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Real Lawyers vs. Online Paper Form Sites – Which is More Efficient?

When the Internet was first coming into its own, Hollywood envisioned our life with computers and data reading as one with lots of tool-style interaction. It was thought computers would end up producing the most amazing food generators, TVs everywhere, microwaves with programmable environments, consumerism at the fingertip and maximum convenience via technology. Instead, the Internet grew into something far more subtle and fundamental in our lives; it became a necessary tool for us to find information regularly and function. The space-age microwaves and toasters didn’t manifest, at least not yet, but the Internet is fast becoming our “everything,” at least in terms of digital reach and information exchange.

The legal field has been no exception to the progress of the digital world. What used to be entirely the domain of working attorneys and law offices with research and face-to-face client meetings has now become a competition between boilerplate digital products people can download and the traditional interaction. Yet, in reality, it’s now “normal” of legal services. For basic legal services, the Internet has quickly become the go-to source for most consumers and small businesses, especially those looking to save money versus paying conventional legal fees. The services involved, of course, are not very complex. They are typically predictable legal tools such as basic wills for estate planning, limited liability corporation establishment, or basic contract and agreement templates. Deeper research and, of course, litigation representation are still safely in the domain of human attorney hands for now.

The above said, a good amount of basic legal fee generation comes from simple form preparation for clients. The litigation world of big cases and big settlements is a bit like winning the lottery. It happens, but definitely not to everyone. Most attorneys spend much of their time just producing documents. And this is where the online world can become a big threat competitively. If a product can be defined by writing, it can also be defined in a template. So far attorneys have been generally protected by the ability to “customize” a legal document or representation, but this is a simply a matter of taking enough input from a client and matching it to appropriate legal output in the form of writing, a call with other parties, or research advice. The digital world has already figured out how to do two of these three functions automatically. The Siri mode on an Apple iPhone is a simple example of verbal input and research-based correct output that is now automated.

The differentiating factor, according to Bloomberg, of a live attorney is experience, an aspect that digital coding and templates can’t duplicate or emulate. And that real experience comes out as skill, being able to think on ones toes about how to apply the law to a situation that keeps changing. That is the true value of a human attorney over the Internet. The digital world will continue to provide packaged services and products, some tailored as much as possible based on predictions of the most likely legal needs. But only a true attorney can adjust on a dime and catch the nuances that often make big differences in the success of a case. So when clients are choosing between downloading the next PDF document from LegalShoot.com or direct advice from the Law Office of Nelson MacNeil Rayfield, Esq., the emphasis of adaptable skill and how it is marketed can tell consumers which one is better for their needs.

Lawyers Doubt Usefulness of Government Mediation Scheme

MediationLawyers have expressed doubts about the usefulness of the new scheme which provides separating couples with a free session of mediation funded by the government. Lawyers have stated that they doubt the scheme will increase the number of couples who manage to resolve their disputes without taking them to court.

Jo Edwards, Chair of Resolution, a family lawyers’ group, was one of the voices expressing doubts. While she welcomed the move, she felt that it would have little impact. In particular, she pointed to the fact the scheme is only available in cases where one party is eligible for legal aid.

The new scheme was announced this week by Simon Hughes, family justice minister. It is intended to bolster the government’s efforts to promote the concept of mediation. The government believes that mediation can avoid courtroom battles, and provide an alternative that is both faster and cheaper.

However, the government has had little success in its efforts to encourage mediation so far. These efforts began in April 2013 directly following the controversial cuts to legal aid. Despite the fact that these cuts removed legal aid from the majority of cases in the family justice system, the number of couples turning to mediation actually fell significantly after the cuts took effect. In the first six months, the number of couples who attended mediation dropped by more than half (51%), despite active efforts on the part of the government to encourage the process. The Ministry of Justice has a £24 million fund set aside for mediation, but due to low usage rates only £9.4 million of this was actually needed.

Some have suggested that the reason that fewer couples are using mediation despite the lack of legal aid for courtroom battles is down to the reduced involvement of lawyers in the process. Previously, lawyers would have informed clients about the availability of mediation. Without legal aid, many couples are never consulting lawyers and simply heading to court as litigants in person. Critics have also pointed out that, despite the introduction of several schemes to make mediation accessible, the government has done relatively little to promote or publicise the process.

Despite the doubts expressed by lawyers, the Ministry of Justice remains positive about the scheme’s potential to help couples resolve their issues outside the courtroom. The ministry claims that almost two thirds of couples with child-related disputes reached an agreement after attending just one mediation session. The ministry also claimed that, overall, 70% of couples who use mediation reached an agreement without the involvement of the courts.

According to family justice minister Simon Hughes, “We know mediation works and we want more people to make use of it.”

Tory MP Calls for Halt on Lawyers Helping With Tax Avoidance

Conservative MP Charlie Elphicke today put proposals before clients that could see lawyers prosecuted if they help clients with tax avoidance. The plan would prevent solicitors from providing clients with advice which serves no purpose except to act as a way of avoiding tax.

Elphicke, was formerly a tax lawyer himself and is now Conservative MP for Dover. He has tabled the proposals as amendments to the Finance Bill. Today is the final day that this bill will spend in the House of Commons as part of its public bill committee stage. Among the issues dealt with by the bill is the legal framework to facilitate a crackdown by HMRC on the use of limited liability partnerships to avoid tax through “disguised employment.”

The proposed amendments would make it an offence for a solicitor to propose arrangements to their client that “[meet] the definition of ‘tax abuse.'” The definition in question is given as “any arrangement that, having regard to all the circumstances, it would be reasonable to conclude is an arrangement that has no business, social or other purpose other than the obtaining of a tax advantage.” Those caught carrying out activities which are decided to fall within this definition could potentially face prosecution.

Another proposed clause was also floated which would provide an expansion to HMRC’s already-growing powers to combat tax avoidance. The amendment would allow the tax office to “require any person to disclose any privileged information” in certain situations.

Elphicke’s proposals have met with mixed reactions in the political and legal spheres. However, the opinion of most legal and political experts is that there is little chance that the proposals in question will ultimately be passed into law. Nonetheless, Elphicke is adamant that he wants to at least ignite debate about issues surrounding tax avoidance and its morality. In an interview with The Times, he said “We need to get to a point where, at a dinner party, if somebody tries to boast that they’ve secured millions of pounds in tax savings for a client, people don’t just smirk and think it’s funny.”

Another Tory MP, back-bencher John Redwood, has also been notable for his views on the issue of tax avoidance this year. Redwood called on politicians to build up “a concept of good and bad tax avoidance.” This, he suggested, could avert the possibility that competing measures and proposals from different parties keen to tackle the issue might turn into an “arms race.”

The Effect of the Jackson Reforms on Solicitor Businesses

The Jackson Reforms, brought into statute by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) in 2012 is mainly concerned with civil law procedure. Most affected by it are Conditional Fee Agreement (CFA) cases, better known as ‘no win, no fee’ cases. Prior to LASPO, the defendant paid the solicitor’s fees and the cost of the insurance policy that was required to be taken out. From this April onwards, both of those costs will be the burden of the claimant, and solicitors would only be able to claim up to 25% of settlements in fees.

It is not known what the full impact of the reforms will be, but certain signs are being seen already, or predicted.

Firstly, disputes or concerns between solicitors and clients over fees will be increasingly common. With the former protection granted to claimants and solicitors now gone, both sides will be more determined to secure settlements and fees respectively, resulting in protracted discussions over costs.

Another factor is that legal aid is set to be reformed, meaning that many claimants for civil liability and related cases would be denied legal aid. This makes making a civil claim more risky for claimant and solicitor alike. Michael Frisby, head of litigation at Stevens & Bolton, said that the rewards have ‘effectively been removed’ for taking on personal injury cases not covered by legal aid. Many solicitors will be put off taking on complicated or risky civil claims for fear of losing and the claimant being unable to pay the fees. Not only will this be bad for their legal practice, but it will effectively deny justice to those who cannot pay (but that is another issue of the Jackson Reforms entirely).

Small to medium solicitors firms traditionally taking on CFA funded cases will be hit hard by the reforms. Unable to rely on such cases in future, in an endeavour to keep up business levels, some predict that in this instance solicitor’s fees will have to fall to attract clients. A majority of such firms in previous surveys have admitted to either considering or to be planning for diversifying into other legal areas to maintain business.  It is likely that, facing a lack of business, or losing civil cases, some small firms might go under.

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It must be noted that the majority (but by no means all) of litigation covered by LASPO focusses on personal injury, negligence, and civil liability law suits. Solicitors involved in civil disputes outside those areas will be relatively unaffected, as will large personal injury firms.

What is certain is that the issue of costs will be a major factor in subsequent civil litigation. Solicitors and their clients will be much more cost- conscious than previously. This careful approach will make a form of solicitor’s firm more cost effective- but maybe at the expense of justice as solicitors try to do things on the cheap. Further to that, costs lawyers and similar professionals are likely to be more in demand to monitor and advise on legal costs. In a survey of members of the Association of Costs Lawyers (ACA), 37% said that the demand for assistance with legal cost budgeting had risen over the last year, with 79% predicting that number to rise. This shows that the costs will probably be the centre of a future case, not necessarily the legal arguments.

It is highly likely that future CFA lawyers will be reluctant to go into court unless they have a solid case. Such reluctance will be bad for their firm, for their client- and bad for justice. From that reluctance, change will have to arise. More lawyers will probably seek arbitration, alternative dispute resolution (ADR), or out of court settlements. Many might choose to develop their skills or firms in those very areas. Their role might change slightly from that of taking matters to court to increasingly advising clients on resolution to problems due to a lack of either claimant or solicitor wanting to take a joint great financial risk.

Tellingly, that is just what the Jackson Reforms wanted to encourage in the realm of civil law.  By putting the brakes on CFA lawyers, other methods of resolution become more attractive: but at what cost to the pursuit of compensation and justice?

 

Guest Post by Amelia Jones of http://www.nowinnofeeclaims.co.

Drive to Increase Senior Female Lawyer Numbers

The Law Society has backed an initiative intended to lead to an increase in the numbers of female lawyers in senior positions. The law is still a male-dominated environment, and traditionally has always been so. The latest initiative intends to set targets for women to graduate to senior jobs, with a recent investigation recognising that ‘things must change’. It was recently reported that over three quarters of judges in the UK are male, and a similar situation is prevalent in the rest o the legal industry.

Diversity is the name of the game, with the report suggesting gender support and encouragement should be put into place. The proposals were revealed at a recent summit of Women in Law, at the headquarters in the City of London. It remains to be seen how widespread the changes may be, or how they can be initiated.

Men Dominate Board-Rooms

Lucy Scott-Moncrieff, President of the Law Society, was forthright in her assessment:

“In some firms, where the opportunities for those wanting to strike a balance between high-flying work and family life are still scarce, men dominate the boardrooms. Unwittingly, these firms may be losing talented women and promoting mediocre men. If career progression was based on pure merit, some male business leaders and law firm senior partners would never even have seen the paintings on the boardroom wall.”

At the event some of the more prevalent female lawyers had opinions to voice, among them Ann Minogue, a partner at Ashurst construction:

“Targets would be the right thing to introduce as opposed to quotas, which might meet resistance and create tension if perceived as special treatment – feeding in turn into the unconscious bias issue. One aspect I thought could have been addressed more is the tendency to approach partnerships in a linear way. Senior female lawyers should still be seen as potential partners at, say, 10 years’ PQE, rather than being passed over at six or seven years’ PQE and then dismissed as partner prospects.”