September 2017 • Volume 105 • Number 9 • Page 22
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Marketing / Legal Technology
Partnering with Online DIY Services: The Plusses and Perils
Chicago-based Road to Status provides immigrants with a DIY application process and attorney referrals. What are the pros and cons for lawyers in joining forces with online legal-service providers?
When the Trump Administration published its executive orders regarding immigrants and refugees in January, attorneys became first responders, fanning out to the nation's airports to triage the legal needs of those ensnared in the travel ban.
Shortly thereafter, the American Bar Association set up the website www.immigrationjustice.us to help coordinate pro bono service offers from the American Immigration Lawyers Association. Enterprising attorneys built www.airportlawyer.org, a site that tracks and registers immigrants' travel information and connects them with volunteer attorneys at their local airport if need be.
Locally, the Chicago Legal Responders Network coordinated with the Council on American Islamic Relations to pull together the Travelers Assistance Project to serve immigrants at O'Hare International Airport. And Illinois Legal Aid Online built a tool to generate a habeas corpus petition for those being detained.
"These types of efforts are great examples of what lawyers can do with technology," said Chase Hertel, director of business development & partnerships at Chicago-based Road to Status (www.roadtostatus.com), a website that provides document-assembly-style federal forms and attorney referrals for immigrants. Hertel detailed some of those efforts during an appearance at the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism's The Future Is Now: Legal Services 2.017 conference in May (see http://bit.ly/2trDeJ1). "Technology can be used to triage the legal needs of clients, connect with clients where they are - at the airport, or on the internet - deliver services in unique ways, and, most importantly, bridge the legal services gap."
Companies like Road to Status, which in July announced a partnership with Illinois Legal Aid Online (see sidebar), offer this promise to immigrants and attorneys. Some in the Illinois legal community are skeptical they can deliver and raise ethical concerns. But others see more benefits than drawbacks for both the immigrants who use them and attorneys who contract with them to take on limited scope cases.
Hertel emphasized that Road to Status is a technology company, not a law firm, although the architecture of the system was heavily influenced by co-founder Javad Khazaeli, an immigration attorney based in St. Louis who spent 15 years in the Department of Homeland Security before entering private practice.
"We partner with immigration service providers like nonprofits and law firms to help them engage clients in innovative ways and add value to client relationships," Hertel said. "We help them get the most out of their outreach and business development efforts while also helping them, as we like to say, bridge the immigration legal services gap one client at a time."
He adds, "If you build solutions just for [DIY] consumers, it's somewhat irresponsible, especially without attorney involvement. If you're building services just for law firms, you're not serving the needs of the marketplace."
Hertel cited familiar statistics that roughly 10 percent of the population can afford legal services and another 10 percent is eligible for legal aid, while the vast underserved group in the middle struggles to gain access. He noted that the U.S. population currently includes about 50 million immigrants, and about one million become lawful permanent residents each year, but about 40 percent of applications are rejected by the government for simple errors like typographical mistakes. Illinois has the fifth largest immigrant population, with nearly one million non-citizens, and Chicago has the fourth-highest immigrant population of any city, he said.
"When you hear these statistics, you see the sum of people affected," Hertel said. While organizations like Illinois Legal Aid Online and Instituto del Progreso Latino in Chicago's heavily Mexican Pilsen neighborhood do their best, "These great organizations and others are barely able to touch the needs of the marketplace," he said. "This is an opportunity for young lawyers to learn how to serve clients, and for solos and small law firms to serve immigrants and help the folks that have helped make our country so great."
How it works for lawyers
Attorneys can use Road to Status in one of two ways, co-founder Khazaeli says. One option is to employ the platform as a sort of document assembly system for clients who haven't come to them through it. Doing so can make the intake process more efficient.
For example, a given immigrant might need four or five forms filled out on their behalf, and Road to Status' interface populates those forms with basic information like a person's name or birth date so that only needs to be entered once. "There [can be] a lot more errors" if each form is filled out individually, he says. "Our system allows you to input one time and then produces the forms."
Attorneys can ask clients to fill in the information themselves before meeting, "so you don't have to spend time in a room asking your client every [family member's] birthday," Khazaeli says. "When you meet up, you can review and make changes. The goal of our software is [to enable attorneys to do] legal work, not administrative work." Road to Status also automatically checks the status of cases so that attorneys using the system get regular updates without having to proactively check it, he adds.
But attorneys can also sign up as Road to Status attorney partners. Doing so can help fill in the hours a small to midsized firm might otherwise be idle, Khazaeli says. "You didn't have to go out and get the client," he says. "The administrative work is done with the technology. And you're able to do [these limited scope cases] much more efficiently, with lower overhead."
Attorneys who wish to take cases from Road to Status must go through a vetting process, in which they send information and answer questions about themselves. Although the organization uses a team review, Khazaeli ultimately determines which applicants have the proper expertise - and complaint-free records.
"I tend to ask the questions that need to be asked," he says. "Sometimes [applications] don't even make it to me…. [For instance,] if we ask you for certain documentation, and you're not responsive to our requests for that[, you're excluded]."
Road to Status asks specifically what immigration law background attorneys have, and Khazaeli says those who have gone through the American Immigration Lawyers Association training are definitely preferred. "We're looking for immigration attorneys, not attorneys who do 10 different things and immigration is their tenth best," he says. The organization also asks what types of immigration law they're most comfortable with and attempts to assign cases accordingly. "Some people might want to just do naturalization cases," he adds.
Attorneys are typically a better fit if they are comfortable with technology, since Road to Status is web-based, Khazaeli says. "We want to know exactly how they're currently running their practice," he says. "When people are comfortable using iPads, that's good because you can run our system completely off an iPad. When somebody is using a Dell computer with Windows 2000, we've got issues."
Once approved, attorneys can take as many cases as they have time for, Khazaeli says. Some take a certain number per week, while others touch base and take on cases only when they have a slow period. At the moment, Khazaeli plays matchmaker between attorneys and clients, but Road to Status ultimately intends to give attorneys more freedom to choose their clients and vice versa. For now, either is able to ask for reassignment if an arrangement doesn't feel like a good fit, he says.
Chicago-based immigration attorney KiKi Mosely, who formerly served on the ISBA's International and Immigration Law Section Council, sees potential advantages for clients and attorneys from online DIY services but is concerned about pitfalls.
From the client's perspective, online systems can provide immigrants with a sense of control over the process and help them avoid so-called "immigration specialists" who are not attorneys, Mosely says (see sidebar for more about how Road to Status works from the consumer side).
But Mosely - who was not addressing the functionality of Road to Status specifically -says immigrants' sense of control could become exaggerated and undermine their prospects of success on a DIY websites. "There really is no such thing as a simple immigration process," she says. "Just because somebody thinks they are eligible for something does not mean they are. If there are issues at any point, those can get them into trouble."
For example, immigrants who file for something they weren't eligible for or didn't fully consider the implications of identifying themselves to the Department of Homeland Security could get tripped up, Mosely says. "A competent attorney catches those things and places a client in a posture before immigration that is advantageous to them, or recommends that they do not file anything at this time because of x, y, and z," she says.
Suppose a client's parents lied on their initial visa application, which could be a material misrepresentation if not disclosed. "You're putting yourself before immigration on an application, [but] the visa should have never been issued in the first place," Mosely says. "Are there ways to get around that? Yes. But [the applicants might] end up in an interview and get circled around by [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] officers who say, 'I need a sworn statement.'"
An attorney can anticipate these risks and advise the client accordingly, Mosely says. "The applicant walking into my office has no clue of [the risks]. They think they have a simple green card case." If the case is relatively straightforward, self-help can work fine, she says. If it turns out to be more complicated, "it quickly blows up on them."
Turning from the client to the attorney, Mosely says, the benefits of partnering with an online service are access to leads and business. The flip side? The fees provided may be inadequate, she says. Suppose you've taken on a case for a flat fee and unforeseen complications come up. "Then you have a mess on your hands that you've contracted to handle" at the given fee, Mosely says.
Khazaeli says Road to Status guards against such scenarios by only setting prices for very straightforward matters and providing its attorney partners with the ability to determine at any time that a given matter has expanded beyond the original scope, at which point they can negotiate an engagement letter with the client separate from Road to Status.
"The client can disagree, and come back to us and say they want to be represented by somebody else," he says. "But no attorney is put into a situation where they don't have the ability to set the price of cases that require additional work."
Immigration attorneys sometimes need to be more vigilant in empowering clients to understand the processes they're going through so they know what's happening at each point along the road to status, Mosely acknowledges. "These services become more and more popular as people have experiences with immigration practitioners who are not diligent in understanding the entire picture of the client's situation," she says.
Mark Marquardt, Lawyers Trust Fund of Illinois (LTF) executive director and a member of the ISBA's Task Force on the Future of Legal Services, says an advantage for both lawyers and clients in services like Road to Status is that they help cut upfront costs - and thus reduce fees. "If you can increase the volume of your services, you can cut your costs more than you cut your fees," Marquardt says. "Which means that clients will get a less expensive service [while you increase your profit].…Companies like Road to Status are a tool for aggregating clients. You might be able to spend less time chasing down unproductive leads."
Marquardt recalls a study that showed 300,000 people in Illinois are eligible to naturalize. "But a lot of those 300,000 people don't have a lot of resources to pay attorneys," he says. "Absent some kind of more efficient system, I don't know how [they get the] help they need."
The Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission (ARDC) has received no complaints about Road to Status, although the ARDC generally receives relatively few complaints in that area of the law, and the existence of such services has caused regulators in Illinois and around the country to reevaluate ethics rules developed in the 19th and 20th centuries, says James Grogan, deputy administrator and chief counsel.
Grogan recognizes that middle-class and working-class people have difficulty accessing services and that online providers, starting with broader services like Avvo and LegalZoom, are offering a more affordable way to do so. This raises the ethical conundrum of legal fee-splitting, although Avvo, for example, insists they are simply charging a marketing fee.
"With Avvo and others, they are really teaming lawyers with entities," he says. "The model in most jurisdictions says, a lawyer cannot divide a legal fee with a non-lawyer.… But who has authority over a non-lawyer? Who is regulating these entities? Are they non-lawyers providing legal advice? Where is that bright line?" (For more about fee-splitting and related issues, see LawPulse at page 12.)
Grogan and Marquardt both preach the importance of due diligence. "Great care has to be taken," Grogan says. "There are websites all over that are providing services for getting lawyers together with prospective clients. You've got to be very careful about the organizations you get involved with, that they're not a scam organization to deprive non-citizens of money."
Attorneys should not take these potential ethical issues lightly, Marquardt says. "But I think sometimes there's a presumption that something new and different is unethical, when it's just new and different," he says. "And I would hope that the consideration of how do we get access to legal help for the tens of thousands of people priced out of the market would also be a factor that's considered in those deliberations - not the determinative factor, necessarily, but a consideration." (See this month's LawPulse for more about the ethics of partnering with online referral services.)
Ed Finkel is an Evanston-based freelance writer.
In July, Road to Status announced a partnership with Illinois Legal Aid Online (ILAO) that will enlarge its universe of potential clients.
Immigration law clients of Illinois Legal Aid Online will gain access to the Road to Status site through a link from https://IllinoisLegalAid.org and be able to access documents and potential attorney help for matters like citizenship, Green Cards, and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, available in both English and Spanish.
Road to Status has been pursuing such partnerships with nonprofit organizations in Illinois, and it hopes the ILAO arrangement will only be the first, says company co-founder Javad Khazaeli.
"They are out there trying to help people, especially people who don't have resources to get attorneys," he says. "We reached out to them, began talking and saw that we see the world the same way and are adapting our tools in a way that makes sense for their clients."
Attorneys who partner with Road to Status will gain access to the additional potential clients in the pipeline, who also will have the option to work with attorneys through other partnerships of ILAO, Khazaeli says. "It will benefit attorneys by helping people get away from the shadowy notario network and be able to quickly identify what their issues are," he says.
Systems like Road to Status provide immigrants with an affordable alternative to traditional legal services while keeping them clear of unscrupulous providers who practice law without a license and take advantage of them, according to company co-founder Javad Khazaeli. "The technology will identify the most common places people will get into trouble and say, 'You know what, the do-it-yourself model is not right for you,' and give you choices to go to an attorney," he says. Road to Status also filters the multiple pages of government instructions to provide only those specific to that particular immigrant's case.
But the site is also upfront with users about what it doesn't do, Khazaeli says. "Every time we interact with a person on Road to Status, we are very, very clear that that person can only answer administrative-type questions," he says. "Anything that has to do with a legal question, we tell them they have to talk to an attorney.… Often we're just taking resources provided by the government and consolidating them."
Khazaeli and several other immigration attorneys put together the flow of questions to ask and when to flag a particular person's background as problematic. For example, the system will stop the process for anyone with a criminal background and insist that they seek a referral. Road to Status keeps up to date on new immigration forms to ensure that clients and their attorneys don't end up submitting outdated documents that will cause them headaches, he says.
The system provides Spanish language functionality, which can bridge the language gap between client and attorney. "For a consumer who comes in on the website, who would prefer to interact with the software in Spanish, they can interact in their native language," says co-founder Chase Hertel. Khazaeli adds that Road to Status hopes to roll out versions in Mandarin Chinese, Hindi, and French, which is commonly spoken among African immigrants from former colonies.