Regulatory reform to tackle the justice gap is a hot topic today in the legal profession. Indeed, the ABA House of Delegates passed a resolution in 2020, urging state courts, bar associations, and others to allow innovative approaches to solve the access to justice crisis, giving legal help to those who need it but cannot afford attorneys. I am part of a grand experiment that the Utah Supreme Court has undertaken for that purpose—Utah’s legal regulatory sandbox.
In August 2018, the Utah Supreme Court organized a working group led by Utah Supreme Court Justice Deno Himonas and former Utah State Bar President John Lund to research legal regulatory reform. The following year, the group issued a report recommending that the court create a legal regulatory sandbox to allow new legal business models and services to operate in Utah. In response, the Utah Supreme Court created the sandbox and launched the Office of Legal Services Innovation to oversee it.
A regulatory sandbox allows regulations to be relaxed, data gathered, and policy improved with the goal of ensuring consumers access to a well-developed, high-quality, innovative, affordable, and competitive market for legal services. Specifically, the sandbox allows entities with innovative legal service models (like joint ventures between law firms with nonlawyer entities) to provide legal services, monitors those entities for evidence of consumer harm, and intervenes when necessary to protect consumers. Our company was the first one invited to join the sandbox.
The company offered a good fit for the sandbox’s goals. We provide free legal chat to consumers using chatbot technology and instant messaging, with the option to switch to videoconferencing. With a little ingenuity, any lawyer can offer the same type of service without our technology. The court apparently thought this innovation was worth exploring by selecting us.
Pro Bono Work as A Marketing Tool
Why free legal chat? One of my most important cases came after I helped a family, pro bono, with a lease matter. I could have charged for the legal work that was done, but it was small enough that I felt that the goodwill engendered by not charging was more important. Fast forward two years, this same client came to me with a massive employment case, citing the pro bono work I conducted for them prior. Even larger firms, who are often reluctant to conduct their fair share of pro bono work , would covet this case that I, a small firm practitioner, had fall into my lap as a consequence of my pro bono work.
Though anecdotal, this story is evidence of two important points: the importance of pro bono or “no charge” legal work, and the fact that referrals and return customers are the average lawyer’s bread and butter. It is crucial that lawyers recognize how being known in communities impacts their business. The stronger a community you develop through pro bono work or providing access to justice, the more people you will have singing your praises as a lawyer.
However, the true value of pro bono work is in how it gives back to the community. Ideally, anyone with a legal issue could get at least some basic help with their problems – a goal becoming less and less attainable as lawyers become more reluctant to perform pro bono services. The problem is not that lawyers are lazy or indifferent to the justice gap; more often than not, they just do not have the free time to grant these hours.
The sandbox has allowed us to test an innovation that we believe will make providing pro bono services more efficient and convenient for volunteer lawyers and clients. Over the past two years, I’ve dedicated my time to researching “access to justice” in the United States, and have found that 80-90% of the population does not access legal services because the legal world is inherently foreign to them. Yet, these individuals represent a virtual treasure trove of legal work, reachable only through a demonstration of how lawyers work or even an opportunity to meet a lawyer via pro bono work.
Through our platform, we have interacted with nearly 55,000 people looking for legal help in the past two and a half years. Each one of these is a real person with an equally real problem. How can one lawyer, or handful of lawyers, interact with 2,000 people a month? Through the beauty of direct messaging and conversational AI — yes, chatbots.
How Pro Bono Is Made Easier Through Innovation and Technology
Today, most people prefer texting or other forms of messaging to communicate. Messaging can be used to engage, screen and even intake new clients. The beauty of a messaging platform is that it allows you to give a quicker, more informed response than a phone call or traditional in-person consultation. Also, it allows a conversation to occur and update over a period of hours or days, rather than a fleeting phone call.
But some lawyers do not want to give out their mobile numbers or are concerned that clients will worry about the security of sharing sensitive legal information over text. However, a variety of solutions are offered in the marketplace, such as Microsoft Teams, or a number of other secure messaging platforms. As consumers become accustomed to using messaging platforms, the benefit to the lawyer is significant, because they can fire off the expertise in their brain in seconds or minutes, while an office consultation could take hours, creating inefficiencies for both the lawyer and the client.
As communication mediums shift, we no longer need to think of pro bono as a time-demanding chore. Video court hearings have become the norm. Telecommuting allows us to provide remote services from anywhere in the world and still maintain the high standards of legal practice. And text messaging makes communication swift and almost effortless. Formal office visits are no longer required, and many life-changing questions can be answered through safe, encrypted text messages that take mere moments.
The Utah sandbox has allowed for a broad-minded approach to solving the justice gap. As someone who has worked in legal technology for the last six years, I have wanted to merge my law firm and technology revenues because they are so closely related. Before Utah’s regulatory reform, ethics rules and regulations were not evolved enough to allow entrepreneurs like me to combine their law practice with their legal tech ventures, stifling innovation of legal services.
Before the sandbox, lawyer-entrepreneurs were constrained in ways that non-lawyers were not. By eliminating certain constraints put on the legal field, the sandbox has allowed lawyers to dream up whatever solution they feel may fit the market, providing an abundance of freedom and stimulating creativity. Most importantly, regulatory reform incentivizes great legal thinkers and problem solvers to look for a solution to the justice gap.
My hope in drafting this article is to shed some light on the notion that givers gain. When we as lawyers share our expertise and time with those who need it most – that is, most of society – we will be rewarded both with a sense of self-fulfillment, as well as more business. Though I speak as a solo, small business lawyer, I believe the fundamentals apply to all areas of our profession.
About the Author
Jason Velez is the founder of 1LAW and is a practicing attorney in California and Utah. Contact him at jason@1Law.com or 801-230-1599