by Michaela Reger
Responsive Law has submitted comments to the Utah Supreme Court in support of its proposed reforms to regulation of legal services in the state.
The Court’s proposal (known as the “Sandbox”) would eliminate restrictions on non-lawyer ownership of law firms. For law businesses that choose to include nonlawyer ownership, there would be a new regulatory body using outcomes- and risk-based approaches to balance increased access to justice with actual consumer harm.
Our comments focused on the following areas:
(1) Expanding Access to Justice. If access to justice is to be expanded to the vast majority of consumers who cannot currently afford legal help, there must be outside investment. Without outside investment, especially in small and solo firms, low-income consumers will never have equal access to justice. Only through true mass-market consumer law firms, which this proposal will allow, can lawyers more efficiently offer legal services to clients at all income levels. If Utah lawyers want to participate in, as the proposal puts it, the “technological revolution,” relaxing 5.4 and loosening advertising rules will be necessary. With the current pandemic and economic state of the country, there can be no delay in increasing access to justice in a way that benefits lawyers and consumers together.
(2) Misconceptions Regarding the Proposal. Several organizations and individuals submitted their own comments expressing various concerns with the proposal that we believe are misguided (i.e., the idea that non-lawyers would be able to practice law, changes to other ethics rule, and a decreased quality of service). The Sandbox neither permits any non-lawyer person, entity, or tech to practice law, nor changes any ethical rules regarding anything else covered in other Rules of Professional Conduct.
(3) Additional Layers of Protection. As mentioned, the Sandbox will add a unique layer of protection for consumers: entity regulation. By allowing the Sandbox regulator to collect data from both individual lawyers and entities, the proposal goes further to calculate what actually harms consumers than do most proposals for alternative business structures. This kind of regulation is already common in other industries and implementing it will help to bring the legal profession into modern times.
(4) Simplifying Advertising Rules. The Court has also proposed eliminating Rules 7.1-7.5, which contain overly specific restrictions on lawyer advertising, and replacing them with a strengthened Rule 7.1. This new rule would broadly prohibit false or misleading advertising or coercion, duress or harassment by lawyers and greatly increase lawyer ability to utilize modern technology and online marketing methods to meet public need. There is no need for specific regulation around attorney-matching services or other forms of marketing: General restrictions on the types of advertising that can harm consumers will allow for new developments in technology, moving law forward with the times in an area where it is often stagnant.
We will be monitoring the Utah Supreme Court for its final decision on adopting the new regulations, which we expect before the end of the year.
Michaela Reger is a legal intern at Responsive Law.