Written by Tom Gordon
The American Bar Association (“ABA”) Commission on Ethics 20/20 recently requested comments regarding the rules governing lawyers practicing across state lines via internet. Responsive Law suggested to the ABA that opening up the internet for legal services is highly beneficial to consumers and will make the legal system more affordable without sacrificing the accountability that is already present.
Allowing lawyers to practice across state lines via internet is extremely beneficial to consumers. Although it is a relatively new practice, it is one that has great potential for increasing affordable access to the legal system. Online commerce has expanded the availability of goods and services in nearly every industry, particularly for those located far from major cities. People currently use companies such as eBay and Amazon to order products and the availability, convenience, price and safeguards of these companies continuously drive customers to use and reuse their services. Similarly, the legal profession, with its duty to protect access to justice, should support any effort to make the legal industry friendlier to online commerce in the way that successful internet companies already have.
Virtual law practices will improve communication between lawyers and clients. Many computer-savvy people may be more comfortable interacting with a lawyer online than through postal mail or in person. Since the internet does not require simultaneous communication, virtual practices can also expand the number of hours during which lawyers and clients can communicate thus increasing access.
Although there are many positive aspects of practicing via internet, some states are moving towards prohibiting licensed lawyers from practicing law in the state unless they hold a physical office in that state. This is extremely inconvenient for the person seeking legal assistance. For example, a New York resident who moves to Tennessee to take care of aging parents will not be able to hire an attorney licensed in New York unless that attorney has a physical office in New York. For this consumer, whether they are dealing with a lawyer physically located in New York or New Jersey, or even California is irrelevant. What is relevant is that the lawyer is competent to deal with the client’s issues relating to New York law. Unfortunately, on top of the burden of caring for aging parents, this person will now have to travel back and forth to New York rather than handle their legal matters online.
Even though we currently live in a mobile society, there are an increasing number of situations, like the New-York-to-Tennessee move, where restrictions on practice based on physical location of the lawyer hinder one’s ability to receive legal services. These anticompetitive restrictions reduce access to the law, yet provide no additional protection to consumers.
While some of the criticisms regarding lawyers practicing across state lines via internet involve a decrease in quality and accountability of legal service, most of those criticisms are largely unfounded. In the same way that eBay and Amazon are held accountable for dissatisfied customers, lawyers practicing across state lines via-internet can be held accountable for any bad legal practices. If one is dissatisfied with the services of their virtual lawyer, they can hold that lawyer accountable in the same ways in which they can hold an attorney accountable who lives down the street. Lawyers, regardless of whether they are engaging in physical or internet practice can be held accountable through civil lawsuits, or action by bar disciplinary committees in the state where they are licensed. Moreover, while consumers can hold lawyers equally accountable whether the lawyer is working in person or virtually, choosing virtual lawyering can result in lower cost and more options when choosing a lawyer.
Virtual law practice has great potential for increasing affordable access to the legal system. It enables consumers to have greater access to affordable and competent legal work while keeping it accountable and cost-effective. You can read our full comments to the ABA here and here, urging them to allow this practice to grow.
Tom Gordon is Executive Director of Responsive Law.