The American Bar Association’s final report on the future of legal services raises some questions for us too.

The American Bar Association (ABA) had its annual meeting in San Francisco this year. As part of the programme, the ABA Commission on the Future of Legal Services released its final report on the future of legal services in the US. It raises some questions for us, too.

There is nothing very radical in its conclusions: there is too much unmet legal need, there are innovative programmes (particularly in courts) which can help with this, lawyers should stay abreast of developments – that sort of thing. Nevertheless, some truths are worth saying over and over again.

Among its more interesting recommendations, two caught my eye. First, there should be an ABA Centre for Legal Innovation ‘to position the ABA as a leader and architect of the profession’s efforts to increase access to legal services and improve the delivery of, and access to, those services to the public through innovative programs and initiatives’.

It is proposed that the centre will bring together the expertise of the courts, judges and law schools, along with tech companies and consumers, to develop these innovative new methods. A good idea – and already being acted upon. The ABA board of governors has approved the centrer’s establishment, which is particularly important since the commission which produced the report is now coming to an end.

Second, the report promotes the idea of regular legal check-ups, similar to medical check-ups. This follows from research showing that many individuals are unaware of even having a legal problem, and if aware, often do nothing about it – for reasons with which we are all familiar.

These check-ups should particularly take place when major life events occur, such as on marriage, divorce or the birth of a child. The report proposes ABA guidelines, most of which cover common-sense notions, including that the price should be commensurate with the individual’s means, and so free for those who are indigent, and that check-ups should be available in a wide variety of venues (for instance, public libraries, domestic violence shelters, social services offices and at membership organisations).

Web-based check-ups should also be available.

The are other interesting nuggets in the report. For example, the Florida bar has approved a mandatory technology-based continuing legal education requirement. ‘When developing competence in this area, lawyers should pay particular attention to technology that improves access to the delivery of legal services and makes those services more affordable to the public.’

The report also comments on alternative business structures (ABSs), which were the subject of a previous report by the same commission. It recites the response to the previous report: many respondents did not think that they should have even raised the topic of ABSs, given the ABA’s established opposition to such structures. The new report says that there is no evidence that ABSs in other jurisdictions have led to a lowering of ethical standards.

However, it also notes that ‘at the same time, the commission also found little reported evidence that ABS has had any material impact on improving access to legal services.’

This leads neatly to the larger background to the future of legal services. I wrote a few months back about work that the OECD was undertaking on this area. There is a useful summary of the OECD’s current state of thinking here.

It is clear that IT developments in the legal sector are clearly within many governments’ sights, and that they will use their competition authorities to ensure innovation. So the ABA report, and particularly its new centre, are timely actions which all bars should emulate.

At the meeting held at the OECD in June on this topic, the strategy director of the Legal Services Board was one of the very few people invited to speak. Her slides gave some of the following headline information, which have appeared in previous LSB reports:

  • ABSs are 3% of all firms and 11% of turnover (Oct 2015);
  • Paid-for unregulated services for individual consumers are a small part of the market (roughly 5%);
  • 18% of individuals with legal issues do nothing;
  • ABSs are 13-15% more likely to introduce new legal services than other types of regulated solicitors’ firms;
  • But unregulated firms more innovative than any other type of firm.

Everything points in the same direction, that we need to take charge of our own future, to avoid it overtaking us, and maybe burying us.

So the obvious questions are: where is our own comprehensive report on the future of legal services within our jurisdiction (I know we have just had the civil courts structure review, but that dealt only with an aspect of court work, and a previous LSB report is now six years old)? And in particular where is our Centre for Legal Innovation?