Legal Ease: Giving Consumers Access to Counsel

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DES MOINES, IA (August 18, 2015) - Disruption is hitting the legal industry. Why? Only 24 percent of American consumers with a civil justice issue use attorneys and 30-40 percent of Americans with legal problems do nothing to address them. A whopping 87 percent of people either do not understand the need for an attorney or don't think they can afford one. Compared to other countries, Americans have a much higher rate of giving up in the face of legal difficulties with effectively nowhere to turn if they cannot afford a lawyer. Lack of affordable legal access impacts the core of people's lives; it can mean not seeing their children or losing their house, job or credit rating.

Due to funding constraints, legal aid is only a viable option for half of the 20 percent of eligible Americans. Along with this underserved community, many living above the poverty line don't have enough disposable income to pay for an attorney; this includes blue collar workers, small business owners, the elderly and returning veterans.

In addition, Americans are not educated consumers of legal services. When a legal event occurs, most people don't know where to find an attorney or believe that talking to one can be intimidating. Some worry that steep hourly rates could add up to a major bill for something that seems to be a relatively simple matter. Most consumers do not always understand when they would benefit from legal advice nor do they have a sense for how much "lawyering" they need. Consumers unaccustomed to using legal services simply do not know if their problem just requires an attorney to file some documents or if they actually need to go to court.While most in the legal field recognize a need for new service delivery models, not everyone agrees on what kind of innovation is good for consumers and the industry. Some believe that the only viable model for legal services remains traditional one-on-one advice from an attorney. Yet, others are calling for the type of innovation seen in other countries that has led to greater access to legal services for more people.

Some of these models include:

Increasing use of paralegals similar to the use of nurse practitioners or physician assistants in the medical field
Allowing non-lawyer owned companies to provide legal services
Using technology for aided and automated legal form completion, like a legal equivalent to TurboTax® software
Providing low-cost legal insurance to a larger consumer population

The wave of change in the legal field lies in altering the cost structure, demystifying the process, helping people become smart legal consumers and providing attorneys at an agreed-upon, more affordable fee. Easy access to vetted attorney networks and cost transparency are at the heart of disruptive models that combine consumer friendly technology with education, online resources, legal forms and conversations with a "legal concierge" who can match them with the right attorney and help prepare them for their first meeting. The attorney then represents them in a cost effective, efficient way.

This model is preferred by many in the legal field who do not endorse a purely DIY approach to handling legal affairs. A recent Atlantic Monthly article noted that the complexity of law makes DIY legal feel perilous. Even though you can buy the supplies, it's a scary proposition to rewire your whole house if you are not a trained electrician. While watching a how-to wire your house video on YouTube may make you a better consumer, it doesn't assure that you can do the job yourself safely or correctly. Ultimately, DIY can be more expensive or create more problems than using an electrician in the first place.

Legal insurance as a disrupter

Legal insurance offers an affordable path for handling legal issues and relieving the stress associated with fighting legal battles solo. While it has been around for decades in Europe, legal insurance is just now becoming more widely available to consumers in the United States. With new technologies and innovative offerings, legal insurance is a disruptive model that offers many more people access to legal services. It is evolving to meet the needs of today's consumers. Beyond making legal services more affordable, legal insurers educate underserved communities on what a legal event is and how often people typically experience them. Dealing with the affairs of an aging parent? Settling a dispute with a landlord? Grappling with identity fraud? Negotiating a home improvement contract? These are all legal events, and people with legal insurance benefit from online resources and tools, and vetted, licensed attorneys without having to worry about paying high attorney fees.

Here's how it works. Consumers pay a monthly premium that is between $15 and $30. When they experience a legal event, they can meet with an attorney to discuss options and decide next steps. Depending on their legal plan, consumers may pay a deductible, receive services at reduced rates or have attorney fees paid in full by the insurance provider.

With health insurance, the amount paid in premiums and deductibles is a small percentage of the total cost. Legal insurance works the same way. It is the conduit for access to justice for people needing affordable legal assistance.

ARAG's perspective

ARAG, an international leader in legal insurance, was founded on the principle that equality under the law is meaningless without affordable access to legal services. For more than 80 years, ARAG has connected people needing legal assistance to attorneys who are knowledgeable in the needed area of law. Plan members have access to a national network of more than 12,000 individually vetted, licensed attorneys. They have the option to contact an attorney in-person or over the phone. And if they aren't sure where to begin, they can contact an ARAG Customer Care Specialist, who will help them find an attorney and get prepared for their first meeting or conversation. If the consumer needs more help along the way, the ARAG Customer Care Specialist is always available to answer more questions or steer the person toward the right resource.

ARAG agrees with those in the legal community who believe that one-on-one interaction with an attorney can be the best recourse for many legal issues, especially where the DIY approach is not enough. Free market solutions draw support from the legal community because they provide consumers a choice. These plans go beyond pure DIY models by helping consumers find and pay for the level of legal help they need, rather than serving as a replacement for legal representation.

It's important to also recognize that in this digital age, people want information to be accessible and services to be flexible. To accommodate this, ARAG offers a full range of online resources, educational materials and legal forms that augment its core legal insurance offering. This facilitates the way people consume services today. They conduct online research and develop a basic understanding of their legal issue before they buy or talk to a professional. A good example is the way people interact with their doctors. Before an appointment, many consumers go to a trusted resource like WebMD® or the Mayo Clinic® site to access information about their symptoms and download a list of questions to ask their doctor. At their appointment, they are prepared to have a more informed conversation.

The same dynamic is beginning to emerge among educated legal consumers. With some upfront research on a respected online source, consumers can be better informed, better prepared and generally more confident talking with an attorney. This lower cost/high education model of legal insurance results in greatly improved access to legal services for millions of Americans.

The enormous savings in legal fees and personal time alone gives consumers a new sense of empowerment, not to mention the peace of mind that comes with better guidance, smarter decisions, and faster resolution. It has helped policyholders solve problems and seize opportunities – from taking care of the affairs of an aging relative to better managing a consumer's digital identity to helping to plan for a solid financial future. Sometimes just having a place to turn is the best way to calmly approach challenges and find the best solution.

The more people use legal insurance, the higher their comfort level in seeking counsel and understanding they have an ally. This creates a system where attorneys can become more of a trusted adviser and help educate consumers about a variety of potential legal topics. Legal visionary Richard Susskind says, "What most clients want is a fence at the top of the cliff rather than an ambulance at the bottom."

Legal insurance has the potential to further expand access. It starts with thinking about legal insurance the same way society thinks about medical insurance. Legal education and access to an attorney are services everyone should have, regardless of income, education, language or location.

Democracy is based on participation. The ability to protect and empower consumer participation in every day matters, such as safe electronic commerce and protecting their rights under the law, is critical. Legal insurance provides the path to protection for millions of Americans who need both to be better educated and professionally represented when they need it most.