President’s Message by Mark Martini
Over the last five to ten years, many solo practitioners and attorneys practicing at small and mid-sized firms began to face a threat to their professional well-being when companies offering inexpensive “legal services” on the internet began to flood the market. They offered consumers a host of “forms” so that individuals could take lawyers out of the equation on everything from starting a business, writing a will, preparing a real estate lease, to filing for bankruptcy or divorce. They challenged consumers to answer the question, “why go out and hire a lawyer when you can do it yourself?”
The threat to attorneys and our members, and the dangers to consumers of “do it yourself legal services” continues to grow into 2015. And it is now being done by an organization that is comprised of lawyers and which is supposed to be working for the betterment of lawyers and the profession. The American Bar Association is rolling out a pilot program “ABA Law Connect” that, according to ABA President Paulette Brown, seeks to “help small businesses find easily accessible and affordable legal services” by “offering an affordable way for small businesses to get answers to fundamental legal questions.” Under this program, for just $4.95 (yes, four dollars and ninety-five cents), a small business owner or representative can ask an online legal question and one follow up question of an ABA member. I don’t know what ABA member may be answering the question, what state he or she may be located in, the attorney’s experience level or the attorney’s practice area, and the ABA Law Connect website provides little information in this regard.
I ask the ABA: are you, as an organization of legal professionals, supposed to be looking out for lawyers, or, for small businesses? These “small businesses” which the ABA is seeking to serve through its new program are the same small businesses that typically are calling or walking into the offices of our members to ask the exact same “fundamental legal question.” This initial question of one of our members often opens the door to a lawyer-client relationship between the small business and local attorney. Yet the ABA is closing that door for the “low, low price of only $4.95” by taking the local lawyer out of the mix for the betterment of the poor, downtrodden small business owner (please read my sarcasm).
While I don’t agree with it and feel that it is bad for the profession, I understand and appreciate the intentions of the private companies offering what they advertise as affordable online legal services. But I can’t comprehend how an organization comprised of lawyers supposedly acting for the betterment of lawyers and the legal profession has started a cheap online legal service that serves to help small businesses to the detriment of lawyers. Most everyone reading this article started their journey to become a lawyer by attending four years of college, followed by three years of law school and then six to eight grueling weeks studying for the bar exam. After passing the bar, most put years into learning how to practice law and learning the intricacies of the profession. You’ve worked hard to learn the law, build your practice and understand how the legal system in Pennsylvania and its respective counties operates. You hold on tight to the clients that you have by providing the best possible legal services you can, and you work just as hard to get new clients. And now an organization that is supposed to be looking out for you and all that you worked for, is pulling the rug out from underneath you.
The ABA reports it is initially rolling out its program as a test for a limited time in limited markets (including Pennsylvania) to test the feasibility of such a program. I’m not privy as to what the ABA will deem a success, and whether this pilot program will result in a full-scale implementation of the program nationwide. I will, on behalf of our members, voice my concerns to the ABA over the program, and I understand that other local bar associations will be doing the same. If you also believe that this program will be harmful to our members, your practice and/or the profession, I encourage you to personally voice your opposition. If we don’t stand up for ourselves, no one else will.