Utah and Arizona Moving Forward With Nonlawyer Ownership of Law Firms

As California considers major regulatory changes that would allow non-lawyers to own stakes in law firms, we are closely following updates in Utah, where similar shifts are a step ahead.

Citing “crisis levels” of demand for affordable legal services stemming from the effects of COVID-19, the Utah Supreme Court on August 14 announced its decision to permit nonlawyer ownership and investment in law firms as a move toward greater access to justice. Accompanied by changes to the Rules of Professional Conduct, the regulatory sandbox created a two-year trial period, at the end of which the Utah Supreme Court can make these changes more permanent.

With the exception of one solo practitioner offering a 10% stake to his paralegal, the initial batch of organizations allowed into Utah’s pilot project is largely comprised of legal technology firms.

LawHQ is sharing revenues with software developers in relation to an application which would allow users to report spam communications and join lawsuits against those behind the messages or calls. 1Law is offering legal advice via chatbots, and LawPal would automatically generate legal documents for matters of divorce, custody, eviction, and property-seizure. The last of those announced so far is Rocket Lawyer, which the ABA Journal emphasized in its coverage earlier this month. The platform, which has already been serving as a middleman between consumers and attorneys, along with assisting in the creation of legal documents, is taking this opportunity to hire lawyers directly.

Arizona followed Utah just weeks later, eliminating rules that previously blocked nonlawyers from having financial stakes in firms, and the state went a bit further. The Arizona Supreme Court at the same time created a category of nonlawyer licensees permitted to represent clients in court. These “legal paraprofessionals” are expected to adhere to the same ethical requirements applicable to lawyers, and one must “meet education and experience requirements, pass a professional abilities examination, and pass a character and fitness process” to qualify.

The changes in Arizona have gone into effect without a temporary trial period, but alternative business structures will have to go through a “rigorous application process.” Arizona’s Task Force on the Delivery of Legal Services cited technology and free market competition as benefits of this change that could lead to greater access to justice. Rocket Lawyer is also expected to play a role in Arizona.

It remains unclear how nonlawyer ownership in law firms will evolve. For example, will the Utah Supreme Court or other proponents of this shift prevent venture capital and private equity firms from backing legal technology firms that are, in turn, permitted to own or invest in law firms? The answer to this question may have a huge impact on the financial fortunes and independence of lawyers, especially as California considers moving in the same direction as Utah and Arizona.

The Biggest Change to the Legal Profession Lawyers Might Be Missing

The makeup of a task force assembled last year by the State Bar of California is a cause for concern for many of the bar’s members. Created to address potential regulatory changes that could improve the accessibility of legal services, the group includes a number of tech industry insiders who stand to benefit financially from the proposed shifts.

Six of the committee’s twenty-two members are current or former executives for legal technology companies – see details below.

Andrew Arruda – CEO & co-founder, ROSS Intelligence (legal research platform using artificial intelligence)

Dan Rubins – CEO & co-founder, Legal Robot (automated legal analysis of documents)

Joshua Walker – co-founder, Lex Machina (legal analytics); author, On Legal AI

Simon Boehme – COO & co-founder, Disputly (security deposit recovery in California)

Johann Drolshagen – CTO/CIO, Level Playing Field Solutions (case management and administrative tools)

Allen Rodriguez – former director of attorney services, LegalZoom (connection to legal services through independent attorneys)

While some attorneys argue this is not substantially different from lawyers overseeing their own regulatory body, others worry the guidance offered by the task force is biased by conflicts of interest and not purely presented in service of its stated mission.

The sixteen recommendations issued by the committee this past summer included “allowing non-attorneys to own or have financial interests in legal entities,” as explained by ABA Journal. In response, attorney Carolin Shining of Culver City asked the panel on October 7th for “a pledge… to not profit, take salaries or any kind of benefit from entities that arise from the result of [its] work.”

The State Bar maintains that the task force is not subject to conflict-of-interest provisions because it is only providing advice. The diversity of backgrounds represented in the group, according to a statement from the organization, will result in recommendations that are better-informed and broader in perspective.

Regardless of whether or not members of the bar approve of the direction, this move toward involving non-lawyers in the industry could signify the beginnings of an enormous shift in the power structure of the legal profession. Changing the financial incentives of those who provide legal services has the potential, in the case of non-lawyer ownership, to result in the status and compensation of lawyers declining dramatically as client relationships transfer from attorneys to corporations and these companies seek to eliminate costs.

It appears that the committee’s recommendations are based on the assumption that for-profit tech companies can help increase access to justice by reducing costs associated with running a law firm.  But pursuing justice is at best an imperfect market good or service.  It is, therefore, far from clear that allowing non-lawyers to own and invest in law firms and the resulting reduction in lawyer power and economic clout will actually increase access to justice.  By contrast, it’s easier to trace how the regulatory changes being considered by the task force will economically benefit legal tech companies. Lawyers who ignore the work of the task force do so at their own peril.