Monica Bay’s recent article “Rocket Lawyer CEO on the Quick Demise of ABA Pilot Program” in this publication warrants another take. The author interviewed Charley Moore, the Founder and CEO of Rocket Lawyer, seeking insight into the American Bar Association’s decision to pull the plug on ABA Law Connect, the promising joint venture it had forged with Mr. Moore’s company.
Briefly, ABA Law Connect was a pilot program created to improve access to justice. The pilot involved three jurisdictions: California, Pennsylvania, and Illinois. Those states were picked for their geographic diversity and Rocket Lawyer’s significant presence there. ABA lawyers in each state, using Rocket Lawyer’s technology platform, answered one or two written questions for the price of a Domino’s medium pizza. Customers could elect to further the relationship and to retain a panel attorney for an additional fee.
Sounds like an “everybody wins” scenario. Then came the blowback. Not from customers or the ABA, but from the Pennsylvania and Illinois State Bars.
Ms. Bay asked Charley Moore all the right questions, and Mr. Moore — understandably, assumed a diplomatic posture vis-Ã -vis the ABA and its capitulation to the Pennsylvania and Illinois Bars (California endorsed the program). As Ms. Bay noted, the recalcitrant bar presidents threatened to secede from the ABA if the venture was not disbanded. Money talks.
Left unanswered by the early demise of ABA Law Connect are some vexing questions.
- Whom does the ABA purport to represent?
- Should state Bars call the shots for the profession?
- Is self-regulation in the best interest of the public that lawyers are charged to serve?
- Isn’t the real conflict between lawyers obstructing competition and the public interest advanced by affordable representation?
The Pennsylvania and Illinois Bar Arguments
The Pennsylvania and Illinois Bar Presidents cited the “blue plate special mentality” (their characterization, not mine) as one reason to nuke the program. They decried the $4.95 initial consulting fee. It happens that the ABA Law Connect consult charge was priced substantially lower than state bar-sponsored lawyer referral programs in those states. And such programs are key revenue generators that keep the bar going. And let’s not forget that Illinois and Pennsylvania – like several other “voluntary membership” Bar groups – cater to lawyers because if they don’t, they are out of business. The circularity helps to draw and explain the battle lines.
Bottom line: it’s about lawyer protectionism, not public good.
And that’s just for openers. Pennsylvania Bar President William Pugh was quoted opposing the initiative because “It just flies in the face of what the ABA should be – promoting bread and butter mainstream lawyers across the country.” (The American Lawyer).
So just what are the ABA’s mission and goals? The ABA website lists them as:
“To serve equally our members, our profession and the public by defending liberty and delivering justice as the national representative of the legal profession.” (Italics added).
Bar President Pugh’s desire that the ABA exist exclusively to serve “bread and butter mainstream lawyers” conflicts with the plain language of the ABA’s mission statement. And that begs the question: “Why did the ABA capitulate —- hiding behind the ‘it was just a pilot project’ explanation’ — and end such a promising program?” Answer: to prevent a revolt by state Bars.
Pulling the Plug Hurts Everyone
The public already has a dim view of lawyers. And this runs the gamut from those denied access to justice to corporate boardrooms. Sure, lawyers themselves are a big reason. But so too is the antiquated, monolithic structure from which they deliver their services. ABA Law Connect provided an alternative structure, one that improved efficiency and reduced cost. Oh, and it encouraged millions of new potential clients into the marketplace.
The Pennsylvania and Illinois Bars, the ABA, and lawyers opposing meaningful reform are shooting themselves in the foot by advocating what is at best a short- sighted and knee-jerk reaction to most any change in legal delivery. And they would do well – to borrow from Ms. Bay’s quote of James Sandman — to recognize that: “The do-it-yourself movement is pervasive across all segments of the economy today. It’s not going away, and anyone who thinks law is immune to it is delusional.”
By now you may be wondering: “Why didn’t California oppose the project, too?” Well, unlike Illinois and Pennsylvania, The Golden State has mandatory membership – meaning that all licensed California lawyers are members. That removes the economic incentive for the bar to pander to lawyers at the expense of the public. Hmm….
Here’s what Elizabeth Rindskopf Parker, executive director of the California Bar, had to say about ABA Law Connect: “I thought it was exciting that they’re (ABA/Rocket Lawyer) really interested in serving this huge group that is underserved.” Ms. Parker is referring, of course, to the millions of people who have trouble affording a lawyer but aren’t poor enough to qualify for legal aid.
The untimely demise of ABA Connect parallels the recent battle royal over ABA Resolution 105, a modest attempt to encourage state bars to consider allowing non-licensed attorneys to conduct proscribed “legal” tasks. Who decides what’s legal? In a regulatory sense it’s the state bars. And in a practical sense – especially in the corporate segment of the market – it’s clients. The Resolution was narrowly passed – but not without a protracted struggle and a last-minute amendment that pronounced the ABA would not sanction alternative business structures any time soon.
Once again, the consumer took it on the chin.
It’s time the ABA, state bars, and lawyers recognize that antediluvian, protectionist self-regulation will end up sinking the profession. It’s one thing to ensure that lawyers adhere to the highest ethical and professional standards. But it’s altogether different when self-regulation thwarts the ABA’s mission: “To serve equally our members, our profession and the public by defending liberty and delivering justice as the national representative of the legal profession.”
This post was originally published on Bloomberg Big Law.