ABA backs away from Rocket Lawyer partnership aimed at helping small business owners

By Rebecca Campbell | Mar 21, 2016

SAN FRANCISCO – The American Bar Association (ABA) has abandoned a pilot project aimed at helping small business owners after facing resistance from state and local bar groups.

ABA Law Connect was launched last year in October in partnership with Rocket Lawyer, a venture that was designed to help individuals consult with lawyers and produce legal documents where customers would have to pay just $4.95 to ask an ABA-member lawyer a question online and a follow-up question. If further services were required, the lawyer and client would then negotiate a price.

The State Bar of California’s executive director, Elizabeth Rindskopf Parker, told the Northern California Record that Rocket Lawyer is one of the technology-based initiatives that is looking to transform the way in which lawyers work.

“Its focus is to do a better job connecting potential clients with lawyers and it hopes to address a large part of the population who are unrepresented,” Parker said. “In family matters, close to 85 percent of litigants do not have lawyers.”

ABA Law Connect was tested in three states for three months before it was shut down in January: California, Illinois and Pennsylvania. However, it was in Illinois and Pennsylvania that the state bar associations struck back, fearing that the venture would take business away from state and local bar referral services.

While the issue of taking an important revenue service away from state and local bar groups has been raised, Parker said that the quality of the lawyers selected for participation has also been brought into question.

“For voluntary membership organizations of lawyers, one important source of revenue has long been lawyer-referral organizations,” she said. “They perform a valuable service in matching potential clients with lawyers who have been pre-screened for quality and expertise, and in return, the lawyer referral organizations earn fees to support their parent organizations.”

Unlike California, Illinois and Pennsylvania state bars are voluntary membership organizations, meaning that they don’t have an official licensing function such as California where membership is mandatory and lawyers must join in order to practice. As a result, voluntary bar groups need to focus more on keeping their lawyers happy to recruit and then keep them on board.

“The State Bar of California is not a voluntary membership organization and does not itself earn fees in this way,” Parker said. “That distinction may explain the difference in position.”

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