America Sees 1st Non-Lawyer Owned Law Firm, (+ The World Doesn’t End)

For literally decades the US has debated whether to allow complete non-lawyer ownership of law firms. Now, Law on Call has become the first business of this type in the country. Artificial Lawyer caught up with the company to ask a few questions about this groundbreaking move.

Plus, it’s worth mentioning that despite grave fears of a Robert Oppenheimer variety, the world has not ended, and in fact the reality of Law on Call is very down-to-earth. One gets the feeling that in about six months everyone will look back and wonder: ‘And we were worried about this…?

First, what is Law on Call, and how did it come about? It’s owned by a business called Northwest Registered Agent, which is already adjacent to the legal world in that it helps people to create companies.

This move has been allowed under an experimental regulatory change in the state of Utah, a region of around three million people in the US.

Now, onto Law on Call. It offers a wide range of legal services, which look primarily aimed at consumers and the SME sector.

Artificial Lawyer asked Drake Forester, Chief Legal Strategy Officer at Northwest Registered Agent, how this would work.

Drake Forester, Chief Legal Strategy Officer at Northwest Registered Agent

‘Law on Call attorneys will be employed by the company. With multiple attorneys on staff, there will be a wide range of experience levels in house as we’re hiring new and experienced attorneys,’ he explained.

They are offering: ‘$9 a month for our Utah Law on Call service. This subscription fee grants you instant access to a licensed Utah lawyer. No scheduling. No paralegals answering and deflecting. A licensed lawyer will answer your call. If the lines are busy, you can wait on hold or leave a message to get a call back in queue.’

Now that sounds good, but clearly once a substantive legal issue arises this is going to change, right? The answer is that for more complex input the rates begin at $100 an hour. AL checked and this is about average for a junior lawyer in this kind of region. So, this is not a great change.

This site then asked about how they would handle litigation, as after all, that will demand a lot of input and representation. Forester explained: ‘If there is litigation, rates will start at $100/hr.’ I.e. as with other more complex work.

He also added that although they are promoting the phone system, that ‘yes, absolutely clients will be able to meet attorneys. We have a building in Salt Lake City where clients will be able to meet with clients face to face. We will also support video chat’. So, the same as everyone else.

And as for technology? ‘For technological solutions, all of our technology is custom-made and built inhouse,’ he concluded. Of course, this may not necessarily be anything more complicated than standard doc templates.

So, there you go. The reality is that this is just a consumer to SME law firm that happens to be owned by a company in the law-adjacent space. That’s all.

All in all, a non-cataclysm for the justice system. It is not the End of Days as some predicted in conference after conference in the US. [AL’s first experience of this debate was in Atlanta in 1999 at the annual ABA conference, incidentally where President Clinton’s Attorney General, Janet Reno, gave the keynote speech. Yep, that is how long this debate has been raging, and even before that…..]

And as those in the UK will report, non-lawyer ownership just made the provision of legal services more flexible and enabled legal business structure innovationbut it didn’t totally transform the delivery of those services….i.e. just because you are employed by X rather than Y, doesn’t make you a totally different kind of lawyer, nor does it automatically change your cost-base, or how you bill, and a raft of other systemic issues. All of that is still to come…..

(P.S. and it’s worth noting Law on Call is still charging by the hour, just like so many other law firms. It really isn’t that different at all from what is already there.)

Last word…Legal Tech

Now, you may wonder what any of this has got to do with legal tech. The answer is that it’s often posited that new business models will help with driving legal tech adoption – and there is some truth to that. Look at the ALSPs and Big Four, and how law firms have created their own process groups that focus heavily on tech.

But, of course, and as mentioned, just because ownership changes doesn’t always mean delivery changes. It can mean that….but as the saying goes: ‘correlation is not causation‘. And, with law firms they have done loads of tech-led change and still remain traditional partnerships for the most part.

P.P.S. we’ll be connecting to some of the above issues this afternoon during the regular Legal Tech Groucho Club meeting at 4PM GMT, 12 noon EDT.

( P.P.P.S. a long-standing exception to non-lawyer ownership rules in the US is Washington DC, but this is really not the same thing at all. DC has allowed non-lawyers to become partners in the local offices of firms there, primarily to allow a small number of senior American politicians to retire into a lobbying career within what are sometimes quite large law firms. This has long been the case, but really has nothing to do with what is happening now, which is focused on the main legal market and is also about non-lawyer entities owning a legal practice outright.)