With the goal of positioning his on-line legal forms company as a solution to America’s access-to-justice problem, Chas Rampenthal, General Counsel of LegalZoom, zoomed through my home state last week, with two speaking engagements. I caught his speech at a breakfast meeting at my home-town bar association, the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association (@clemetrobar).

A panacea for the under-served?

Despite the early hour, Rampenthal was a high-energy presence as he described the “Number One problem facing the legal profession” as “under-consumption of our services.” As he sees it, “Access to justice is a fundamental right,” but the “legal system is designed” to shut out massive numbers of consumers who need basic legal services at a reasonable cost. There must be a continuum of legal care, Rampenthal urged, just as there is in the medical profession.

He described his visit to an urgent care center, where he was seen by numerous support personnel, whose work was rolled up into the doctor’s final opinion on the X-ray of his broken bone. “The business of law and the practice of law doesn’t all have to be provided by lawyers,” he said. A “pure professionalism model,” Rampenthal asserted– one based on lawyer regulations aimed at protecting the public — can’t address the “massive underrepresentation” of those needing legal services.

Unauthorized practice still an issue

Of course, the issue raised by LegalZoom (and by other players in the same field, which Consumer Reports Magazine has called “legal DIY websites“) is whether the model constitutes the unauthorized practice of law (UPL) — which is proscribed by every jurisdiction under Rule 5.5 and/or other regulations — and whether it can harm consumers. LegalZoom has been subject to lawsuits and bar resistance in several jurisdictions. We previously wrote about that here. In June, LegalZoom sued the North Carolina Bar for antitrust violations, the culmination of a decade of investigations and cease-and-desist efforts. The bar has moved to dismiss.

Rampenthal acknowledged that consumers can be confused by what LegalZoom offers — he said that “Everyone thinks LegalZoom is a law firm,” despite disclaimers, and that when asked to name any law firm that came to mind, survey respondents often named LegalZoom. LegalZoom’s advertising says that it is not a law firm, as does its website.

And Rampenthal got some sharp questions from the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association audience. One lawyer said that clients had asked him to review documents that didn’t actually fit the clients’ needs, but which they had generated using LegalZoom’s self-help software.

Problems abound

Rampenthal closed with a rallying cry, urging lawyers and bar regulators to be more open to the LegalZoom business model, as part of increasing access to justice for legal consumers.

But many are far from being sold on the notion. Frank DeSantis, a co-editor of this blog, for instance, is the former chair of the Ohio Supreme Court Board of Commissioners on the Unauthorized Practice of Law. He noted that “UPL regulations exist to protect the public, not lawyers. LegalZoom is very dangerous because it gives its users the false impression that they have received sound legal advice,” when actually they have just selected from some drop-down menus. Legal consumers are often not in a position to know what they need to protect their interests. That’s where legal advice comes in. Creating and using the wrong document from a website can be more harmful than not having a document.

Reflecting on Rampenthal’s described visit to the emergency room, DeSantis commented, “Legal self-help is as pernicious as medical self-help.”