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A Different Take on ABS

A Different Take on ABS – Proponents and Opponents Both Miss the Point

The Lawyers Weekly recently included an article by Cristin Schmitz entitled Study sounds note of caution in ABS debate. Ms. Schmitz discusses a thoughtful paper by Nick Robinson who is a research fellow with the Harvard Program on the Legal Profession.

In an interview with Ms. Schmitz, Mr. Robinson said:

“I’ve been amazed in this debate how much each side kind of talks past each other, dismisses the concerns of the other side, or the point of the other side. I am a bit cautious about non-lawyer ownership in the paper, but I can also see in certain situations how it could be beneficial.”

Dueling Arguments

The Robinson paper starts its discussion with what is described as the often “polarizing” claims made by ABS proponents and opponents. Proponents claim that non-lawyer ownership will increase access to legal services while opponents claim that it will undercut professionalism.

The arguments for the proponents are said to be that (i) access to outside capital permits economies of scale, infrastructure and specialization, (ii) non-lawyer ownership is an avenue not just to economic capital but also to “high-value employee with different skills sets”, (iii) outside investment allows consumers better information and quality of service by the development of brands which provide consumer information and an incentive to ensure quality and (iv) a business offering multiple types of services can provide services with greater convenience and efficiency.

The arguments for the opponents are said to be that (i) owners who are not themselves providing legal services are not personally invested in the labour of the enterprise and will accordingly be interested only in profits and not professional ideals and norms, (ii) non-lawyer ownership creates the potential for conflicts between the duties owed to investors and the duties owed to clients and the justice system, (iii) providing non-legal services together with legal services creates greater risk of misuse of confidential client information and unauthorized practice of law.

The paper suggests that, while these dueling perspectives both bring important insights, “the actual impact of non-lawyer ownership is likely to be quite different that either of these traditional accounts suggests” in material ways.

Country Studies

With a view to examining what actually has happened as opposed to the theoretical claims of proponents and opponents, the paper next considers the impact of ABS in Australia, England and the United States.

England

The paper examines two aspects of the English experience namely the effect of ABS on the personal injury and the insurance industry and the relatively limited impact of ABS on family law as opposed to the significant impact of cuts in legal aid.

As for personal injury, the paper notes ABS licensees are disproportionately concentrated in some sectors, particularly personal injury, where ABS firms account for one-third of the personal injury market share by last report. The paper suggests two reasons for this concentration. The first is recent unintended regulatory incentives which have encouraged claims management and insurance firms to invest in law firms. The second is that:

The personal injury market is both historically large and, at least in recent years, disproportionately profitable, making it a clear target for outside investors. Personal injury firms also require capital-intensive upfront costs, particularly in advertising and in creating an organizational infrastructure to screen and process claims.

The paper notes the risk for systemic conflict of interest between insurers and injured persons and the likelihood that economic efficiencies are not likely to much affect access where injured persons generally do not pay for legal services whether because of contingent fees, insurance or other arrangements.

As for family law, the paper notes that the Cooperative, an ABS with a social mission, has not been able to halt the massive increase in unrepresented litigants arising from the legal aid cuts of 2013 despite being one of the largest providers of family law services. The paper does not suggest that the adverse impact of these legal aid cuts has not been mitigated and will not be further mitigated but that the legal aid cuts had the more significant impact at least in the short term.

Australia

As for Australia, the focus of the paper is on the consolidation of the personal injury market with three firms now making up nearly one-half of the plaintiffs side of the market. The largest of the three has been publicly traded since 2007. The second largest is not an ABS. The third became a publicly traded ABS in 2013. The paper suggests that this consolidation is likely the result of regulatory factors such as prohibition of contingency fees and restrictions to the type of advertising allowed. The paper notes that the two firms that are now publicly traded were consolidating prior to their access to non-lawyer investment and that the other large firm does not have non-lawyer investment. Nevertheless, the paper suggests that publicly owned firms may have an advantage in acquiring other firms.

The paper draws limited conclusions from the Australian experience about non-lawyer ownership per se. The paper doubts that non-lawyer ownership is necessary for consolidation and closes with the observation that “Non-lawyer ownership may impact the cases these firms select and how they manage them, but, despite some aspersions otherwise, so far in Australia there is no clear evidence that it has led to significant new conflicts of interest”.

The United States

Despite non-lawyer ownership of legal practices being prohibited in the United States, the paper examines Legal Zoom and social security disability representation as close parallels.

The paper suggests that the effect of Legal Zoom is not well documented although access has likely been increased by pressure on prices. However, the paper notes that “a company like Legal Zoom is aimed primarily at small business and the upper middle class. In other words, people with the capacity to know that they have a legal problem and the resources and savviness to be able to seek out its answer and pay for it”. The paper also suggests that Legal Zoom has not increased access by “significantly decreasing the overall number of people without wills”[i].

The paper also considers the provision of social security representation which is permitted to be delivered by non-lawyers. The main point made by the paper seems to be that relationships between these firms and insurers and the social security agency has allowed for new potential conflicts to arise.

Observation

While the paper fairly describes this examination as being the “most extensive empirical investigation to date on the impact of non-lawyer ownership by focusing on its effects on civil legal needs for poor and moderate-income populations”, the actual empirical examination is nevertheless very limited. Recognizing the need of improved collection of data, the paper recommends that:

regulators should attempt to better track the cost of commonly used legal services, the demand for legal services, how these legal services are used, different pathways to resolving a legal issue, and how litigants use the courts. Sector specific studies should also periodically study the functioning of markets for specific legal services such as personal injury, immigration, probate, conveyancing, or family law.

Implications of the Empirical Review

The paper starts its consideration of its empirical review with the following observation:

Those who advocate for more integration by allowing non-lawyer ownership frequently argue this will lower prices and increase access and quality. Those who oppose greater integration worry it will undercut ethical and professional distinctiveness and create new conflicts. The country studies in this article show that while both sets of claims have some merit, they also miss critical components of nonlawyer ownership’s actual impact.

The paper suggests that the following contextual variables are important in the determination of “the actual scale and form that non-lawyer ownership will take”:

  • The nature of the capital and legal services market in the jurisdiction. A smaller market like Australia has seen less non-lawyer ownership than in England where the population is almost three times larger and there is a broader and deeper range of capital investors. The size of the U.S. legal and capital markets has allowed the rise of online legal services despite significant regulatory impediments.
  • The nature of legal services regulation in the jurisdiction. The recent referral fee ban in the UK has led to insurance companies[ii] investing in affiliated personal injury law firms. The Australian contingency fee ban appears to favour larger personal injury firms. The approach to ABS regulation may tend to encourage or discourage ABS formation.
  • The nature of the legal services. Non-lawyer investment appears to be more likely “in lucrative areas of the law that are amenable to economies of scale, where the work can be more easily standardized, and where other costs may be high (such as advertising, administration, or technology)”. Personal injury firms have seen disproportionate investment in Australia and England which may be because “personal injury has historically had large profits, high advertising costs, and a relatively routine and high volume workload of cases that are often handled by nonlawyers and mostly settle”.
  • The nature of the non-lawyer ownership. Ownership can be for-profit or not-for profit. Ownership may be by public listing, private outside investors, worker or consumer ownership, government owned or by a company that provides other goods or services. The nature of the ownership is likely to have an impact on the types of conflicts that develop the stability of the legal services market, professionalism and beneficial effects on access.

The paper observes that the empirical evidence does support the claim that “non-lawyer ownership can, in some circumstances, lead to new innovation in legal services, greater competition, larger economies of scale, and new compensation structures”. However, the paper also suggests that there are reasons to believe that non-lawyer ownership will not lead to significant access gains because (i) those in need of civil legal services often have few resources and, for them, legal aid is the answer, (ii) non-lawyer ownership is likely to be attracted to profitable sectors of the market, (iii) some legal services require the individualized attention of an experienced practitioner who charges high rates and the traditional worker owned partnership model may be the better approach in this context and (iv) there may be reasons other than price causing people not to address civil legal needs.

The paper also observes that, while the opponents of non-lawyer ownership often make claims that are too sweeping, there are genuine professionalism concerns raised by non-lawyer ownership such as (i) the potential for conflicting commercial interests such as insurers investing in personal injury firms, (ii) the potential for regulation to be by-passed such as the avoidance of the UK personal injury referral fee ban by insurer acquisition of legal practices, (iii) the potential for systematization of dubious practices, (iv) the potential for reputational concerns to limit the services provided to unpopular clients or riskier claims.

The paper observes with respect to professionalism challenges that:

… many of the most concerning new professionalism challenges identified in this article did not arise from non-lawyer ownership per se, but rather non-lawyer ownership that involves enterprises that also offer other services, and then only a sub-set of these enterprises. This suggests that jurisdictions adopting non-lawyer ownership should consider banning, or at least more heavily regulating, this type of ownership where the potential for conflict of interest is high, such as insurance companies owning personal injury law firms. When there is merely the potential for conflict or other professionalism concerns regulators should exercise their choice on when and how to intervene in the market. …

The paper notes that there are a number of regulatory policy choices to be made with respect to non-lawyer ownership. The paper encourages the development of more and better data to allow for more plausible claims to be made about the impact of non-lawyer ownership. Significantly, given the difficult judgment calls that are required, the paper calls for decisions to be made by regulators:

drawn from and drawing on a diverse set of opinions, including these two groups, but also consumer organizations, access advocates, other professional groups that deal directly with the public’s legal challenges (like doctors, educators, and accountants), and the academy.

Finally, the paper concludes that:

For policymakers the goal should not be deregulation for its own sake, but rather increasing access to legal services that the public can trust delivered by legal service providers who are part of a larger legal community that sees furthering the public good as a fundamental commitment. Carefully regulated non-lawyer ownership may be a part of achieving this larger goal, but only a part.

Some observations about the paper

In my view, this paper provides important insights for the ABS debate. As I have previously written, there is an unfortunate tendency to see ABS as utopian or dystopian while both the benefits and risks of ABS appear to be less than claimed by the duelists on both sides of the issue. The Robinson paper provides nuanced and thoughtful insight into non-lawyer ownership. It is right to conclude, as Mr, Robinson does, that ABS is no replacement for legal aid. Clearly, there are some legal services for which non-lawyer investment bears little advantage and there are consumers of legal services for whom market-based innovations will be of little import. As the ABS Working Group reported in February 2014, “it would be wrong to suggest that ABSs are a panacea”[iii]. But is wrong to dismiss any proposal on the basis that it is not a silver bullet.

I think that Mr. Robinson rightly observes that, at least at the outset, non-lawyer investment is most likely to focus on particular areas of practice particularly those which are lucrative and where capital can be put to use. Personal injury appears to be one such area. While it is likely right to be sceptical about efforts by existing practitioners to protect lucrative turf, it is also at least questionable whether it would be worth permitting ABS if the practical effect was primarily to partly consolidate the existing personal injury market rather to than expand the legal services that are provided in other areas. We should think hard about the likely impact of ABS in Canada taking into account Mr. Robinson’s insight that different geographic markets and different market sectors likely respond differently to non-lawyer investment.

Finally, Mr. Robinson’s focus on the interests of different investors is important. Mr. Robinson has written cogently about the professionalism concern that insurer-owned personal injury firms create systemic conflicts risks. The same concern can be raised about title insurer, mortgage lender or real estate brokerage ownership of real estate practices. While allowing access to economic and social capital is attractive, it is important to be careful about potentially conflicting interests of the capital providers.

As the title of this article is intended to convey, this “Harvard study” clearly advances this discussion. But it does not end it.

_______________________

[i] John Suh, CEO of Legal Zoom, suggested otherwise on March 6, 2014 at the Harvard Program on the Legal Profession conference entitled Disruptive Innovation in the Market for Legal Services.

[ii] and claims management companies

[iii] Para. 119 of the February 2014 LSUC ABS Working Group Report

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Reform but not change

Being in Favour of Reform, Just Not Change

To a hammer, everything is a nail

There is an old aphorism that “To a hammer, everything is a nail”. The aphorism reflects the centrality of perspective. Where you stand very much affects what you can (or want to) see.

I think that Professor Julie Macfarlane makes this point in the context of discussions about access to justice. Professor Macfarlane has carefully researched and thoughtfully written about the reality that most family law litigants don’t use lawyers. She speaks about this issue with lawyers yet, as she seems to say, the discussions with lawyers about this topic are, at best, stilted. I suspect that this is because lawyers see the access to justice issue from their professional perspective, are rightly proud of the work that they do for clients and have difficulty processing the access to justice issue from any perspective other than their own.

So the main point of this column is to try to address the A2J question from a different perspective and to use that perspective to look at the solutions offered.

Middle Income Access to Justice

In 2012, Professors Trebilcock, Duggan and Sossin published Middle Income Access to Justice. The book drew on 23 surveys of the public’s experience with justiciable problems undertaken across 13 countries.

The importance of this approach is that it looks at justiciable problems experienced by the public rather than looking at what lawyers do. The punch line is that there is a difference. Lawyers know what lawyers do. Lawyers fairly believe that lawyers do good things. So lawyers don’t see problems. To a hammer, everything is a nail.

The 2009 Ontario Civil Legal Needs Project is examined in the book by Professors Baxter, Trebilcock and Yoon. They examine the data seeking to determine what predicts the decision to seek legal advice. In other words, when do the members of the public go to lawyers for help? The answer is that it is the problem type significantly predicts whether a lawyer is consulted. And there are four problem types that predict the involvement of lawyers namely criminal, family, wills and powers of attorney and real estate. While not significant in a statistical sense, personal injury comes a close fifth on the numbers.

That the public goes to lawyers for criminal, family, wills and powers of attorney, real estate problems and personal injury problems should come as no surprise to lawyers. This is pretty much exactly what lawyers say that they do for individuals. In 2005, the Law Society of Upper Canada Sole Practitioner and Small Firm Task Force reported that lawyers in sole practice and in small firms generally represent individuals (77%) and that these lawyers practice real estate (46%), civil litigation (39%), wills, estates, trusts (35%), corporate and commercial (33%) and family (26%).

What do lawyers do? What legal needs exist?

Given that the public says that it uses lawyers for criminal, family, wills and powers of attorney, real estate problems and personal injury problems and that this is what lawyers say they do, we can have a strong degree of confidence about the nature of the practice of law for individuals.

Solicitors do real estate work, assist with wills, estates and trusts and also do some corporate and commercial work (presumably for small businesses). Litigators do criminal, family and personal injury litigation. Some lawyers of course do solicitors work as well as litigation.

That these are the categories of work done by lawyers makes obvious sense. Members of the public with significant assets use solicitors to help them with real estate transactions and in dealing with inheritances made or received. Members of the public who have trouble with the criminal law, who are in failed family relationships or who seek compensation for significant personal injury use litigators.

But what lawyers don’t see and cannot appreciate is that this amounts to a relatively small portion of the justiciable problems experienced by members of the public. According to the 2009 Ontario Civil Legal Needs Project, the public only seek legal assistance in respect of 11.7% of justiciable events.

Said simply, the public use lawyers for less than 15% of the justiciable events experienced by them. Said another way, what is 100% of lawyers’ practices is less than 15% of the public’s legal needs.

What about the other 85%?

Of the over 85% of justiciable problems that don’t attract legal attention, approximately 60% are consumer problems, money/debt and employment problems. A smallish proportion is in respect of discrimination, housing, hospital treatment/release, welfare benefits, disability benefits, immigration and other matters.

Should we care about the 85% of legal needs that are not addressed by lawyers? For the legal philosopher, the answer must be yes. As Professors Trebilcock, Duggan and Sossin put it “Most conceptions of the rule of law assume equality before the law and hence access to law or the justice system as one of its fundamental predicates”. And as Professor Gillian Hadfield argues, it seems quite wrong that the businesses on the other side of these justiciable events have expert legal assistance while the public does not. For the Law Society, the answer must also be yes given its public interest mandate. For individual solicitors and litigators who are struggling to do a good job and make a decent living, it is not surprising that this 85% is not on their radar.

The next question is why are lawyers used for less than 15% of legal needs? This is not well examined but I think the reason is clear. Lawyers are small business people who sell their time and expertise to help members of the public solve their problems. Taking into account the incomes reasonably required by university-trained highly intelligent professionals and their overheads, the fees for lawyers solving problems are measured in the hundreds of dollars per hour of time spent.

Real estate transactions and issues with inheritances are economically significant enough that the cost of a lawyer is justified. Personal injury claims work economically where the compensation likely attainable is large enough to justify legal fees.

Criminal law and family law are more problematic. Criminal law problems undoubtedly require legal assistance but accused persons often cannot afford the fees. As a society, we (mostly) address the importance of criminal law problems and the inability of those with criminal law problems to pay for legal assistance through legal aid.

Family law is the problem child from the lawyers perspective. The issues are difficult enough to justify legal assistance. People often cannot simply choose to ignore the family law issues whether because custody of children is at issue, support is needed or assets are being divided. Most people don’t use lawyers for family law problems. Not because they don’t want to but rather because they can’t afford to pay what turns out to be a large and unpredictable cost.

As for the remaining 85%, the fees of the legal expert are out of proportion with the size of the problem to be solved and, unlike criminal or family law, the public isn’t forced into the legal system.

What to do about the 85%?

So what to do? We could ignore the 85% and hope that no one notices. This seems to be the current approach.

We could hope that society comes to see these legal needs as being as compelling as health or education and provide legal aid funding. There are two problems with this approach. First, it won’t happen. Second and more important is that it is wrong to require society to pay for solutions the cost of which is disproportionate to the problem addressed. Even people with sufficient resources generally do not use lawyers for these problems because of the cost benefit equation. The business model of the small business lawyer does not provide an efficient way to address the 85% whether privately funded or funded by legal aid.

We could (and in Ontario have) allow regulated paralegals to address a portion of the 85%. While the business model is essentially the same, paralegals charge less and so can efficiently address some of the 85%. Small claims court work is a good example. But the advocacy provided by regulated paralegals solves at best a small part of the 85% puzzle.

There are two remaining choices. Neither will be attractive to practising lawyers. The first is to end the monopoly. If lawyers and regulated paralegals can’t efficiently address over 85% of legal problems then it makes sense simply to get out of the way. It makes no sense to prohibit anyone but a member of the Law Society from doing work that members of the Law Society don’t do.

The alternative choice is to encourage innovation by regulatory liberalization permitting other ways of delivering legal services. Having small businesses spend expert professional time on problems is not the only way to address problems. Technology and business processes can provide lower cost solutions. Larger businesses with scope and scale can deliver services in a way that the small business professional cannot.

My preference is to allow new ways of providing legal services under regulatory supervision. I am uncomfortable with the deregulation alternative. But I don’t see how doing nothing is acceptable.

Returning to the 15% (actually the 11.7%)

Criminal, family, wills and powers of attorney, real estate and personal injury problems make up the 11.7% of justiciable problems for which the public turn to lawyers for assistance. These are problems that lawyers see and seek to solve for their clients.

For criminal law, there is a clear issue of access to justice. But the answer is mostly, if not entirely, proper legal aid to ensure that competent criminal lawyers are engaged to protect fundamental constitution rights.

For real estate transactions, there is no reason to think that access to legal services is an issue. While there are likely efficiencies available through new ways of providing legal services, the issues in real estate law aren’t really about access.

For wills and powers of attorney, the issue is a bit more complicated. For those with property of sufficient value, the current system no doubt works reasonably well in terms of access. As in real estate, services could likely be more efficiently. But, it is also clear that the majority of Canadians do not have a will nor a power of attorney. For the majority of Canadians, wills and powers of attorney are in the 85% not the 15%. But lawyers do not see this as an issue because lawyers ably serve the minority of the public who have sufficient assets in their estate or a sufficient inheritance to justify paying lawyers’ fees.

For personal injury law, the contingent fee substantially addresses the access issue. However, the small business professional model limits the risk that can be taken by personal injury lawyers. With limited capital and limited volume, personal injury lawyers inevitably will tend to take on claims that are most certain to pay off. And it is common that clients are required to fund disbursements which may or may not be affordable.

The greatest access problem in the 15% is in family law. Family law litigants often start off with a lawyer but then try to represent themselves because legal fees are large and unpredictable and the amount of the family assets do not justify the legal fees. Professor Macfarlane’s research indicates that 70% of family law litigants are unrepresented. It seems that many start in the 15% but most end up in the 85%. Family law lawyers do not have the volume of business or the working capital to work on a fixed or predictable fee basis. The hourly rate legal model is unable to reduce price without reducing lawyers incomes. Technology and process innovation are not brought to bear because of lack of investment capital and expertise.

Improving access to justice in family law is complicated. Part of the answer may be allowing paralegals to do some of the advocacy work that is no longer being done by lawyers. Part of the answer may be in reducing the complexity of the process by which family law disputes are resolved. But there is reason to think that allowing evolution of business structures can be part of the solution as well. In Australia, firms which have taken advantage of access to external capital are now providing fixed fee family law services. As well, the well-capitalized Australian firms (e.g. Shine Lawyers, Slater & Gordon) fund disbursements in personal injury matters as well as fees.

To return to the beginning, it seems that it can be difficult for lawyers to appreciate the access issues that exist in our legal system. This may be because our perspective is inherently limited and we are rightly proud of that which we do. There is also a natural fear of change and, for some, a tendency to exaggerate how well things are going and how badly things could be if the status quo is not maintained. In my view, there is a compelling need for reform to advance access to justice. The scholarly thinking (e.g. Hadfield, Semple) and the actual evidence shows benefit, not harm, from allowing new ways of providing legal services. We actually need to change.

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