How did a country that prides itself on fairness and transparency wind up with a legal system that is out of reach for the vast majority of Americans? Easy access to legal advice is mainly the province of the rich. Answers to questions about the justice system are routinely answered by lawyers on retainer to large companies or wealthy individuals -- and everyone else is priced out. Attorneys respond to cocktail party queries with: "I'm sorry, but I can't give out legal advice unless I'm retained. It's against the rules."
At my small boutique law firm, TheBloomFirm.com, we receive many calls and emails each week from desperate people who, sadly, for one reason or another, we can't help. It's nothing short of heartbreaking. We always attempt to find another attorney or organization to send these folks to, but that's not always possible.
Multiply this problem by 300 million Americans and you have a national problem of justice denied to ordinary people. And even those who can afford a lawyer are often intimidated by the process. When most people need an attorney - a loved one has been arrested, a divorce looms, or a bankruptcy, or a firing or a DUI - it's already a stressful time and finding counsel only adds to the misery. Where do you start? Google? A personal recommendation? Who wants to share their embarrassing legal problems with friends? Ugh.
The Internet has transformed nearly every other industry. Every day millions of people to get restaurant and hotel reviews, to buy insurance or stocks and nearly everything else they need online. So why not a lawyer? Avvo.com, where I am a legal analyst, has boldly gone where no one has gone before: offering free legal answers to consumer questions online. (I imagine white shoe lawyers everywhere sniffing, "but they can't do that . . . can they?" Yes, they can and they are. Because law is not just for the one per cent.)
With little fanfare, more than five million people every month are now getting online advice from real lawyers in their practice area and state. Have a child custody question in California? No problem. Bankruptcy in Baltimore? Deportation in Dallas? Covered.
I've answered a number of consumer questions on the site in my practice areas (employment, family law, business and civil cases) and really enjoyed the process. Sometimes I disagree with what other attorneys have opined. Sometimes I've built on their answers. It's a good feeling to be able to give back to someone who just needs a little advice.
Some lawyers object to this as unseemly, unworthy of our law degrees, yada yada. I say denying access to justice is beneath the dignity of our profession. We have a monopoly on the practice of law, and in exchange, it's our duty to share some of our legal knowledge.
We're not going back. In fact, Avvo.com has gone forward by launching a new "legal marketplace" where those looking for a lawyer fill out a short form specifying their needs, and in short order they receive multiple, concrete proposals from attorneys, three on average and sometimes as many as ten, including - gasp! -- the attorneys' actual prices. I love how this shifts the power from lawyer to client. I used a similar online form to get a mortgage a few years ago, and enjoyed sitting at home, comparing my offers, and getting a great deal.
Why shouldn't this work for attorneys?
Let the sniffing begin. Meanwhile, feel free to lawyer up.
Follow Lisa Bloom on Twitter: www.twitter.com/LisaBloom