Back in July 2018, I noticed that the State Bar of California had created a task force to consider whether regulatory reforms could improve access to justice in that state. I wrote about this development with what you might call jaded optimism:

The smart money, the obvious prediction, says this task force will come to nothing, that the forces of intransigence will chalk up another win by making the right arrangements with the right power brokers, or simply by stonewalling until the reformers tire themselves out. … 

But here’s the thing: Eventually, change does arrive, often when you least expect it. At some point down the road, power in the legal market will shift away from lawyers just enough to enable new expectations, assumptions, and rules for how legal services are created and delivered….

There will be a moment when that shift begins. This might even be it.

A little over a year later, an extraordinary series of events, unprecedented in the modern legal profession, began to unfold. You might be aware of some or even most of them, but it’s not until you see them arranged chronologically that you fully appreciate just what has happened in the American (and Canadian) legal profession in a shockingly brief period of time. With quotes from the linked reports, here’s the chronology:

●  August 28, 2019: “The Utah Supreme Court … has unanimously approved a work group report that lays out recommendations for narrowing the access to justice gap by reimagining lawyer regulation. … The work group outlined a new structure for regulating legal services by: 1) loosening the ethical restrictions on lawyers in the Rules of Professional Conduct and 2) creating new regulations for companies and others providing some legal services. The report recommends amendments to Rules restricting lawyer advertising, as well as Rules prohibiting lawyers from fee sharing with non-lawyers or allowing non-lawyers to have ownership or investment interest in law firms.”

● October 8, 2019: “The Chicago Bar Association and the Chicago Bar Foundation launched a joint task force to respond to the market failure in consumer legal services. … [The task force will have] five working committees, which include areas such as ‘Modernizing Lawyer Referral & Law Firm Models,’ ‘Optimizing the Use of Other Legal Professionals’ and ‘Partnering with Online Legal Service Providers and Other Businesses and Technology Entities.’ … A public comment period is expected during the summer of 2020, with a goal for submitting recommendations to the Illinois Supreme Court in September 2020.”

● November 6, 2019: “The Florida Supreme Court has asked The Florida Bar to undertake a study of the rules governing the practice of law in order to determine whether revisions are needed to improve the delivery of legal services within that state. The Supreme Court directed the committee to look into the topics of lawyer advertising, referral fees, fee splitting, entity regulation, regulation of online service providers, and regulation of non-lawyer providers of limited legal services. … The letter asked that the study group complete its work and submit a final report by July 1, 2021.” (More details here.)

● January 1: 2020: Pursuant to recommendations of the Legal Services Task Team created by the Law Society of Saskatchewan and the provincial Ministry of Justice,  “amendments to The Legal Profession Act, 1990 include a clearer definition of the practice of law. The Task Team also recommended expanding the list of exemptions to the unauthorized practice provisions and creating limited licences that may be granted by the Law Society to non-lawyer legal service providers on a case-by-case basis.” (Also on January 1, the Law Society of Saskatchewan launched a proactive entity regulation regime.)

● January 9, 2020: “The creation of [Connecticut‘s] State of the Legal Profession Task Force was driven by the access-to-justice gap, as well as the challenges lawyers face in the current system. … Various task force subcommittees will examine alternative business models, how technology can be leveraged to advance the legal profession, and ethics rules. …The task force is aiming to produce a report by 2021.”

● January 20, 2020: “The Law Society of British Columbia‘s … futures task force has released a consultation paper and … is seeking input from lawyers, notaries, paralegals, the judiciary, organizations and the public to assist in its consideration of what legal practice will look like over the next decade, in particular the factors and forces that are likely to influence the delivery of legal services and the regulation of the legal profession.” The deadline for public comments was Feb. 29, 2020.

● January 23, 2020: “[The Global Legal Practice Committee of the ] D.C. Bar announced it will study evolving legal service delivery models in the U.S. and abroad, including non-lawyer ownership of law firms. … The possibility of loosened law firm ownership rules in the nation’s capital could be of special interest to the Big Four accountancies.” The deadline for public comments was March 9, 2020.

● January 30, 2020: “The New Mexico Supreme Court endorsed proposals to expand civil legal services in the state, particularly to lower- and middle-income residents and those living in rural areas.” The report recommends the creation of a Court Navigators program and further study of the licensing of non-lawyers to perform limited legal work.

● January 31, 2020: “A petition to the Arizona Supreme Court from Dave Byers, a member of the Arizona Task Force on the Delivery of Legal Services, proposes ‘substantial’ rule changes led by the proposed elimination of a rule forbidding non-lawyer ownership stakes in law firms and legal services operations. … The proposed rule changes will be considered at a rules conference in August. That will be preceded by a public comment process.”

● February 5, 2020: “…  and whereas experimentation with different approaches to regulatory innovation provides a measured approach to identify and analyze the best solutions to meeting the public’s growing legal needs, the [United States] Conference of Chief Justices urges its members to consider regulatory innovations that have the potential to improve the accessibility, affordability and quality of civil legal services, while ensuring necessary and appropriate protections for the public.”

● February 7, 2020: “The Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission (ARDC) has published for public comment an Intermediary Connecting Services Proposal [that] would regulate lawyers’ participation in for-profit matching services and regulate the services themselves. … The proposal would regulate lawyers’ participation in for-profit matching services and regulate the services themselves.” Comments are open until April 3, 2020.

That’s one way to put it.

● February 16, 2020: “The Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers … in an access-to-justice report [that] could be released as soon as August … likely will make concrete suggestions, including rule changes, to spur states to increase access to legal services. This could include suggested changes to Rule 5.4 to open law firm ownership to non-lawyers, alterations that could redefine who can practice law, and reforms to make cross-state border representations easier. APRL is relatively small when compared with the ABA, but its recommendations in issues like lawyer advertising have carried weight.”

● February 17, 2020: “An overwhelming majority of the ABA House of Delegates agreed to approve Resolution 115, which encourages state regulators and state bar associations to explore regulatory innovations that could improve access to legal services, and to collect data on those programs. But the resolution also notes that it should not be construed as recommending any changes to the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, including Rule 5.4, as they relate to non-lawyer ownership of law firms, the unauthorized practice of law, or any other subjects.”

● February 25, 2020: “The [California State Bar] Task Force on Access Through Innovation of Legal Services approved eight recommendations that will go to the bar’s board of trustees next month. The task force stopped short of calling for immediate changes that would allow non-lawyers to take an ownership stake in law firms. The group also opted for only a modest expansion of fee-sharing. Instead, the 22 members pinned many of their hopes for reform on the creation of a trial program for entrepreneurs known as the ‘regulatory sandbox.’ … The recommendations are scheduled to go to the bar’s board of trustees March 12.”

● March 9, 2020: “The Manitoba government is taking the first step to making legal services more affordable and accessible. … [New] legislation would let the Law Society of Manitoba designate and regulate another category of legal service providers, which would be called a limited practitioner. … The changes were suggested by the Law Society of Manitoba after a review found there were legal needs that weren’t being met and there was a need for more affordable alternatives for legal advice, information, and representation.”

● March 31, 2020: The State Bar of North Carolina has created an Issues Subcommittee to Study Regulatory Change. The Subcommittee will “examine the impacts that lawyer regulations have on access to justice and national reform trends.” The Subcommittee will hold its first meeting on March 31, 2020.

It will be almost exactly eight months between the approval of Utah’s Task Force Report and the first meeting of the North Carolina Subcommittee. By end of day on March 31, ten American jurisdictions, three Canadian provinces, the American Bar Association, and the US Conference of Chief Justices will have either launched task forces to examine legal regulation reform or have taken significant steps towards encouraging such reforms or actually implementing them.

Three brief observations.

1. It would be not just clichéd to call this series of events “a domino effect,” but also misleading. Many of these reform initiatives were conceived and carried out contemporaneously, with some awareness but only limited knowledge of what was happening in other jurisdictions. There is an element of synchronicity here: This wasn’t so much a series of cause-and-effect occurrences as a tectonic shift in the subterranean landscape of the law, manifested in several locations in less than a year.

The reality of a full-scale access to justice crisis seems to finally be registering with those who lead and regulate the legal profession, and these 15 separate reform efforts are the first results. All across the North American legal profession, many people appear to have had the same thought at about the same time: “This can’t go on.”

2. These efforts are not uncontested. State Bar presidents from New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Illinois fought the original ABA Resolution 115 and required the insertion of clauses protecting Rule 5.4 in order to win their support. Resistance by lawyers to regulatory reform efforts in California seems to have led that state’s Task Force to slightly downsize the scope of its recommendations. Hardly surprising, though no less disheartening.

But it’s important to recognize that this opposition has not yet thwarted or halted the reform efforts. As I told Law360, the amendment to the ABA resolution did not detract from the resolution’s scope or impact, but only clarified the limits of how the resolution should be interpreted. Reform opponents are playing a “prevent defence” rather than mounting any offence of their own, trying to slow the train as it leaves the station or preserve old exclusivities for a little while longer. Re-regulation has the momentum, and those on both sides of the issue seem to understand that.

3. The title of this post is obviously provocative, standing as we are in the rising shadow of a true crisis of contagion. But I chose the title deliberately, and not just because the spread of legal regulation reform across multiple jurisdictions feels infectious.

It seems likely that our society is about to enter a period of social and economic upheaval. If everything breaks right, it will be a brief, containable wave of sickness, followed by a short-term recession — a lot of extra hand-washing, cancelled trips and other inconveniences, but nonetheless an experience that passes like a summer storm. Or it could be something much more serious.

The further down that spectrum we’re taken by the COVID-19 crisis, the more transformational will be its effects on our economy, our governance, and maybe most importantly, our social contract with each other. Part of that social contract is that the elites who run things in our society are given license to do so on the condition they run things for everyone’s benefit. There is a lot — and I mean, a lot — of doubt in many people’s minds about the validity of that deal. When 39% of Americans would have trouble covering an unexpected $400 expense (and 12% couldn’t do it at all), how could they possibly manage a health emergency? Or a legal one?

So it might not be surprising to find, when we emerge from this coming crisis, that the terms of the relationship between the legal profession and wider society have begun to change. Even if the crisis is contained and short-lived, existing frustrations with the broken legal system will be exacerbated and amplified, and regulatory reform is likely to come swifter and more thoroughly.

But if the crisis is neither contained nor short-lived, then there might even be a Great Re-Ordering ahead of us, a turning point at which anger over a broken system turns into action, and deference to elites gives way to hostility, protest, and a readiness to rewrite that social contract.

So these legal regulation reforms might not be outliers at all; they might simply be preparing the legal profession for our new normal. Because as we’ve witnessed over the past eight months, radical new ideas can be contagious.

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