About three weeks ago, the American Bar Association and Rocket Lawyer announced the creation of a pilot program that provides on-demand legal advice for small businesses called ABA Law Connect. It is currently being tested in Illinois, Pennsylvania and California. Program users can access Rocket Lawyer’s system to post a legal question online which will be answered by an ABA member-lawyer for a flat rate of $4.95 (a rate that will also include a "follow up question"). According to the press release, "[t]hose interested in additional legal advice can discuss legal matters further in a lawyer-client relationship."
This initiative is part of the ABA's efforts to improve access to legal services. The goal is great, but I have a number of concerns about it. I am, for example, not sure that the statement quoted above about the lawyer-client relationship reflects the basic principles about how an attorney client relationship can be formed. It seems that it assumes that the $4.95 questions merely creates (or can only create) a prospective client type relationship (regulated under Rule 1.18), but that is not necessarily the case, as anyone who has read Togstad v Vesely or Perez v Kirk & Carrigan knows. And, as those cases show, the consequences of not understanding this can be significant. I am also not encouraged by the fact that Rocket Lawyer's website provides its consumers information that is not entirely accurate on the distinction between the attorney-client privilege and the duty of confidentiality. The blog IPethics and INsights was the first one to pick up on the concerns in a post listing some of the issues raised by the pilot program.
The new buzzword in Legal Ethics these days seems to be "innovation" and the ABA is trying to find ways to encourage innovation. Yet we shouldn't rush to try to be innovative at the risk of creating other problems. It reminds me of the Direct TV commercial that ends with "... not the way I would have gone, but it is innovative. And that's what we want around here..."
I have no problem with innovation, or change or new initiatives and I most certainly don't have a problem in trying to find ways to provide access to legal services for people who can't afford them, but whatever is done should be done with a full understanding of the professional responsibility principles involved and of the possible consequences for possible mistakes.
UPDATE 2-21-16: In what is an embarrassing turn of events, the ABA has now quietly terminated its partnership with RocketLawyer and dismantled LawConnect. Go here for the update,