Michigan Bar Considers Ethics Resolution for Online Matching Services

Potential legal clients are increasingly turning to online matching services to find attorneys. In some cases, these services charge a fee based on a percentage of the attorney’s costs for their legal help, and the money is paid to and controlled by the third party.

A Michigan state bar committee is considering a resolution asserting that such fees constitute an impermissible sharing of fees with a non-lawyer, violating numerous ethical rules in the state codified in the Michigan Rules of Professional Conduct. Attorneys in other states, many of which have similar rules, would do well to be aware of the issues raised.

The Michigan ethical rules in question include provisions that prohibit a lawyer from participating in for-profit lawyer referral services, sharing fees with a non-lawyer or giving anything of value to recommend a lawyer’s services—aside from reasonable advertising fees, charges for a nonprofit lawyer referral service, or sale of a law practice.

Connecting to clients through such online matching services also would “subvert” compliance with another ethical rule that requires legal fees and expenses paid in advance be deposited into a client trust account until the fee is earned and expenses incurred, the resolution notes. It adds that this also “impedes” compliance with the requirement that unearned prepaid fees and unexpected advances on costs be refunded.

To whatever extent such an online service provider identifies itself as providing legal services, attorneys that partner with the online service assist in the unauthorized practice of law, the resolution states. Finally, to the extent the matching service provides administrative “back office” services usually done through a law firm, “this does not comport with the professional obligations of the lawyer.”

“The assessment requires a careful review of the business model to determine whether it constitutes a for-profit referral service and if compliance with the terms for participation requires a Michigan lawyer to violate the Michigan Rules of Professional Conduct,” the resolution reads. “Legal matching services are not new, but innovation in technology has spearheaded private entrepreneurial online matching services beyond the usual bar association non-profit lawyer referral services.”

The resolution considers two scenarios. In one case, a national website includes “legal services” in its business name, markets to consumers, brands participating lawyers with the business name, offers services for a fixed fee, asks the consumer to choose an attorney based on a review of profiles, and requires the consumer to pay a deposit into the website portal. The site markets to lawyers that it matches them with clients who already have paid, takes care of all administrative services, and deducts a percentage as a “marketing fee.”

The second scenario has the word “legal” in its name, targets businesses needing legal services, tasks them to fill out an attorney request form, provides a free half-hour consultations followed by a pricing proposal from the attorney, then asks the business client to pay through the website. The third party then collects and holds all fees and keeps about 7.5 percent of each. Lawyers must provide at least a 17.5 percent discount off their standard rates, and the service touts discounts of 60 percent to 75 percent because it offers administrative services normally handled by a law firm.

“Numerous ethical concerns are presented by both business models,” the proposed Michigan bar resolution concludes. “Although these online matching services do not call themselves lawyer referral services, the functional characteristics of a referral service are embedded in both business models.”

 

 

Will Robots take over the Practice of Law?

Robots in the Practice of Law?

Nearly half of all jobs in the United States could be performed by robot employees within the next two decades, according to report by PwC, with the effects varying by industry and job category.  Artificial intelligence provides a rapid way to analyze data and identify trends, but AI currently offers little of the creative thinking or originality required in most areas of the law.

The use of AI in the law dates to 1999, when Jay Leib and Dan Roth created “Discovery Cracker,” a tool that helped lawyers manage electronic documents for litigation in an age when they increasingly were sifting through terabytes of data instead of mountains of paper. The pair later in 2013 created NexLP, which uses predictive coding—in which a computer searches documents for conceptual information (not just keyboards) to determine which ones are and are not useful to a case—to substantially reduce the time necessary for e-discovery.

Today, computers are processing information at about 10 times faster than the human brain and it is only a matter of time before computers are programmed to assess all of the other factors that go into a legal analysis.

Artificial intelligence in the legal realm has taken another step forward with the advent of IBM’s “ROSS,” touted as “the world’s first artificially intelligent attorney,” blending the voice technology of Apple’s Siri with the cognitive computer of its IBM sibling, Watson. ROSS can perform the preliminary document research needed for some cases in as little as 30 seconds.

“You ask your questions in plain English, as you would a colleague, and ROSS then reads through the entire body of law and returns a cited answer and topical readings for legislation, case law and secondary sources to get you up-to-speed quickly,” according to the website of Baker and Hostetler, which recently announced that ROSS has been “hired” to work alongside its 50 bankruptcy attorneys.

This has a number of both promising and cautionary implications for law firms and their small business clients:

  • Nearly 80 percent of Americans who currently need a lawyer cannot afford one, despite the massive number of attorneys in the U.S., but using ROSS should be able to lower costs since there will not be humans who bill hourly handling some preliminary research for cases and matters.
  • Attorneys who are currently out of work or under-employed could use AI to create a lower barrier of entry into the market by being able to offer more affordable options to their clients.
  • For now, ROSS is available only for bankruptcy and intellectual property law, and the price may be prohibitive for smaller to midsized firms.
  • The volume of work performed by AI could lead to job loss for some attorneys.
  • ROSS could level the playing field between firms of different sizes because it won’t matter as much whether a firm has one or 30 associates available to research a case.
  • Instead of leafing through dusty textbooks or clicking on hundreds of links looking for precedent or an obscure court ruling, human attorneys will be freed to focus specifically on a client’s needs and creative solutions to them as AI handles the grunt work.
  • ROSS keeps updating court rulings so that as a case is being worked on, attorneys will know about up-to-the-minute developments in the relevant area of law.
  • The technology not only narrows down results to the most relevant answers, but it translates those answers from legalese into something closer to plain English, making them more understandable for clients.

Given that artificial intelligence cannot at the present moment compete with humans in terms of creative thinking or originality, the effectiveness of a technology like ROSS in simply taking over an entire section of a law firm remains doubtful for now.

“We believe that emerging technologies like cognitive computing and other forms of machine learning can help enhance the services we deliver to our clients,” says the Chief Information Officer of the firm employing ROSS in its bankruptcy practice. “We have been using ROSS since the first days of its deployment, and we are proud to partner with a true leader in the industry as we continue to develop additional AI legal assistants.”

Artificial intelligence will continue to move forward in the legal world, although further implications going into the future remain unclear—including the impacts of robots on revelry and merriment at office holiday parties.

How should we plan to network or go to a Cubs game with ROSS?  Will ROSS ask to attend our office parties?