Will-writing and the redefinition of “legal services”

Last month, a BBC investigative program called Panorama exposed a wide range of illegal and unethical practices by “will-writers,” advisors who help people prepare wills and who are not lawyers. One result of that broadcast could be a significant clawback of lawyer regulatory power over the legal services marketplace in the UK, with implications for the future of this marketplace globally.

Here are some detailed accounts of the Panorama broadcast and of the resulting controversy. Briefly: the program uncovered several instances of will-writers who exploited their clients through massive overcharging, shoddy workmanship, and even outright fraud. The abusive will-writers were neither lawyers nor (evidently) members in good standing of one of the professional will-writing associations that have evolved with the 2007 passage of the Legal Services Act. That statute divides legal services into “reserved legal activities,” which are exclusive to lawyers, and “legal activities,” which are not exclusive to lawyers and are not otherwise subject to specific regulation. Will-writing is not included in the former category and, therefore, is considered an unregulated activity.

In the wake of the broadcast and the public recriminations that accompanied it, the relevant authorities are now under pressure to take swift action. The Legal Services Board, the overarching regulator of all legal professionals in England & Wales, has promised to fast-track a debate and decision regarding whether will-writing should be added to the list of “reserved legal activities” and given exclusively to lawyers. (The Law Society of Scotland is already pushing such measures forward.) An interview with two officials from the Law Society of England & Wales sums up lawyers’ concerns with the current situation (which will be familiar to all advocates of lawyers’ role in legal services provision):

It is the presence of untrained and unregulated people working in the area that has led to a range of problems that can adversely affect consumers, Clarke and Roberts insist. “A lot of clients don’t understand making a will can be a complex process. They think it should be simple, but often it’s much more involved due to the presence of step-children, property and other assets in other countries and lots of other issues which are a part of modern life,” Roberts notes.

Unregulated will writers who lack legal training often fail to understand the legal complexities themselves. “One I know was going to make a will for a large estate which would have been involved, so he merely suggested everything be left to a trustee who could sort it all out as he saw fit. All solicitors are not infallible, but experienced solicitors will understand how to deal with complex estates and take account of all the eventualities so the testator’s wishes will be realised and the estate can be properly managed,” says Roberts.

You can see where all this is likely to lead: to the designation of will-writing as a reserved legal activity under the Legal Services Act. In one respect, it’s difficult to argue against this turn of events. The abuse of unsophisticated consumers, many of them elderly or impoverished, is repugnant and needs to be stopped in its tracks. Solicitors, as noted, aren’t perfect, but they come with a guarantee of education and training and they are backed by insurance funds that can reimburse clients who’ve been poorly served. Wills and estates, in many cases, are not cut-and-dried matters and they can require sophisticated advice, especially at a time of generational change when demand for estate law help will only rise.

Given all that, making will-writing a reserved legal activity seems like a no-brainer. And yet, there are good reasons for the Legal Services Board to proceed with caution here.

To begin with, it’s not entirely accurate to call will-writing an “unregulated activity.” Consumer protection laws are in force precisely to protect the buyers of commercial services that fall outside specific regulatory schemes; moreover, the last time I checked, fraud is still on the books in Britain as a criminal offence. Provisions already exist in Acts and regulations to protect people from the incompetent and unscrupulous and to prosecute such predators where necessary.

Secondly, the current absence of a specific regulatory system for will-writing doesn’t mean that the only alternatives are full lawyer control or unfettered market freedom. The Institute of Professional Willwriters, one of the recognized will-writing groups, will happily remind you that it is the only organization of its type whose Code of Practice has been approved by the Office of Fair Trading. Self-regulation by the will-writing industry down the road is not out of the question, nor is the creation of a specific will-writing regulatory scheme that doesn’t restrict this area of practice to lawyers.

Thirdly, access to justice issues arise whenever a decision is made to restrict an activity to the legal profession. Part of the reason for the huge upsurge in will-writing services in the UK is that less than half of Britons have a will; considering that lawyers have had every chance to exploit this latent market and have failed to do so, it’s hard to make the case that they should now have exclusive rights to this practice area (especially since lawyer regulation tends to drive up costs). The legal profession and the government jointly own responsibility for a failure to educate the public in this area, with the result that, for example, 67% of consumers wrongly believe all will-writers are solicitors.

Fourthly and most importantly, the whole question of what should constitute a “reserved legal activity” hasn’t received nearly enough scrutiny. That’s the conclusion of a just-released report sponsored by the Legal Services Board and written by Stephen Mayson, the widely respected director of the Legal Services Policy Institute. In his report,

Mayson said he had found the origins of the six activities currently reserved to be “remarkably obscure,” with “little basis for suggesting a common policy rationale that justifies their existence”. For example, he discovered that the conveyancing monopoly came about in 1804 when Prime Minister Pitt the Younger wanted to appease a profession unhappy with his plans to increase taxes on articles of clerkship and practising fees. Professor Mayson said it would be “unwise to consider any particular legal activity for inclusion or exclusion in the absence of a broader set of criteria that could be generally applied.”

So there are good reasons for England & Wales to think twice before reflexively placing the writing of wills under the exclusive authority of the legal profession. But if you’re a North American lawyer who practises something other than wills and estates, and you’ve made it this far into this post, you’re probably wondering what possible relevance this has to you. I’d argue it has great relevance, because this looks like the first major skirmish in what will be a decade-long war over a crucial question: what should be classified as “lawyer services” and what can be classified merely as “legal services”?

We’ve tended to use “legal services” and “lawyer services” more or less interchangeably over the years, such that “legal services” has become a virtual synonym for “the practice of law” (lawyers have not hesitated to encourage this blurring of lines). But the will-writing controversy forces us to think about law-related services that, for reasons of both marketplace efficiency and access to justice, could and perhaps should be kept outside the strict ambit of the legal profession. Granted that a Wild-West free-for-all wills market serves no one’s interests: is the opposite end of the spectrum, wills kept under lawyers’ lock and key, the best alternative? Isn’t the middle ground worth at least some exploration and settlement?

Consider another example, a growing force coming from the opposite direction: legal process outsourcing. Three recent articles explore the impact of LPOs on the traditional big-firm business model, and I recommend a thorough reading of all three:

If I can try to summarize the thrust of three lengthy and insightful pieces, it seems to be that:

  • LPOs and other non-traditional legal service providers are taking a growing amount of once-profitable associate-level work from law firms,
  • the unbundling model upon which these new providers are based is changing client expectations about where and how certain types of legal services are purchased, and
  • the result will be law firms with work of less quantity but higher quality, which will inter alia benefit the quality of a legal career generally.

LPOs, essentially, are forcing law firms (and their clients) to ask the critical question of our times: is a lawyer really the best choice to do X? The answer in many cases is yes, especially when the job calls for the kind of judgment, nuance, skill and wisdom that lawyers bring to the best of their work. These are “lawyer services.”

But in many other cases, the answer is no: all or parts of tasks such as document review, due diligence, electronic discovery, document drafting and production, small-claims court representation, and basic transactions like house purchases, straightforward divorces, and as the current situation in England & Wales suggests, wills and estates, don’t always need a lawyer’s attention. Should the providers of these services, whomever they are, be qualified and trustworthy? Of course. Must they always be lawyers? I think the answer is: of course not.

As time goes on, “legal services” will come to mean “commercial services related to the exercise of law-related rights and the fulfillment of law-related responsibilities,” without the necessary inclusion of lawyers. “Lawyer services” will be a sub-category defined as “legal services that, for reasons of required skill and/or public protection, are provided exclusively by lawyers.” “Legal services” will be offered by a wide variety of domestic and foreign providers, none of whom need to be lawyers; their regulation will be specific to the competence required, and access to these services will be available more widely than when lawyers offered them more or less exclusively. “Lawyer services” will be the cream of what we now consider to be the very deep crop of lawyer activities, only the most challenging and the most valuable to clients.

There’s nothing novel about this kind of distinction in professional services.

  • Richard Susskind quotes the statistic that 4% of health-care services are provided by doctors, while 50% of legal services are provided by lawyers. We accept a distinction between “health” services (delivered by nurses, physiotherapists, massage therapists, psychiatrists, and many other “health practitioners”) and “medical” services (delivered by medical doctors — the word “medical” itself is derived from the Latin for “physician”).
  • When we go to have our teeth checked, we usually spend most of our time with a “dental assistant” and only the last few minutes with the “dentist.”
  • We use “architects” and “engineers” to design our homes and buildings, but we hire “contractors” and “tradespeople” to implement designs and renovations through actual construction — the heavy lifting, literally.

We accept all these situations as normal because the markets for these professional services have evolved to allow the most skilled professionals to do the highest-end, highest-value work and an army of other professionals, para-professionals and skilled craftspeople (usually under specific regulatory or quasi-regulatory regimes) to carry out the rest of the work. Doing it any other way — requiring medical doctors to give flu shots, obliging dentists to deliver teeth-cleaning, requiring engineers to lay bricks — would result in massive system backlogs, huge price increases, and widespread dissatisfaction by both the professional and the client — in other words, pretty much the situation we have now in the legal marketplace.

The legal marketplace, whether some lawyers like it or not, is heading towards the same kind of stratification as other professional fields, to a massive “sorting out” of what lawyers need to do and what they don’t need to do. It’s immaterial whether this is brought about by regulation or the marketplace; in the end, these two forces will be working in virtual lockstep to effect change. There will be a period of disruption, maybe even chaos, as we figure out how certain legal services are best delivered by non-lawyers; it won’t be a tidy process, and there will be damage of the kind suffered by will consumers in the UK (and associates in large law firms). But every marketplace has had to go through this, and if doctors could see their way clear to allow non-doctors to take on the sacred duty of preserving life and promoting health, I think lawyers can bring themselves to make a similar commitment.

This is what the next decade will bring: a Great Sorting Out of demand for legal services, as the market reviews its choices and decides where and from whom it wants to acquire what it needs. As time goes by, the category of “legal services” will grow by volume, while “lawyer services” will shrink by volume; but both categories, paradoxically, will grow in quality. Lawyers in particular will benefit from a task list that requires more sophistication and higher-level skills. For that reason alone, but also because of the ultimate interests of clients, we should be working to narrow our focus on the highest-level work while simultaneously supporting the development of practices and regimes to oversee the more basic work we used to do. It’s anyone’s guess whether our profession will step up to that challenge.



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