Potential changes to Washington state court rules could spur online legal services

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Guest Post: Imagine you just got home from work and on your door was a Three-Day Notice to Pay or Vacate. Or you just were served with papers informing you that your partner wants a divorce. Immediately your mind fills with questions. You’re pretty sure you need legal advice, but you don’t have money to pay a lawyer. Or you can’t find a lawyer who will take your case. How do you get access to justice other than trying to represent yourself?

Such scenarios — and a lack of access to justice — are a real problem for lots of people in Washington state. A huge gap exists between people who need legal assistance and people who can afford it. Attempts to address the problem, such as introducing Limited License Legal Technicians — legal professionals with a license to provide narrow services in specific practice areas — have helped. But the need for affordable legal assistance continues to outpace the supply of legal services provided by licensed legal practitioners.

Legal-service apps and online services may be an answer. But how can consumers know whether the legal-service app they’ve found accurately represents the current law in Washington? How will they know whether the information about their legal matter will be kept confidential? How will they know when, regardless of how good the app is, they still need the assistance of a licensed practitioner to advocate on their behalf?

The Washington State Bar Association’s Practice of Law Board is grappling directly with this issue, trying to find a way to support the potential good while minimizing the potential bad of legal-service apps and artificial-intelligence based services. The Practice of Law Board, in essence, looks at the authority of non-lawyers to perform legal and law-related services; and in this day and age, it’s becoming clear that the definition of “unauthorized practice of law” needs to consider online and electronic service providers—not only to close the access-to-justice gap but also to account for the actual and growing way people find legal help. Therefore, the Practice of Law Board is considering substantial revisions to the Washington Court Rules, particularly General Rule 24.

General Rule 24—Definition of the Practice of Law

General Rule 24 (GR 24) is one regulation governing the practice of law in Washington. Essentially, GR 24 strictly defines the practice of law, including who can provide legal services. Running afoul of this rule could lead to criminal charges for the Unlawful Practice of Law.

The current GR-24 defines the practice of law as “the application of legal principles and judgment with regard to the circumstances or objectives of another entity or person(s) which require the knowledge and skill of a person trained in the law.” Under the current Rules, if you provide any type of legal advice or counsel to someone, you’re practicing law … and if you are not licensed by the state bar, you could be charged with a crime.

The Practice of Law Board has drafted proposed changes to the rule that take legal apps and online services into account. They are trying to balance the ability to create useful legal software with the consumer protection that the public deserves. A full draft new GR-24 is available here.

Although the Practice of Law board recognizes that changes are needed, the board also realizes that they need input from both the public and the people who can design, test, and bring new legal services to market. To accomplish this, the Practice of Law Board, the Washington Supreme Court’s Access to Justice Board, and Microsoft are hosting a meeting in Seattle at noon on May 29. The meeting is a chance for people to comment on the proposed changes to GR 24 and effect the future of legal apps. Some matters open for comment include whether legal apps or online services:

  • Provide consumers a means to view blank templates and final documents before finalizing a purchase of a legal document
  • Have a Washington licensed attorney review all blank documents and legal operative language for an app offering services to consumers in Washington state
  • Communicate clearly and conspicuously that the services provided are not a substitute for advice or services of an attorney
  • Disclose clearly and conspicuously to the consumer that personal information provided by the consumer and other communications through the app or service are not subject to attorney-client privilege

While many tech companies would rather beg for forgiveness rather than ask for permission, this meeting is your opportunity to do better than either: you can actually affect the boundaries of what legal apps and services are and can lawfully do. If you want to affect the balance between access to justice and good, effective, automated legal services, please come to the Practice of Law Board meeting, which includes lunch, on May 29 with your ideas.

What is the future of legal apps and online services? Join the conversation on Wednesday, May 29, noon, at the Washington State Bar Association office, 1325 4th Ave., Suite 600, Seattle, WA 98101. Please RSVP by May 27 and come prepared with your ideas. If unable to attend, you can still send your written comments to the Practice of Law Board, care of the Washington State Bar Association.

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