Technology can broaden access to legal services

Chas Rampenthal is passionate about broadening access to legal services. As general counsel for LegalZoom, Rampenthal keeps this commitment at the forefront of legal, government relations, and corporate development work for the online legal technology company.

“There are far too many lawyers serving far too few of our citizens. This affects the poor and the middle class the hardest,” Rampenthal said.

In the 15 years he’s been with the company, Rampenthal has also guided efforts to broaden reach through technology. Here, he shares best practices to help balance business reward with legal risk, in ongoing efforts to broaden legal access for all.

What are the greatest challenges you navigate in leading product development for LegalZoom—for example, in offering new products such as smart contracts?

Our product development challenges have distinctly evolved over the past 15 years. In many states, there is no real UPL definition, and when a definition does exist, it is often tautological, adding to the uncertainty. When I first started at LegalZoom, in more than a few jurisdictions lawyers believed a self-help business was per se a UPL violation. Of course, that was not even close to accurate.

This UPL uncertainty also influenced how we would provide helpful and accurate information to our customers. While the vast majority of consumers have the ability to undertake rudimentary research, some need a bit of guidance. About 10 years ago, we started moving from a pure DIY product to offer advice through legal plans.

In the future, I see LegalZoom’s business doing even more with technology to connect the lawyer and consumer through a seamless platform—amazing people plus great technology is a win for everyone, especially the consumer. In the U.K., we own two regulated law firms, and we can do so much more to provide amazing value to consumers at a price they can afford with a quality that often exceeds traditional law firms.

You’ve been an aviator, radio host, entrepreneur, and general counsel—what has kept you motivated to stay with LegalZoom these past 15 years?

To be fair, two of the four were thanks to LegalZoom, plus, LegalZoom has offered me a platform to talk to lawyers and the profession about much needed change.

Maybe being a lawyer is a bit less exhilarating at times than flying, but one thing holds true: The mission of LegalZoom is what keeps me motivated. It fuels my passion. I am a part of the very first name brand in law. I provide legal services, consume them, and help millions of others see real value in the law. As long as that remains the mission, there is nowhere else I’d rather be.

You’ve spoken about the value of loyalty instilled in you early on—similarly, how do you instill loyalty in the 13-member legal team you manage?

My leadership style was drilled in at an early age—by watching my parents, and particularly my father who ran a small business. He treated everyone who worked for or with his company with respect and dignity. The first thing I try to emulate on my team—everyone always gets a voice. Secondly, no matter what, the responsibility for the task at hand is the team leader’s. You can delegate tasks, but never responsibility.

Of course, a leadership philosophy is not the only thing that makes our legal department great, it’s taking an interest in the people. Mining and honing their strengths, and training them to minimize weaknesses.

In leading legal affairs for LegalZoom, what best practices help you balance business reward with legal risk?

We are a company that was founded on balancing risk in a market notably unfriendly to outsiders. When a clear path to a safe harbor doesn’t exist, it’s necessary to put in the work to get as close as possible without stripping away all the great benefits. It’s my team’s job to make sure LegalZoom is able to keep empowering the consumer in a way that minimizes risk.

It starts with a “don’t say no” philosophy. Always try to understand the underlying need, and not just the “ask.” Far too often, lawyers are confronted with “We need to do [X],” only to be met with “You can’t!” They prefer having no risk rather than do the work to an acceptable risk that moves toward a solution.

When the team is viewed as an enabler, you can spot and reduce a lot more risk early on. Entrepreneurs and leaders in companies need to understand risk, but it’s the lawyer’s job to help navigate around “no” when possible, and try to get to “yes, if …” Unfortunately, that is a skill they just do not teach in law school.

You’ve said the legal profession has forgotten about the middle class—what role do you see your work playing in challenging this status quo?

It’s no secret that most people do not have real access to quality legal services they value. There are far too many lawyers serving far too few of our citizens. This affects the poor and the middle class the hardest. Most people don’t recognize when they have a legal need or when they need a lawyer.

There is also not a lot of information available to find the right lawyer for the job. After all those hurdles, there is the issue of cost. Outside of legal aid and lawyers that will represent you on contingency, the traditional model of law—billed by the hour—is not a viable option for a typical middle-class family.

Very few Americans can afford even a few hours of a lawyer’s time. And a business model where you don’t get a reasonable estimate, and the bill isn’t tallied until the end of the month (or the end of the job) is not a business model that makes consumers … consume!

Similarly, how do you form relationships with bigger law firms to get legal outsource processing on their radar—and so they see you as a partner, not competitor?

Most larger law firms never saw LegalZoom as a competitor. The biggest change in the conversation is that some of these firms are starting to see LegalZoom as a feeder—a gateway to consumers that normally opt out of the traditional legal system. They understand that some of the consumers that used LegalZoom would eventually need access to a lawyer and legal advice.

They see LegalZoom as a way to help new clients get started on the right foot, in hopes that when their business grows, they will return for higher-ticket legal work.

Looking ahead, where will you direct your efforts next as LegalZoom tackles new endeavors such as smart contracts and the blockchain project with Clause?

Making a profession more innovative is a task that requires investments in people and technology. Smart contracts, blockchain, machine learning, natural language processing, and artificial intelligence are all fun to talk about. Their applications to law could and likely will fundamentally change the legal landscape.

Even so, what excites me more is the idea of bringing legal consumers, technology, and legal professionals together to solve the problems that create and exacerbate the access problem we see today.

That means re-thinking the proscriptive regulatory framework that we force lawyers to adopt, and understand that a legal system that effectively serves only 20 percent of the population is a broken system.

If we don’t change our tune and allow new companies, new models, and new ways of reaching and empowering legal consumers, the legal profession will never be able to do more than pay lip service to the growing problems of access to justice and legal services.