DIY law

Before asking a professional for advice, these days most people consult the internet. Whether it’s a question about how to fill in a tax return or a query on a medical ailment, they Google their issue first to find out if they can solve it themselves. DIY is no longer the domain of household improvements on a Sunday afternoon; it now extends to pretty much all aspects of life, including the law.

Legal tradition

In the past, relationships between skilled professionals and their clients were developed over many years. Family lawyers and doctors were consulted whenever relevant issues arose, and the next generation often graduated into future clients. However, with the breakup of the nuclear family, and the increasing relocation of individuals due to the changing nature of work, the traditional continuity of professional relationships has withered away.

Whilst medical care is subsidised by the government in the form of the NHS, professional legal services have never been universally accessible to the same extent. So whereas people tend to register with a local GP when they move home, they don’t sign up with a lawyer. Instead, bespoke legal advice is only sought when it is actually required and, for many, particularly younger people, this will be very rarely, if at all.

Lawyers therefore have a job of actually marketing themselves to peripatetic prospective clients. The internet is a double-edged sword in this respect; it can help with the task of reaching out to new clients but it also contains a huge wealth of freely available legal information which can turn would-be clients into amateur lawyers.

Another tradition which has come under attack of late is free access to legal advice and representation. The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2010-12 is leading to drastic reductions in legal funding by the government. Citizens Advice Bureaux (CAB) are shutting down and the rules on legal aid are being tightened, which means that those who can’t afford to pay legal fees are often looking on the internet for DIY solutions.

DIY Law in practice

The provision of template legal forms is one of the easiest ways of empowering those who wish to manage their own legal affairs. Access to a repository of legal documents is a toolbox for DIY enthusiasts.

Self-service wills such as those produced by Lawpack have been available in high street branches of WHSmith for many years. Despite some initial grumblings that this approach represented a dumbing-down of legal services, they have proved to be cost-effective and there are now many competing providers, most of them online.

For example, Simply-docs focuses on providing semi-customised legal documents for small businesses, and currently has over 2,000 individual documents available. Online Legal Services Ltd provides an award-winning Divorce-Online service.

A more technical form of providing template legal documents is via a method known as document assembly. A document assembly system prompts users to answer specific questions via an interface. Their answers are then fed into a program which automatically populates the personalised fields in what would otherwise be a template form.

Direct Law from the Epoq Group Ltd enables law firms to give their clients online access to legal documents from their own website, using a document assembly system. Epoq also provides certain documents direct to the public through its MyLawyer website. Meanwhile, Black Opal Systems Ltd resells the well-established Exari document assembly system in the UK.

Aside from legal documents, there is a whole wealth of freely available information about legal rights and legal process available to read online. Some areas of the law are more accessible to individuals and better designed for self-representation. Employment law in particular is very open to individuals who want to handle their case by themselves, at least in the early stages of a dispute. Websites from the CAB, the Government and Emplaw all provide substantial employment law information for would-be claimants. In order to reduce the backlog of employment tribunal claims, the government has been pushing for dispute resolution via Acas which also provides a free employment advice helpline. But disgruntled employees who are not amenable to conciliation or advice can choose to submit their own claim and represent themselves at an employment tribunal, which is less formal than many other courts and accustomed to people appearing without a representative.

Future of legal services

Back in 1996, Richard Susskind predicted, in “The Future of Law”, that the role of lawyers would gradually change from that of reactive adviser to one of proactive “information engineer.” Rather than acting on behalf of clients and holding their hand through the legal process, they will instead ensure that clients have access to the best possible information to manage their own legal affairs. Things are moving in that direction.

The Clementi Review opened up the debate on the commercialisation of the law and led to the Legal Services Act 2007. Despite all the hyperbolic fears raised over the prospect of “Tesco Law”, Alternative Business Structures (ABS) are now a reality, and firms can offer legal services alongside businesses such as supermarkets, banks, and high street shops. It’s too early to tell exactly how ABS will change the nature of legal services, but their introduction will certainly increase competition in the legal marketplace – from fee structures to the quality of services – and this should, at least in theory, improve access to the law.

An example of how the legal landscape is changing in the UK post-Clementi is the growing brand of QualitySolicitors. It describes itself as “a group of modern, progressive law firms providing legal advice for individuals and businesses in over 350 locations”. Quality Solicitors is however a brand, rather than a movement to open up DIY legal services.

One perhaps needs to look across the pond to find out how commercialisation of the legal sector is encouraging individuals to harness the power of legal tools, whilst keeping lawyers in the loop. Rocket Lawyer is a San Francisco based Google-backed venture which provides a sophisticated document assembly system which businesses and individuals can use to create legal documents. However, in a similar way to QualitySolicitors, they also have a network of lawyers who can provide their users with more bespoke advice on any given legal matter. They are giving their clients a legal toolkit backed up by professionals who can help guide the clients or even take control of the legal matters if required. According to some reports, Rocket Lawyer is planning to launch in the UK in 2012.

In conclusion

The combination of improved access to legal information through the internet and a reduction in legal aid together with reduced spending power, means that many people are attempting to manage their own legal affairs. The commercialisation of the legal sector is likely to further open up the legal system to the public and encourage them to be more proactive when it comes to legal matters.

There will always be a need for professional guidance, even when it comes to the most ardent legal amateurs. However, there is no doubt that the nature of legal services is undergoing a radical transformation and law firms will need to adapt to the emerging legal business models.

Alex Heshmaty is a legal technology specialist and freelance writer. Aside from the Internet Newsletter for Lawyers, he has also written for The Guardian and been quoted in The Times.