Rocket Lawyer is the first big-name legal services provider to announce that it’s taking part in a Utah pilot program aimed at broadening the state’s legal industry landscape and making services more affordable and accessible.
Several other consumer-facing legal providers also will be joining the regulatory “sandbox” program, approved last month by the state supreme court. It will be run by the court’s new Office of Legal Services Innovation.
As part of the two-year pilot, Rocket Lawyer customers in Utah will have access to its independent attorney network, and to a new group of in-house staff attorneys, said Charley Moore, its founder and CEO.
The Utah sandbox is a milestone in national efforts to change the rules to allow for nonlawyer and tech company ownership stakes in legal services operations, access to justice advocates say.
California is on a similar path to creating a regulatory sandbox, but appears to be at least a year behind Utah. California’s effort also could unintentionally result in increased competition for law firms from the Big Four accountancies and other alternative legal service providers. But there’s no indication yet that any of the Big Four will seek to participate in the Utah sandbox.
Until now, regulations in different U.S. states have prevented Rocket Lawyer from creating this type of “hybrid model” through hiring and offering the services of full-time staff attorneys, which, among other things, will create savings for clients, Moore said.
In the United Kingdom, customers can already access both sets of attorneys when seeking legal advice and creating legal documents ranging from wills and trusts to lease agreements and business contracts.
Moore said Rocket Lawyer’s goal has been “to make law affordable and simple for everybody.” The pandemic has only highlighted the “desperate need” of many for affordable services, he said, and the Utah sandbox will aid in making justice more accessible by being able to provide services directly to consumers.
Through the sandbox, new and expanded legal service business models—including those with nonlawyer investment or ownership—will be tested and data will be collected, so that the innovation office can assess and recommend which of the operations they believe should become permanent.
Regulators will look to see which programs are viable and ensure that no harm befalls Utah residents, said John Lund, who chairs the innovation office and is a partner with Salt Lake City-based Parsons Behle & Latimer.
In addition to Rocket Lawyer, four other legal operations will be announced as sandbox participants, said Lund. Unlike Rocket Lawyer, the other participants—which will include a consumer bankruptcy firm and others that handle family law cases—are smaller, Utah-based and focused operations.
Over the past decade, Rocket Lawyer and other online legal service platforms like LegalZoom and Avvo have encountered resistance from several state courts and bar authorities as they’ve aimed to match clients with in-state lawyers.