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Our current legal system is predicated on lawyers – and more recently paralegals – delivering “legal services” (the definition of this term is discussed in the next section). Can Ontario lawyers maintain a monopoly on professional legal services? The answer is probably not. In fact, some would argue the monopoly ended when paralegals were given regulated status to provide legal services.

As mentioned in yesterday’s post, access to justice is a problem for many members of the public and there is a massive and growing legal services gap.

Lawyers and the legal system do not seem to be changing or evolving to address this gap adequately. This effectively opens the door for non-lawyers to fulfil this unmet need for legal services. Ontario was very progressive in regulating and licencing paralegals. British Columbia is considering the same issue and notaries already do much of the residential real estate conveyancing work in B.C.

Non-lawyers are stepping up to provide legal services in other jurisdictions, too. Washington State has created an education and professional framework for Limited Licence Legal Technicians (“LLLTs”). LLLTs will have more training and responsibility than the paralegals in that state, but will not appear in court or negotiate on behalf of clients. California and several other U.S. states are looking into doing something similar for immigration consultants.

Computer programs and websites are already providing various types of legal services and it appears they will become a much larger part of the legal services market in coming years. In both paper and electronic form, “DIY” will kits are widely available. The online segment seems poised for very significant growth as there are many start-ups targeting the legal services market, some with capital backing from venture capitalists and major corporations like Google.

Sites like LegalZoom and RocketLawyer have become major legal services players, selling standard forms and documents that are customized for a client. Some sites offer pre-fab work product that is ready for client use “as is.” There are many sites with self-help information and many Q&A sites (e.g., Quora) where you can directly ask a lawyer questions. You can talk to a lawyer in real time and be billed by the minute on your credit card on Ingenio. Other sites offer lawyers the opportunity to bid on matters or work that potential clients have posted. Cybersettle is a consumer settlement and payment site that has, without lawyer involvement, facilitated the settlement of almost $2 billion in claim-based transactions for insurance companies, Fortune 500 corporations, and municipalities.

The services offered by these types of sites are usually significantly cheaper than comparable services offered by lawyers, and in some cases are free. They have transformed many common types of personal or consumer legal work into low price, low margin and high volume commodity legal services. Many of these sites are monetized, at least in part, by being a source of referrals for lawyers (this raises ethics issues in many jurisdictions), and in some cases non-lawyers, that own or participate on them.

Most of the websites offering legal forms at the present time are doing basic document automation on common documents like wills, incorporation forms and basic court pleadings. However, work is being done to build intelligent document and advice generation systems that will have artificial intelligence. These systems will be able to handle very complex matters. But, can computers give competent legal advice? Click the sidebar, below for the answer to this question.

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So it looks like we will have non-lawyers and computers becoming a much larger part of the legal services market. Will lawyers still provide legal services? Yes, they will still have a part, albeit probably a shrinking part. This is discussed in more detail in the last excerpt of this article.

For the rest of the article we will call anyone or anything that provides legal services a “legal service provider.” What do legal services providers do? They provide legal services. Tomorrow’s excerpt asks the question: what are “legal services?”

This article is from the September 2013 issue of LAWPRO Magazine, which can be read in full here.