Utah will try out new law practice business models that allow for more participation by nonlawyers after the state Supreme Court unanimously OK'd a standing order that goes into effect Friday authorizing a pilot program aimed at improving access to justice in the state.
Legal practitioners and others such as legal technology providers in Utah will have the opportunity to test out different methods of delivering legal services outside of the existing regulatory framework as they participate in the pilot program, which was ushered in via the Utah Supreme Court's Standing Order No. 15, which the court approved on Thursday.
"These changes allow individuals and entities to explore creative ways to safely allow lawyers and nonlawyers to practice law and to reduce constraints on how lawyers market and promote their services," a statement released by the Utah courts following the decision said. "In order to assess whether the changes are working as intended, the Supreme Court has authorized the core portions of these changes for a two-year period."
The "regulatory sandbox" program will establish an Office of Legal Services Innovation to oversee the operation of non-traditional legal providers and services, including entities with non-lawyer investment or ownership.
The companies and firms participating in the program will have their efforts monitored and evaluated for effectiveness, particularly as they relate the state's goal of improving access to justice, the statement said.
After the two-year period ends, the high court will have the option to end the program or allow it to continue.
A handful of states, including Arizona and California, have begun to explore the idea of amending regulation restricting nonlawyer involvement in the practice of law in order to provide consumers with more options to solve their legal problems and address the nation's access to justice crisis. Utah's move on Thursday appears to place it furthest along on the path toward implementing those ideas.
According to the court's announcement, the vote came after a 90-day comment period during which the court solicited feedback from the public on the program.
As a result of that process, it said, the Supreme Court made a number of changes to its initial proposal, including increased transparency of the program application and approval process, more clear channels for complaints related to the new legal services, and "severely" restricting any roles for disbarred or suspended lawyers in the new program.
Justice Constandinos "Deno" Himonas — who led the effort to implement the program, along with John Lund, past president of the Utah State Bar — said
that volunteer efforts to address access to justice have not been sufficient and a new approach is needed.
"We cannot volunteer ourselves across the access to justice gap. We have spent billions of dollars trying this approach. It hasn't worked," Justice Himonas said. "What is needed is a market-based approach that simultaneously respects and protects consumer needs. That is the power and beauty of the Supreme Court's rule changes and the legal regulatory sandbox."
--Editing by Katherine Rautenberg.