Earlier this year, I attended the Group Legal Services Association (GLSA) annual meeting, in Scottsdale, Arizona. The highlight was the spirited “State of the Industry” panel. While the panel reported that the industry isn’t yet seeing change at a disruptive rate, plans and platforms alike are evolving and creating opportunities for lawyers.
However, the concept of legal services plans still seems relatively unknown. So to start, here’s an overview.
What’s the Group Legal Services Industry?
Group or pre-paid legal services plans are not new. They began as part of union or employee benefits in the mid-1900s and expanded rapidly after the strict ethical rules were relaxed by Supreme Court rulings in the 1960s. The three largest companies on the State of the Industry panel — ARAG, Hyatt Legal Plans and LegalShield — operate in all 50 states with millions of members and engage with thousands of attorneys.
The traditional pre-paid legal plans are sometimes referred to as legal insurance, but that is not universally accurate so we’ll call these group legal services plans (GLSPs). A GLSP operates with members paying a monthly fee to access network and referral attorneys. These attorneys solve a defined list of civil and criminal legal issues.
Members are consumers and businesses, and the plans are offered through large companies and unions and have been for almost 50 years. For example, LegalShield has more than 34,000 companies that offer the consumer plan to their employees and Hyatt has over 10,000 referral attorneys.
Other companies represented at the GLSA “State of the Industry” panel — Avvo, LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer — are not GLSPs by the above definition and therefore are considered platforms. These newer platforms launched over the past 15 years. Rocket Lawyer now provides its offerings as an employee benefit to large technology companies, while LegalZoom sells legal subscription offerings in addition to one-off services such as a will or incorporation. Avvo has its “ask a lawyer” offering but it’s also one-time and non-membership, without a monthly fee plan.
Can GLS Plans Help Bridge the Access to Justice Gap?
The GLSA State of the Industry panel discussed access to justice for the millions of Americans who are afraid of attorneys, frightened by the costs, or even unaware of their need for a lawyer. Some eye-opening statistics:
- The 2016 Justice Index from the National Center for Access to Justice at Fordham Law School reported that there is less than one civil legal aid attorney to help every 10,000 Americans living in poverty.
- In addition, about two-thirds of U.S. citizens represent themselves in court on important matters including evictions, mortgage foreclosure, child custody and support, and debt collections.
- Looking abroad, in 2010 the World Justice Project reported that although the U.S. scored high in terms of rights, stable laws and open government, we had low access to civil justice scores. The U.S. scored below other developed nations such as Canada, France, Japan, Spain and Sweden.
The GLSPs can help address these problems, but there is an education gap that needs bridging in terms of providing information to the public on the plans as an access-to-justice solution. As an industry association, the GLSA provides a collaborative environment to promote the member plans, connect lawyers with GLSP opportunities, and educate Americans on the benefits of the plans. The association also recognizes that technology will help with consumer and business education.
Indeed, the GLSPs on the panel spoke about enabling technology for lawyers to better serve plan customers, including providing portals and more member education. It seems the legal services plans are now moving quickly to satisfy their members’ digital needs. Also, the plans are focusing on customer experience and encouraging usage, rather than only acquiring new members.
Opportunities for Solo Practitioners
The plans, of course, need lawyers to function. Many plans have provider firms that are the first to field the calls from members. The legal work is then sent out to the referral attorney network based on location and practice area. Each plan has different arrangements but it’s common to discount fees or billing rates for GLSP members.
Several attorneys from the Scottsdale conference provide legal services for multiple plans, and in some cases, it’s more than 50 percent of their practice. In today’s competitive legal market, having pre-qualified leads will allow you to practice law, and spend less time on marketing.
A common theme at the conference was freeing up attorneys to practice law by sending pre-qualified referrals and, in turn, providing affordable legal services to more clients. Lawyers interested in supplementing their business with referrals can apply directly to the plans or link to all 13 GLSA member plans by joining the GLSA and completing the universal application here.
You can learn more about next year’s conference, held jointly with the ABA GPSolo Division, here.
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