period. It won’t all be businesses in the food and beverage delivery industry and businesses that otherwise require large groups to gather. Yet, given the legalistic nature of U.S. society today, the demand for people to be helped with their legal and contractual rights likely only increases.

Whether that translates to an increased demand for lawyers to do those things though is a lot less clear.

Innovations will likely happen out of necessity.

In the meantime, stay safe out there.

Late to the podcast party.

As a white male in my mid-forties, it was probably inevitable that I’d end up with an appearance on a podcast since an unfathomably high number of podcasts are showcases for my demographic to espouse their views on things. While I’m a bit late to the party (46), my turn has come around.

More seriously, I was grateful and honored to be a guest on The Podvocate, a podcast produced through the Loyola School of Law in Chicago. We talked about the future of legal ethics with an emphasis on the impetus for, and the state of play of, efforts to re-regulate the profession but also weaved into the discussion a slice of what’s going on in D.C. and whether lawyers are demonstrating reason to believe they value independence of professional judgment under our current system. You can give it a listen at this link: https//soundcloud.com/thepodvocate/season-2-episode-17. The host, Jim Alrutz, does a very fine job of steering the discussion and has a bright future.

If you’re looking to read the voice of someone who is not a white male in his forties on one of these topics, I’d recommend checking out this post from a friend who is a lawyer in Wisconsin at her blog: www.ethicking.com. The post is more than a month old at this point, but, if you haven’t read it, it’s still quite good.

ABA favors innovation but really stresses the “no” part.

Okay. Now that all of the problems with the erosion of the rule of law in our country have been solved, I can write that post about the onslaught of developments in the last little bit related to potential efforts to “re-regulate” the legal profession.

Just kidding. Rule of law is still ENTIRELY in jeopardy despite the fact that more than 2,000 former officials of the U.S. Department of Justice have co-signed a letter calling on the current Attorney General of the U.S. to resign.

Nevertheless, we are doing this long-contemplated post today. So, in just the first two months of 2020, there have been several developments demonstrating continued momentum for reform in the world of legal ethics and the delivery of legal services.

In Utah, that states rapidly-moving effort continues apace. Utah’s Implementation Task Force on Regulatory Reform is up and running. And its website is accepting inquiries about participation in its Legal Regulatory Sandbox at this link.

In Arizona, a petition was filed on January 30, 2020 seeking to have the Arizona Supreme Court, among other things, delete its RPC 5.4. The petition was filed by a member of the Arizona Task Force on the Delivery of Legal Services who serves as the Chair of one of its work groups. The petitioner also happens to be Administrative Director of the Arizona Administrative Office of Courts.

Even earlier during January 2020, the Global Legal Practice Committee of the D.C. Bar put out a formal request for public comment about a number of topics related to its existing RPC 5.4. In so doing, Washington, D.C., which has permitted a limited form of non-lawyer ownership opportunities in law firms since 1991 has now announced feedback on seven pretty-thorough bullet point requests, ending with: “If D.C.’s existing Rule 5.4 should not be changed, why not?”

News reports in January 2020 indicate that the Connecticut Bar has launched a task force called the State of the Legal Profession Task Force.

California has a crucial meeting of its Task Force on Access Through Innovation of Legal Services on tap for February 24, 2020. The agenda for that meeting lists seven report and recommendations and one clarifying statement up for consideration. Included in the list is not only what sounds like some minor amendments to California’s RPC 5.4 but also implementation of some form of regulatory sandbox focused on being a pilot program to gather data, and the study of a licensing program to allow people other than lawyers to provide certain kinds of limited legal services.

And, most recently, the ABA House of Delegates has adopted Resolution 115 to seek to encourage states (such as those mentioned above that are already far out in front of the ABA) to pursue innovation.

When originally circulated, ABA Resolution 115 was the kind of thing that read as short, to the point, and (particularly given all the task forces already in place in various states) seemingly not truly all that controversial:

RESOLVED, That the American Bar Association encourages U.S. jurisdictions to consider innovative approaches to the access to justice crisis in order to help the more than 80% of people below the poverty line and the majority of middle-income Americans who lack meaningful access to civil legal services.

FURTHER RESOLVED, That the American Bar Association encourages U.S. jurisdictions to consider regulatory innovations that have the potential to improve the accessibility, affordability, and quality of civil legal services, while also ensuring necessary and appropriate protections that best serve the public, including the provision of legal counsel for children facing essential civil legal matters, for anyone facing a possible loss of physical liberty, and for low income individuals in adversarial proceedings where basic human needs are at stake.

FURTHER RESOLVED, That the American Bar Association encourages U.S. jurisdictions to collect and assess data regarding regulatory innovations both before and after the adoption of any innovations to ensure that changes are effective in increasing access to legal services and are in the public interest.

And, yet, even that was a step-too-far in the world of ABA politics as a number of prominent slices of ABA membership, including the New York State Bar and the Solo and Small Firm section of the ABA, went on the attack against Resolution 115 as a radical proposal.

Perhaps thinking it would be hard to imagine how the reaction to a sort of milquetoast resolution encouraging the exploration of innovative ideas to engendering such vociferous opposition, far too many media outlets reported on the resolution as proposing significant changes to the Model Rules when, in fact, no rule revisions at all were actually included.

Thereafter, the forces in favor of Resolution 115 made amendments to try to provide reassurance to the clamor from a variety of groups. In so doing, what was already a “meh” proposal was watered down even further. Specifically, the resolution was revised to add an additional “Further resolved” paragraph at the end:

FURTHER RESOLVED, That nothing in this Resolution should be construed as altering any of the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, including Rule 5.4, as they relate to nonlawyer ownership of law firms, the unauthorized practice of law, or any other subject.

The extensive and thorough report that accompanied the Resolution was also pared down to remove references to, and discussions of, a number of efforts at exploration that have occurred or are under consideration in various jurisdictions, including in the area of considering revisions to RPC 5.4 and to allowing non-lawyer ownership. As a result, the original nine-page report became a three-page report. And given that the addition of the third “Further Resolved” paragraph just reads as surplus of the silly sort, it is the defenestration of 2/3 of what the Report had to say originally that is the true loss.

Having been further watered down to the point where it was still a resolution encouraging innovation but strongly signaling that some innovations would be encouraged a lot less than others, Resolution 115, as amended, passed the ABA House of Delegates with overwhelming support.

I mean, “Yay!” … I guess. If a half of a loaf is better than no loaf at all, then so it follows as well that a quarter of a loaf is better than the complete absence of a loaf. But I still can’t help but think of the message of Resolution 115 as being a lot like one of my favorite moments from the show Reno 911:

And I tell you what, ma’am — We are gonna tell you that we are gonna try our best.

That’s what we’re gonna tell you. We’ll try our best. Thank you.

We aim to try. We aim to try — That’s our motto.

That’s what our motto is becoming.

The future of legal ethics?

What I’d like to write about is a series of stories that have been piling up on pretty important developments on various fronts touching on the efforts to re-regulate the legal profession and debates about whether and how to do that … and all of those things would seem to be very important. But I’m not writing about that today because other things are going on that raise a much more immediate, potentially much more alarming, issue — is there even a viable future for legal ethics that means anything at all?

Yesterday, a number of alarming things happened rapidly to raise real questions about whether efforts to try to re-regulate the profession and tackle subjects like law firm ownership, fee-sharing, and payments for referral or other marketing arrangements to make legal services more affordable for middle-class consumers and possibly increase overall access to justice is just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

The first thing you need to remember – in case it somehow slipped your mind — is that among the many people who have been convicted or plead guilty from within the President’s campaign circle is a man named Roger Stone. Stone was convicted for lying to Congress about his contacts with the Trump campaign and with WikiLeaks and for obstructing the Congressional probe into Russian influence in the 2016 election and for witness tampering. Prior to yesterday’s events, the federal prosecutors handling his case had filed paperwork with the court recommending that the appropriate sentence range for Stone would be between 7 and 9 years.

Then came yesterday. First, at about 1 a.m., the current occupant of The White House took to Twitter to complain that the sentencing recommendation made by the federal prosecutors handling the case against Roger Stone was too harsh. This was what he had to say:

Later that morning, the Department of Justice announced that it will be making a new recommendation for a shorter, less-harsh sentence, effectively overriding what federal prosecutors had already communicated to the court and certainly seeming to be in reaction to the tweet.

Later in the day, the third President in U.S. history to be impeached publicly stated that he had every right to tell the Department of Justice what to do. You can go see that video here.

By the end of the day, all four federal prosecutors who were counsel of record for the United States in the Stone case had filed papers to withdraw from the representation and one of those four also resigned altogether from their position as an AUSA and another resigned his position as a Special Assistant Attorney in DC while intending to keep his job as an AUSA in Baltimore. Then the media reports came out to indicate that the Attorney General of the United States was now personally taking on all of the cases that mattered to the guy who is likely, if the United States Congress is paying attention, to become the 1st President in United States history to be impeached twice. In addition to intervening in the Stone matter, the article indicates sources are relaying that Barr also was behind the change in the approach to sentencing for Michael Flynn another of Trump’s campaign comrades who pled guilty to lying to the FBI and is now, two years later, trying to withdraw his guilty plea.

I’ve written before about the fundamental problem under the ethics rules if not otherwise for the Attorney General of the United States to act as if he were the personal attorney for the President rather than the chief law enforcement officer of the United States. You can read that here.

But more importantly you can pretty quickly get up to speed on yesterday’s very troubling developments here, here, and here. Or if you want to go straight to the source to confirm what is going on, you can read this from this morning:

And, if you want some reference to the actual ethics rules to feel like this post somehow really counts as “on ethics,” let’s talk a bit about how the four AUSAs who are seeking to withdraw from the Stone case are – unlike their Attorney General — complying with their ethical obligations under the ethics rules.

They appear to have a keen awareness that, as lawyers representing the United States, the United States as an entity is their client and not the guy occupying the Oval Office. Both the Model Rules and state analogs, including D.C., uniformly make plain that when you represent an organization, the entity is your client. Both the Model Rules and state analogs, including D.C., pretty uniformly impose ethical obligations on a lawyer representing a governmental entity or other organization who comes to know that officers of the entity are acting in ways that violate the law.

Some state variations on RPC 1.13, including mine here in Tennessee (which admittedly has no bearing on any aspect of the Stone case) not only impose those requirements for reporting up the ladder in the organization but demand that “[i]f despite the lawyer’s efforts in accordance with paragraph (b) the highest authority that can act on behalf of the organization insists upon or fails to address in a timely and appropriate manner an action, or a refusal to act, that is clearly a violation of law, and is likely to result in substantial injury to the organization, the lawyer may withdraw in accordance with RPC 1.16….”

Please do go read the links. It is not really all that hyperbolic to describe this situation as truly jeopardizing the rule of law in our country. The fire may be spreading so rapidly that we’re about to be out of glass to try and break.

WhatsApp at Atrium? A lot, but also WhatsApp with you?

Now, I’m certain the 5 or 6 of you still left who haven’t been alienated by the long hiatus are a bit miffed about the lack of content over the last couple of weeks.

Fair, but technically there has been new content posted to the blog first on January 10 and then on January 12, just not by me. Two interesting comments on this post of mine about Atrium Law were left by someone who — other news sources tell me – may well have been one of the lawyers laid off by Atrium in the past few weeks.

Now I’m not really in the breaking of legal news business as much as the commenting on breaking legal news business so the fact that I life and work conspired to cause me to miss the opportunity to be among the first to speak on that development is not so bad. My delay allows me to instead point you to a number of good pieces that have been written about the goings on over at Atrium. Try here, here, and here.

For today, I want to try getting slightly out in front of a different issue that needs to be relevant to lawyers struggling with finding the right balance for how to engage in electronic communications with clients on various platforms. While “scary” is an overused term in a world as unstable as ours and where wealth is unevenly distributed and people all over the world truly live in scary conditions, concerns associated with the security of communications platforms can at least be “scary” at the “world of lawyering” level.

With WhatsApp being a pretty prominent texting platform, particularly for international organizations, the news of one or possibly two very prominent apparent hacks through use of that platform should make lawyers very cautious about using it to communicate with clients. The one that seems more concrete is the news regarding Amazon’s CEO having been hacked by a Saudi Arabian royal through the sending of a link through WhatsApp. You can read a good article about that trending story here. That article also helpfully reminds users of the fact that a similar-sounding vulnerability was acknowledged and patched by the app in November 2019.

The more speculative story making the rounds ties together these stories about potentially improper use of personal devices and apps to pursue official White House business and the known friendship Jared Kushner and the particular Saudi Arabian royal involved in the alleged Jeff Bezos hack.

Now, others have written long ago about reasons to be concerned about whether this particular app can be used ethically at all given other issues that are known risks, like this article that was in Above the Law more almost a year ago.

Prominent news stories such as these raise the specter of concern over less obvious risks of use. Such risks tied in with the fact that almost every state now has adopted some version of the “ethical duty of technical competence” concept through embrace of language in paragraph [8] of the Comment to ABA Model Rule 1.1 just adds more fodder for lawyers to be wary of the risks associated with third-party platforms when communicating with clients and to be deliberate about deciding whether to address such concerns in advance through language in engagement agreements.

My favorite post of 2019

For the second straight year, I’m ending the year with an homage to a concept (ripping off an idea) pursued by Nate DiMeo the writer and performer of The Memory Palace podcast. I’m going to re-post what was my favorite post from the past year.

Deciding what to put out there again this year was fairly easy as it is a post that (I think) offers the most solid and original idea about anything related to ethics that I offered up this year. It also continues something of a theme of last year’s repeat offering as it focuses on what the profession should be moving toward and, thus, also is a nice way to usher in a new year — particularly a new year where the numbering offers plenty of opportunities for puns about vision.

Of course, as often happens when I think I have offered up a solid and original idea, it ends up pretty much entirely ignored. So, let’s give this one another chance to gain relevance.

Loosing a big (maybe?) idea into the world.

I had originally promised myself that the articulation of this thought would debut here at my blog. I almost managed it but I raised this notion in the real world lately among some very bright lawyers. So, before I do it again somewhere other than the Internet, I’m following through to put this idea out through this platform for anyone who wishes to chew on it to chew on it.

The only background that I think you need (even if you are not a regular reader of this space) is that there is much activity going on across the country in terms of real efforts at proposed change to the way lawyer ethics rules address certain topics that are largely viewed as barriers to information about the availability of legal services.

Two of the potentially most important, and relatively fast-moving, endeavors are the work of the California Task Force on Access Through Innovation of Legal Services, the APRL Future of Lawyering project. But there is movement happening in a number of different states to propose changes to the ethics rules to loosen, if not outright delete, restrictions on monetary and other arrangements between lawyers and people who are not lawyers, that are currently placed in rules patterned after ABA Model Rule 5.4 (generally prohibiting fee-sharing with people who are not lawyers) and 7.2 (restricting the ability of lawyers to make payments to others for referrals to, or recommendations of the lawyer).

It is anticipated that there will be some significant level of outcry over any such proposed changes on the grounds that removal of such rules erodes the protection against lawyers having their exercise of independent professional judgment interfered with. Most every time I engage with anyone on that topic, I find myself making the point that, even without those provisions, the rules still require lawyers to maintain their independent professional judgment.

But, here’s the idea I am letting loose into the world: perhaps we should make that obligation more prominent. At present, outside of any particular context, the only rule that plainly starts down this path is the first sentence of Rule 2.1 which reads: “In representing a client, a lawyer shall exercise independent professional judgment and render candid advice.”

Should we, as part of the coming necessary reform of the ethics rules, revise the first rule? Perhaps like this?

Rule 1.1: Competence and Independence

(a) A lawyer shall provide competent representation to a client. Competent representation requires the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation.

(b) A lawyer representing a client shall not permit any person to direct, regulate, or otherwise interfere with the lawyer’s exercise of independent professional judgment.

If that rule existed, then in all places in which restrictions considered to be barriers to access to legal information but which are justified because of the risk to lawyer independence could be replaced with a pointer back to the lawyer’s obligation under Rule 1.1(b).

Then I went and slept on Arizona

So … as far as 400th posts go … this should be my best 400th post at this blog.

A while back I warned everyone not to sleep on Arizona when it comes to movement toward radically reshaping the regulatory landscape for lawyers. Apparently, I should practice what I preach because Arizona’s Task Force on the Delivery of Legal Services put out its most recent report a month ago, and I haven’t gotten around to reading it or writing about it until now.

You can read the full report and its appendices here, but the headline that matters for today is that the Arizona task force — like Utah before it — has also proposed eliminating altogether Arizona’s Rule 5.4. The report includes a large number of other proposals aimed at improving the delivery of legal services in Arizona but because of the dynamics involved, any serious proposal in any state to throw open the doors to lawyers being able to practice in firms owned by people who are not lawyers will consume all of the oxygen in any given room.

As with all of the reports that are being churned out by various work groups, the Arizona task force report spends a lot of time discussing issues associated with the “justice gap.” The Arizona report does a pretty good, very pithy, job of making the point that many hear but don’t allow to fully marinate when thinking about these issues — on average, real people (as opposed to corporate people) don’t hire lawyers for much of what they need to be hiring lawyers for and, on average, lawyers who work in small firms don’t have enough work to do to make ends meet.

While admittedly blending together data involving disparate time periods, the Arizona report nicely blends together information written about by Professor Henderson and data made available by Clio:

One reason for the current “justice gap” is that the costs of hiring lawyers has increased since the 1970s, and many individual litigants have been forced to forego using professional legal services and either represent themselves or ignore their legal problems. Professor William D. Henderson, Indiana University Maurer School of Law, has noted the alarming decline in legal representation for what he calls the “PeopleLaw sector,” observing that law firms have gradually shifted the core of their client base from individuals to entities. Indeed, while total receipts of United States law firms from 2007 to 2012 rose by $21 billion, receipts from representing individuals declined by almost $7 billion.

[snip]

According to the 2017 Clio Legal Trends Report, the average small firm lawyer bills $260 per hour, performs 2.3 hours billable work a day, bills 1.9 hours of that work, and collects 86% of invoiced fees.11 As a result, the average small firm lawyer earns $422 per day before paying overhead costs. These lawyers are spending roughly the same amount of time looking for legal work and running their business as they are performing legal work for clients.

In reaching the conclusion that Rule 5.4 should simply be scrapped, the report explains that the task force considered and rejected options to just amend Arizona’s Rule 5.4 to do something closer to what the D.C. Rules have long permitted at the entity level and also rejected a small “sandbox” sort of arrangement that would have allowed just applicants who could get approval to run “pilot” project style efforts.

The Arizona report, like Utah’s before it, also has an eye toward creating a mechanism for “entity” regulation. Interestingly, the Arizona report also recommends scrapping Rule 5.7 regarding law-related services in light of the deletion of Rule 5.4’s prohibitions and in favor of amendments to other rules to make clear that the kinds of protections that a rule like Rule 5.7 gave a lawyer a mechanism for not having to afford to customers who were not clients should always be afforded to customers in a post-5.4 world whether clients or not. Also, as indicated would be the case in my earlier post about the goings-on in Arizona, the report does propose dropping altogether the restriction on paying for referrals housed in Rule 7.2(b).

The Arizona report also contains an Opposition Statement, written by a member of the Arizona task force who also happens to sit on the Arizona Court of Appeals. In short, Judge Swann’s Opposition Statement can be summed up as seeing the proposal to scrap Rule 5.4 as a cash grab by the legal profession wearing the cloak of concern with access to justice. Perhaps the strongest point Judge Swann makes is how badly the judicial system itself is in need of reform:

Though the current rules do an excellent job of implementing the “Cadillac” system of trial by jury and cutting-edge discovery techniques, they are completely ineffective at offering a simple path to dispute resolution for self-represented litigants, and they offer no streamlined procedures for small cases. The complexity of the system – indeed the very need for legal services in many cases – is a problem of our own making. I respectfully submit that the Task Force should have directed its attention to systemic reforms, and not to finding ways to direct even more resources to an already-too-resource hungry system. If the court system is too complex for the average citizen, then we must create a simpler and more efficient system – not new industries that will continue to consume the public’s money.

With its built-in “dissent,” the Arizona report really does frame the issues quite appropriately in terms of the nature of the choices that are out there for what must or should or will happen next both in Arizona and elsewhere.

This coming weekend, this general topic will be one of several that Merri Baldwin and I will be speaking on at an event for the PilotLegis Annual Member Conference in Washington, D.C.

Later this year, what has been going on and what comes next will be the focus of the 2019 Ethics Roadshow. We’re calling it “What to Expect When You’re Expecting (Fundamental Changes in the Legal Profession).” I’ll be doing it live in Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Knoxville over the course of two weeks in December 2019.

One possible answer: Radical transparency in design for legal services?

So, this post isn’t exactly about legal ethics. Of course, it isn’t exactly not about legal ethics. I’ve written a bit here recently about various jurisdictions launching increasingly bolder initiatives to try to reform the regulatory landscape when it comes to the delivery of legal services.

Many critical voices of these initiatives demand evidence that any changes to the ethics rules will result in better access to justice; others wonder what it is that technology companies or others who aren’t lawyers might be able to bring to the legal services marketplace that lawyers can’t afford to or are not interested in.

I certainly can’t provide a great answer to the first question. And I’m not sure I’m the definitive authority for answers to the second question. But I do have a thought that hit me yesterday while listening to the latest episode of one of my favorite podcasts – 99% Invisible.

If you aren’t familiar with it (and you really should be), it is a design podcast. Its most recent episode is entirely about the condition of waiting and how, as technology has advanced, people have designed ways to deal with people’s expectations as to waiting and how to manipulate them to have people feel better about their experience.

The episode is entirely worth your time in its entirety, but without giving too much away it focuses on things like changes over time to how you interact with Internet websites and how where once there was just a spinning hourglass that did not tell you anything about how long you might expect to have to continue waiting to the way the travel deal website, Kayak.com, shows you in a fully transparent fashion what is being searched while you are waiting.

One of the examples of the steady change in the direction of transparency the episode discusses is one of my favorite things online — something where I never really had previously thought about the “why” of its existence – the Domino’s pizza tracker.

The episode of the podcast talked about research and other studies measuring the effect of transparency, even “radical transparency,” on customer satisfaction. Examples of situations where a customer is happier with an online experience that involves an extended wait – but with flowing information about work being done in the meantime made transparent – than with a non-transparent but “instant” result. And, not all examples involved online interactions. One example was a restaurant that changed its design so that diners could see what was going on in the kitchen to make their food and that resulted in survey responses about how much better the food tasted than before.

My mind quickly moved to the experience for clients of hiring and relying upon lawyers and ways it could be made more transparent that are somewhat similar to the pizza tracker and other situations detailed in the episode. Anthony Davis of Hinshaw once explained to an audience (which included me) about how important it was for lawyers to be more communicative as to their billing because hiring a lawyer was like riding in a taxicab but with the windows blacked out. All you could see was the meter continuing to increase but had no idea how much closer to your destination you were.

Now the analogy is still a great one, even though fewer people experience cab rides now and opt instead for shared rides with prepaid fares.

In fact, the analogy is an even better one now because we live in a world where shared ride companies are putting cab companies out of business. Not only do you know on the front end how much you are agreeing to pay for the ride, but you also, through the app, can monitor your progress toward your destination the whole time (and can even track where your driver is when they are on the way to you).

Now, lawyers could try to be as descriptive as possible in the bills they send their clients, but those still only go out once a month or so. And lawyers could try to communicate more frequently to clients about what they are, or are not, doing on their case, but in an hourly billing scenario each of those communications just drives up the price for the client.

Thus, it seems logical that someone could harness technology and understanding of the life cycle of legal matters to provide a web portal that a firm (or a lawyer) could make available to clients where they could log in at any time of day and “see” something that would tell them what is going on in the life cycle of their matter.

It could be as simple as something that would tell them what the last significant event in their matter was and what the next upcoming significant event is. Or it could be as robust as something that not only gives immediate access to the big picture but would also tell them exactly when the last time was that the lawyer had “touched” their file and what work had been done and when the lawyer has calendared to next do something on the matter. Legal ethics would play a role in restricting certain parts of what could be done because some of the “manipulation” that occurs in terms of managing expectations would be quite risky given ethical restrictions on deceptive or misleading conduct of all kinds.

After those thoughts hit me and I was done with the first level of wondering if an approach surrounding “radical transparency” would work when applied to practicing law to improve the experience for clients and perhaps make people more willing to spend their money on acquiring the assistance of legal professionals, I almost immediately, and instinctively, brushed it off as something that would require too much investment and infrastructure to ever even try it.

And, that’s the real point. Isn’t it?

Can Utahp Arizona?

I know. I’m either: (a) such a sucker for Utah-centric wordplay; (b) a lame, repetitive sort of humorist; or (c) both a and b.

But nevertheless today’s post is really important – at least the subject matter of it is – and so it is being designed to try to be short and sweet and get you, Dear Reader, to go read the source material.

I wrote about Arizona’s efforts in reshaping the legal regulatory landscape a couple of weeks ago. I emphasized how much faster it was moving than California. But Utah has gotten to something of the “finish line” on a very bold regulatory initiative even sooner.

This week it was announced that the Utah Supreme Court unanimously voted to approve the August 2019 Report and Recommendations from the Utah Work Group on Regulatory Reform.

So, for some light reading during this holiday weekend, I offer you the link below to download the Utah report itself – which was titled “Narrowing the Access-to-Justice Gap by Reimagining Regulation.”

To try to immediately pique your interest in reading it, here is the concluding paragraph:

Decade after decade our judicial system has struggled to provide meaningful access to justice to our citizens. And if we are to be truly honest about it, we have not only failed, but failed miserably. What this report proposes is game-changing and, as a consequence, it may gore an ox or two or upend some apple carts (pick your cliché). Our proposal will certainly be criticized by some and lauded by others. But we are convinced that it brings the kind of energy, investment, and innovation necessary to seriously narrow the access-to-justice gap. Therefore, we respectfully request that the Supreme Court adopt the recommendations outlined in this report and direct their prompt implementation.

For what it is worth, I also offer for you the four most important takeaways (in my opinion) about this development:

  1. The framing of the current legal landscape using the term “Age of Disruption,” is very good. It is not only quite accurate but a compelling choice of words.
  2. The Utah report manages to adroitly articulate a number of very important points about the fact that the need for regulatory reform and the problem of the lack of true access to justice in the U.S. are both intertwined with, and independent of, each other. The need for regulatory reform exists whether it will ultimately result in true access to justice or not. The need to strive toward true access to justice exists and must be addressed even if we don’t manage true regulatory reform. The report also says out loud what is often not said — that the lack of access to justice is not the fault of lawyers because it is not a problem that can be made to go away simply by volunteering more or donating more.
  3. I don’t know, however, that it helps to move any needles to be quoting Heraclitus exactly, given that he is most famously known for cosmology. While the point about “Life is flux” is well and good in terms of making the overall point that the only constant in life is change. I think the more appropriate reference for that point in the Age of Disruption is something better than an obscure 5th Century Greek. Probably would have been better to go with a more modern approach and use a variation of the message spoken by a well-known character in Grey’s Anatomy. (I’m largely kidding about this and it really doesn’t deserve to be treated as one of four takeaways. Having only “three” most important takeaways seemed cliché.)
  4. The Utah approach does the two things that, I believe, have to be done hand-in-hand to address this problem. Both freeing up lawyers to compete by paring down certain aspects of the ethics rules, AND establishing regulation to address those who are going to be out there doing the delivery of legal services but who are not lawyers. And, I happen to think that doing so through the “regulatory sandbox” approach Utah will pursue is the path that makes the most sense for that second piece.

Okay, enough about what I think about it. Put it in your reading pile, find a relaxing spot this weekend and read it for yourself and see what you think.