Text a Lawyer: Can An App Increase Access to Legal Services?
BY Kerrie Spencer
Text a Lawyer is a new service, scheduled to launch soon, that promises to connect people with legal questions to a lawyer who can answer questions for a low-cost, set fee. Text a Lawyer will offer real legal advice from verified attorneys.
Text a Lawyer is designed to provide access to legal assistance to anyone, anywhere, including lower income individuals who are often shut out of the legal industry. People who have signed up for the service can use it to ask a question at any time for a flat fee of $20. If the answer to the initial question is insufficient, the user can continue to ask questions at a lower per question rate.
While the initial fee for the service is only $20, users may accumulate larger fees depending on the complexity of the question. Legal questions are often complex and intricate requiring in depth responses and follow-up questions. For areas of the law that are more straight forward, this service may provide just the help that users need.
Kevin Gillespie, Text a Lawyer creator, is a trained attorney who has chosen to defer writing his bar exams to pursue this business. He claims to understand the ethical challenges a service like his could face, and says he has worked with a national law firm to make the Text a Lawyer service compliant with the rules of professional responsibility in every state.
Text a Lawyer was incorporated in May 2017 and is expected to launch in late 2018. The service will only be offered in Washington and Oregon at first, and attorneys using the app will only answer questions regarding landlord/tenant issues. To expand nationally, Gillespie needs to secure investors.
How the application works
Text a Lawyer uses two mobile apps: one for lawyers waiting to answer questions and one for individuals to submit questions. Transcripts of the texts are automatically provided to the attorney answering a question, and the individual asking the question may opt in to receive a copy. A copy of the Q&As is optional for users because some might be in a position where it would not be safe for them to have the transcript.
All chats between a user and the attorney are fully encrypted, and the service does not store any of the information. Additionally, Text a Lawyer wipes its servers each night to erase all communications.
Consumers pay $20 to ask one question. Once the application is open, the user chooses the state where they live and the kind of attorney they need, with options expanding to include a wider range of practice areas if the service becomes successful.
After users have chosen a state and service, they are taken to a screen prompting them to ask their question. Users then get a “conflicts check” screen requesting the names of any witnesses, alleged victims or adverse parties, and the user’s relationship to the named individuals. Once those two steps have been completed, the app connects the lawyer and consumer. The user must read and accept the attorney’s limited-scope, limited-engagement agreement. This agreement can be based on a template provided by Text a Lawyer that the attorney is free to amend.
Next, in a secure and encrypted chat setting, the consumer and lawyer discuss the issue. The attorney initially provides one answer. Once that initial question is answered, the app triggers a two minute time period, during which the user can choose to ask follow-up questions. Follow-up questions are billed at $9 per question. An unlimited number of questions may be asked.
Only when the final answer is given is the user’s credit card charged. If the lawyer and user wish to continue their relationship offline, they are free to do so.
The business model
Text a Lawyer makes $5 off the initial $20 fee, which includes a $4 connection fee and a $1 for the software licensing fee. The attorney earns $15 per session and $8 from each additional question asked. Is this considered to be inappropriate fee splitting? That will depend on how each state bar association interprets this particular arrangement.
Gillespie has a solution to the issue. His company processes all payments through Stripe. When a user asks a question, the credit card is put on hold and not charged until the attorney indicates that the session has concluded.
When the user’s card is charged, Stripe separates the $20, sending $15 to the attorney and $5 to Text a Lawyer. The two payments never blend; the attorney is paying nothing to Text a Lawyer and the client does not pay the lawyer a retainer. The user is paying a fixed fee for services rendered during the online. Some state bar associations’ may see an ethical problem here, no matter how the attorneys are paid.
Users of Text a Lawyer are typically sent to the highest rated attorney on a scale of one to five. These rankings are only used to assign attorneys and are not made public. This means that if there are several lawyers online at the same time in the area a user wants information, the highest-rated attorney gets the questions first. Attorneys have a vested interest in providing good service.
What about attorneys who have been suspended or disbarred? The attorneys who sign on to answer legal questions must, each time they log into the app, verify their bar admission by sending Text a Lawyer a selfie. The company performs a daily scan of bar disciplinary pages. Any attorney that has been disbarred or suspended is deactivated.
Lawyers also have a form of protection built into the system; they may use the conflict of interest form to determine whether they wish to take a question. If an attorney uses the Clio practice management platform, the application automatically runs a conflict check.
If the attorney accepts a question and at some point during the engagement discovers a conflict, they may terminate the session. Additionally, an attorney may reject an assignment if the question violates a rule of ethics such as asking how to rob a bank and not get caught.
How Are Lawyers Protected?
- Attorneys may turn down any question or terminate any session due to conflict of interest
- Payments are made directly to the attorney, without going through Text a Lawyer
- Sessions can include as many questions and answers as are necessary to resolve an issue
- Attorneys and users may continue their relationship offline
- Clio practice management software can perform automatic conflict of interest checks
Participating in Text a Lawyer
The lawyer’s portal is still under construction, so it is not yet clear what process attorneys will need to complete to participate in the service. Like a ride sharing app, Text a Lawyer offers a market for free agents to find clients, which could be helpful for single-attorney practices. As services like this expand, firms that employ multiple attorneys will have to outline rules regarding participation. Lawyers interested in participating can sign up for updates on the service’s website.
Text a Lawyer advertises itself as a service meant to expand legal services into underserved demographics. Its success will depend on its ability to expand its services and build a large attorney pool, and how it will handle possible ethical opposition from state bar associations.
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