Last Friday, in conjunction with the ABA Midyear Meeting in Atlanta, Georgia, the ABA Ethics 20/20 Commission held a public hearing on the Issues Papers released to date. It also published the comments it received in regards to its Implications of New Technologies Issues Papers (PDF), and we wanted to point out some common themes and notable responses.
The Commission received 43 responses from a mix of solo and small firm lawyers, law school professors, vendors and legal marketing professionals. Responses range from short and sweet to long, analytical and technical. Some common themes emerged from the responses:
- The public will be harmed if lawyers use of Internet tools is limited or prohibited.
- Guidance is needed through best practices, not new rules.
- Model Rules, ethical obligations, still apply so new rules are unnecessary.
- Uniform state rules are preferable to a patchwork of state rules.
- Cloud computing is not a form of outsourcing, just as telephone and banking are not outsourcing.
The majority believe that best practices and unified state rules are the best course of action. The thinking is that best practices can offer guidance so lawyers can be better prepared to judge new technologies that may appear, and be of better service to their clients, and the public, instead of remaining in limbo for fear of running afoul of the rules. For unified state rules, many pointed out the multi-jurisdictional nature of law practice today, and that having to contend with a patchwork of conflicting rules places undue burden on lawyers.
Many of the comments focused on marketing versus advertising, and pointed out today’s consumer is perfectly capable of discerning advertising from marketing. Since there are state and federal consumer protections, further regulation by the ABA is unnecessary and will only harm the public by restricting access to information about, and for, legal services.
In addition to voicing a majority for best practices instead of new rules, many also suggested some type of validation system or “preferred provider” system for cloud computing vendors. Suggestions range from a full out program to providing a set of minimum requirements, or best practices, lawyers can use to evaluate any cloud computing vendor. Both the Legal Cloud Computing Association (of which Clio is a founding member) and LexisNexis offered similar best practices recommendations related to information storage, service agreements, data ownership, data back up and security and data center security.
It is understandable, in fact it is encouraging, that many of the responses make the same arguments in favor of best practices instead of new rules, but there were also some responses we want to highlight. One of them is from Patrick Scharmer, a solo attorney who is launching a new, online law office. He says that:
Using free and low-cost online marketing forums, while complying with my ethical obligations, allows me to keep my overhead low so that I can provide legal services to lower income individuals. Additionally, through my oline law office, I can reach areas of my home state that are currently under-served by physical law offices.
Virtual law offices and the services they provide are a new and innovative means of providing legal services. The practitioners who are engaged in this form of practice and are working hard to comply with the existing ethical rules, need the support of organizations like the ABA, if we are going to succeed. Additional regulation that hampers the growth of this market is not the answer.
While he echoes much of what the other commenters had to say, he specifically describes his online law office as being able to serve those areas in his state that are under-served. He is able to leverage technology, specifically the Internet, to provide legal services to a segment of the public while still adhering to current ethical rules. It’s reminiscent of a line from The Social Network: “They don’t have roads in Bosnia, but they have Facebook.” Segments of the public may not be near a physical law office, but they are near an Internet connection.
Another notable response comes from Searcy Denney Scarola Barnhart and Shipley, written by J. Hopkins and D. Sales. It not only presents a general summary of the issues and its recommendations, but also fluid explanations and analysis of search engines, Federal Trade Commission regulations, social networks, forums, blogging and lawyer website disclaimers. Its conclusion nicely sums up what many of the commentators had to say:
Improving the image of the profession is something that each lawyer, each day, should be working toward. It is also something that can be effectively accomplished on the web. Providing useful information to consumers is possibly some of the most effective marketing on the web and is regularly recommended by quality web (digital) marketers. Why? Web users want information; they want good and useful information; and they want a free flow of information.
Generally speaking, the web is a new area for lawyers and the best methods for its use in marketing for lawyers are not well understood. Lawyers need complete, clear, and useful education and guidance, much more than they need more regulation. More importantly, we believe exclusionary regulation will do more to deny the consumer of valuable information than it will to protect the consumer from dangers again which the Model Rules are designed to guard. Certainly, current regulations relating to advertising and marketing should be sufficient to regulate lawyers in the digital world as they are in the physical world.
Now we all must wait to see what the ABA Ethics 20/20 Commission does next.