Opposition forms against the ABA's pilot program for small businesses

By Annie Hunt | Feb 6, 2016

CHICAGO — The Illinois State Bar Association has joined forces with bar associations in Pennsylvania and California to oppose the Law Connect pilot program designed by the American Bar Association and Rocket Lawyer.

Members of the Illinois State Bar Association released the statement in January. In the public announcement, leaders of state bar associations raised ethical concerns about the Law Connect program, which they reportedly took to the ABA Board of Governors in their November board meeting.

The pilot program was announced Oct. 1, 2015, with the goal to provide small businesses with affordable legal services. The program would be called ABA Law Connect, and for $4.95, a small business owner or representative could ask a question online to an ABA-member lawyer and one follow-up question.

An ABA spokesperson said the program is a pilot program, limited to 22 attorneys and about 300 small businesses in three states: California, Illinois and Pennsylvania. The spokesperson said the ABA will gather information from the pilot program and will determine from there whether to expand it or end it.

Beyond answering legal questions, the program can potentially spark an attorney-client relationship that the ABA hopes will be beneficial to all parties involved, the spokesperson said, leading to more business for lawyers while helping clients.

In the original announcement of the program, ABA President Paulette Brown explained the goals of Law Connect:

“ABA Law Connect is an exciting opportunity for the ABA and Rocket Lawyer to assist small businesses, connecting them with ABA members, and represents one of many efforts by the ABA to improve access to legal services,” said Brown.

“By providing a low cost, highly accessible, online avenue for small business owners to get answers to basic legal questions, we hope to improve access to legal services while simultaneously offering our members potential new opportunities.”

Representatives of the Illinois State Bar Association feel the ABA’s approach disregards well-established bar association law referral programs which they claim are already serving the public. In the statement, they refer to the program as having a “Blue Plate Special” mentality that represents a naive knowledge of the current services and needs of the public in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and California.

Whether this reaction to ABA Law Connect is driven by compassion for the public or from fear of competition, the ABA said the motivation for the pilot program is to increase the availability of legal services to small business owners, filling a "huge gap in the access to legal services," particularly among those who may believe they cannot afford to hire a lawyer or don't need one.

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