Updated: April 24, 2019

The Regulation of Online Legal Services: Proposed Amendments to General Rule 24

If you or your organization develop software or online services that help consumers or lawyers make legal decisions, such as guiding consumers or lawyers in completing legal forms for submission to a court, searching the law and cases to help interpret the law, help lawyers determine which documents are relevant in eDiscovery, or otherwise guide consumers about their rights under Washington law, proposed regulations could impact you.

The Practice of Law Board (POLB), is created and authorized by the Supreme Court of Washington, to examine the current and future provision of legal services to the citizens of Washington. It is working on a proposal that would regulate online legal services. Their proposal is to amend General Rule (GR) 24. The POLB is asking members of the technology community who develop software and services for sale targeting consumers and lawyers to help define the appropriate way for such software and online services to provide legal services to consumers in Washington State.

The Issue

There is a large unmet need for competent legal services in Washington State. One way to address this unmet need would be through legal software and online services. However, under the Washington State General Court rules, such legal software and services could be in violation of the current Court Rules that define the lawful Practice of Law.

What You Can Do?

The POLB has drafted a proposal for a new definition of the practice of law which addresses the use of software, algorithms, artificial intelligence, and other online services to provide legal advice to consumers and lawyers (see below for more details). However, the proposal could be better, particularly if the very people who create such services have input into the definition. The current proposal requires that online legal service providers pay a fee, register with the Washington State Bar, and pay a fee, among other provisions. The POLB is asking for your comments on the proposed changes.

Specifically, the POLB would like to hear your comments as to whether such legal service software should:

  • Provide consumers a means to view the blank template and the final document before finalizing a purchase of that document
  • Have an attorney licensed to practice law in the state of Washington review all blank templates and legal operative language offered to Washington consumers, and that may appear in the completed document
  • Communicate clearly and conspicuously that the services provided are not a substitute for the advice or services of an attorney; and/or
  • Disclose clearly and conspicuously to the consumer that personal information provided by the consumer and other communications through the service are not subject to the attorney client evidentiary privilege.

If you have ideas that the POLB has not considered, the POLB is open to suggestions to ensure the best possible GR 24 for the future.

Generally the POLB is concerned with the definition of the practice of law and clarifying what constitutes the unlawful practice of law, but comments on business models, such as payment methods for legal software and services, referrals to lawyers, and other matters that will help address access to justice through legal software and services are welcome.

How Can You Provide Feedback?

The POLB, Access to Justice Board and Microsoft are hosting a stakeholders meeting to solicit feedback on the proposed amendments to GR 24. Please join us for a free lunchtime meeting noon-3 p.m. Wednesday, May 29. Please RSVP here. If you have questions about the stakeholders meeting, please contact Ellen Reed.

If you cannot attend but want to provide feedback, please email the Practice of Law Board by Friday, May 24, 2019. You can also email or write the Supreme Court regarding this rule any time before Aug. 30, 2019.

Please note that the feedback gathered by the POLB/ATJ/Microsoft is separate than the request by the state Supreme Court.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a General Rule?

To manage its operations in a fair and just manner, Washington Courts define a series of court rules. Rules exist to cover different courts and situations, but the common rules are known as the General Rules. For example, General Rule (GR) 2, Holidays—defines how the court will handle holidays, for example, if a holiday, such as July 4 falls on a Saturday, the courts will close on the preceding Friday.

What does General Rule 24 currently cover?

General Rule 24 defines the practice of law. Under this rule, the practice of law is defined as the application of legal principles and judgment with regard to the circumstances or objectives of another entity or person(s) which require the knowledge and skill of a person trained in the law. This includes but is not limited to:

  • Giving advice or counsel to others as to their legal rights or the legal rights or responsibilities of others for fees or other consideration
  • Selection, drafting, or completion of legal documents or agreements which affect the legal rights of an entity or person(s)
  • Representation of another entity or person(s) in a court, or in a formal administrative adjudicative proceeding or other formal dispute resolution process or in an administrative adjudicative proceeding in which legal pleadings are filed or a record is established as the basis for judicial review
  • Negotiation of legal rights or responsibilities on behalf of another entity or person(s).

What are the proposed amendments to GR that will regulate online legal services?

A document describing the proposed changes including the rationale for such changes to GR 24 is available here. It may be necessary to scroll down a few pages to get to the material changes.