Wednesday, May 23, 2012
ABA releases survey of state responses to UPL claims noting increase in complaints about online legal document providers
The ABA Standing Committee on Client Protection has just released its survey of state responses to complaints pertaining to the unlicensed practice of law. You can access the full report here. Questionnaires were sent to all jurisdictions to learn what states are doing in response to UPL complaints. Of the 29 states that responded, the ABA not surprisingly noted an increase in complaints about online legal document providers allegedly offering improper, unlicensed legal services. The BNA Electronic Commerce and Law Report offers the following summary (subscription required):
[T]he 2012 survey results . . . revealed an uptick in complaints regarding an emerging area of concern: documents and counseling provided by online services.
These responses reflect what some experts have long predicted: that the rapid proliferation of online services and the increased accessibility of research tools will soon force bar associations and courts to squarely confront the implications of a growing “do-it-yourself” ethos where legal issues are concerned. At least four state bar committees have found that companies that prepare customized legal documents seemed to have overstepped bounds and contravene UPL prohibitions.
Online legal companies typically maintain that the provision of legal forms does not constitute legal advice and that their services are thus not characterizable as the practice of law.
But the ethics committees that have faulted these online providers for UPL violations note that legal advice inheres in the selection of appropriate forms and in the customization of those forms, which is frequently done with the help of customer service representatives who may be nonlawyers or out-of-jurisdiction lawyers.
Even if that remote assistance is provided by lawyers, authorities have noted, they walk a thin line by rendering advice in response to a specific legal question while claiming to provide “general” information and operating under disclaimers that purport to limit the duties that might otherwise be owed to online clients in the typical attorney-client context.