Alternative Legal Service Providers
This article appeared the January 2024 issue of SC Lawyer magazine. Reprinted with permission of the South Carolina Bar.
For the past several years, the legal profession has been searching for ways to respond to staffing shortages, increased complexity in legal matters, and clients’ demand for cost control and faster response times. The use of Alternative Legal Service Providers (ALSPs) has been one way to meet these challenges. Failing to understand, explore and, when applicable, properly incorporate ALSPs into your legal practice will unnecessarily diminish the value you can provide to clients and companies. This is especially true when the ALSP leverages modern technology for document review and signature, e-discovery and analysis, litigation support, and regulatory and compliance projects. The introduction of artificial intelligence (AI) makes the decision to adopt or ignore ALSP even more timely and relevant to the modern law practice.
ALSPs can be very beneficial when properly implemented, as they provide non-traditional ways, even revolutionary ways, to provide legal services. There is also no question that the industry is growing. An online article by Thomson Reuters in January of 2023 stated that the ALSPs comprise a $20.6 billion portion of the legal market. The article noted that the rapidly increased use of ALSPs is causing a blurring between law firms, legal departments, and technology companies. The offerings for alternative legal services come in many forms: online legal platforms, virtual law firms, and artificial intelligence technologies that can be used for document review and even document drafting. As client demands increase, ALSPs can help firms and companies meet this demand by providing non-traditional and even disruptive solutions. We have all seen the change in the legal industry, especially post COVID, where digital transformation was increased, remote working became the norm, physical documents were the exception, and access to information dramatically increased. Proper use of alternative legal services can assist the law firm or company transition into the digital era.
One simple example is the shift to e-signature. While the algorithm that was generally used to create the first e-signatures was created in 1977, it was not until the Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce (ESIGN) Act of 2000 that these signatures were allowed to be legally binding and therefore an option for law firms. E-signatures are also consistent with the move to the paperless office. E-signatures offer fewer signing errors, improved security, increased response time, client convenience, and lower costs. However, adopting e-signatures comes with requirements such as having the client accept doing business electronically, allowing a wet signature option, showing a clear intent to sign, and receiving a copy of the completed, signed document. The point is that even with something as simple as e-signatures, there are practical, operational, and regulatory requirements that must be met to implement this alternative to the traditional signature. ALSPs cannot just be adopted blindly.
ALSPs can also be thought of as “legal outsourcing”, which is the practice of law firms or corporations engaging with third parties that provide legal support. Domestically, this is outsourcing and internationally it is offshoring. In the early 2000s, tasks that were assigned to these third parties included document review, legal research and writing, drafting of pleadings and briefs, and patent services. For example, companies offered to draft patent applications for substantially less than the domestic attorney fees by using offshored authors. These third parties offered substantially reduced costs, improved turnaround and increased resources to those law firms and companies that sought their services. However, this practice was not without risk.
In 2008, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) recognized that this offshoring was occurring and issued a notice which stated, “The USPTO has become aware that a number of law firms or service provider companies located in foreign countries are sending solicitations to U.S. registered patent practitioners offering their services in connection with the preparation of patent applications to be filed in the United States.” The USPTO “reminded” inventors and patent attorneys that “the export of subject matter abroad pursuant to a license from the USPTO, such as a foreign filing license, is limited to purposes related to the filing of foreign patent applications. Applicants who are considering exporting subject matter abroad for the preparation of patent applications to be filed in the United States should contact the Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) at the Department of Commerce for the appropriate clearances.” The risk was that using these ALSPs may cause a violation of the Export Administration Regulations governing exports of dual-use commodities, software, and technology, including technical data.
The lesson here is that while there can be substantial cost savings with an ALSP, a strategy should be put in place to properly manage the ALSP, project, information, data, and regulations.
One lesson can be learned from a now infamous proceeding before the USPTO involving ALSPs Abtach Ltd., 360 Digital Marketing LLC, and RetroCube LLC. These ALSPs purported to assist trademark filers with the federal trademark application process. On November 3, 2021, the USPTO issued a show cause order stating that it had reason to believe that these and related companies were violating the USPTO’s rules of practice, engaging in the unauthorized practice of law, and providing false, fictitious, or fraudulent information in thousands of trademark submissions to the USPTO. Among the violations, the USPTO alleged that the companies failed to follow the rule that all documents submitted to the USPTO in a trademark matter must be personally signed by the named signatory. When the companies did not adequately respond to the USPTO’s show cause order, the USPTO imposed sanctions on the companies, including a bar on further communication with the USPTO, permanent deactivation of their USPTO accounts, and disallowance of any future accounts. However, this was not the worst of it. The order terminated “all trademark application proceedings involving submissions by Respondents or filed through a USPTO.gov account registered to, associated with, or controlled by Respondents,” leaving thousands of applicants with paid for, but cancelled trademark applications. Several South Carolina applicants were caught in this proceeding. Since federal trademark rights can begin from the filing date, this caused substantial legal damages to thousands of entities. In this case, the use of these ALSPs resulted in substantially more harm than any saving could overcome. The use of an ALSP without the guidance of a practicing trademark attorney was very damaging indeed.
When considering an ALSP, there is always the issue of unauthorized practice of law, as shown in the USPTO proceeding. South Carolina has addressed one business model of an ALSP (Legal Zoom) in a 2012 proceeding and found that “Legal Zoom’s business practices, as reflected in the Settlement Agreement and the Affidavit of Edward Hartman, do not constitute the practice of law.” Nevertheless, each use and implementation is different, and this is an area where the specific ALSP in use will determine the outcome.
Practical and ethical considerations require lawyers and firms to properly investigate and implement ALSPs consistent with the profession’s ethical obligations. Comment 8 to Rule 1.1 of the Rules of Professional Conduct states that a lawyer, to comply with the requirement of competency, should “keep abreast of changes in the law and its practice, including a reasonable understanding of the benefits and risks associated with technology the lawyer uses to provide services to clients or to store or transmit information related to the representation of a client.” Rule 1.4 requires transparent communication so clients can make informed decisions regarding representation. Rule 1.6(a) states, “A lawyer shall not reveal information relating to the representation of a client unless the client gives informed consent, the disclosure is impliedly authorized in order to carry out the representation….” Rule 1.6(c) states, “A lawyer shall make reasonable efforts to prevent the inadvertent or unauthorized disclosure of, or unauthorized access to, information relating to the representation of a client.” When using an ALSP, even for normal tasks such as document review, e-discovery and data rooms, the law firm has several obligations under the application of Rules 1.1, 1.4 and 1.6. Consider an ALSP that provides e-discovery and document review. First, the lawyer has an obligation to understand the services and operations of the ALSP in sufficient detail to ensure that any information shared remains confidential (Rules 1.1 and 1.6). Second, the lawyer has an obligation to communicate and inform the client that the ALSP is being used and what information is being shared (Rule 1.4). Third, the lawyer has an obligation to stay abreast of the changes in services and operations of the ALSP in the event circumstance’s change. For example, SLPA that are technology-based companies can be subject to mergers, acquisitions, and reorganizations that can impact the ALSP operations. On August 29, 2023, the “legal technology” company Reveal published a press release stating that it acquired two other e-discovery companies, Logikcull and IPRO. Reveal provides the legal industry with tools for document review and other services. The acquisition resulted in over 4,000 customers and employees in more than two dozen countries. Logikcull, initially a United States company, now has its span globally. In the event that a law firm or client used Logikcull for a legal hold, extra steps now have to be taken to be compliant with the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), because ITAR covered technical information cannot be transmitted without certain permissions and only to certain counties. Failing to understand the services and operations of the ALSPs of this transaction can result in not only ethical violations, but regulatory ones as well. The example of violating ITAR is the risk that the Rules of Professional Conduct are designed to prevent.
The use of technology, and investigating ALSPs, is not complete without a discussion of artificial intelligence. The risks associated with use of AI can create significant negative impacts on the client so that its use falls under this rule.
First, when we discuss AI, we should classify the type of AI that is being used. Generally, there are three types: analytical, predictive, and generative.
Analytical AI is generally directed to analyzing and interpreting data to provide insights, patterns, and meaningful information. An ALSP using analytical AI may be the easiest to implement since it can streamline document review, reduce errors, and improve efficiency. This is especially true when using AI to scan documents for key terms and flag issues for an attorney to review. Understanding the ALSP using analytical AI (and informing the client) can quickly lead to savings and improved accuracy.
Predictive AI seeks to forecast or predict future events or outcomes based on historical data and patterns. This use may be the riskiest for some firms because of the presence of bias in the very AI model itself, the large quantity of data required, the uncertainty of specific outcomes and assumptions made in the learning model about the subject matter. For example, one AI application, when presented with a potential juror name, searches public data related to the prospective juror, correlates the data with known patterns of human behavior, and provides a detailed profile of the person’s personality type and a summary of their views and biases. This application seeks to provide insight into the juror according to its AI model so that attorneys can use this information to predict biases in a potential juror. However, since AI has to be “taught” how to think, the AI may only be providing an appearance of usefulness, include bias and discrimination concerns, and even may violate the constitutional mandate not to use gender or race when selecting juries. Since the actual operation of the AI model is constantly changing and unknown, there is substantial risk with AI for this predictive application.
Nevertheless, using an ALSP with predictive AI that analyzes data to predict case outcomes and legal trends, combined with a lawyer’s oversight, can be a powerful tool. Using such an ALSP with predictive AI can allow a lawyer to make informed predictions about case success, analyze settlement offers, and develop mediation, settlement, and litigation strategies. Predictive AI can be used to review case facts, prior rulings, and judge behavior, potentially allowing the lawyer to better prepare strategic decisions concerning trial tactics, negotiations, or settlements. Predictive AI has the potential to enhance or even replace the mock jury process. It is important to be aware and understand that every model, technique, and process has its limitations when implementing it.
Generative AI is used to create new content, documents or other material and typically provides newly created content according to patterns and knowledge learned from existing data. Its use can include anything from litigation documents to emails. Again, understanding the process and communicating that it is being used to the client when deploying generative AI is critical to its proper implementation. For example, in patent law, a public disclosure can start a clock running in which the inventor has to file a patent application within twelve months or risk losing the ability to seek patent protection. ChatGPT is a public forum, so using this ALSP to draft a patent application would result in a public disclosure.
We also know that there have been missteps with the use of generative AI, including the now well-known fine of $5,000.00 assessed against a lawyer who used ChatGPT to write an affidavit and brief, including six case cites that proved to be nonexistent cases. While it may appear that this is a gross dereliction of duty, the attorney explained that he was unaware that ChatGPT could provide false information (e.g., hallucinations). It is difficult to reconcile this explanation with the requirements of Rule 1.1, comment .
When using generative AI for a client, a detailed understanding of the ALSP policies and process is critical to ensure that confidentiality is maintained.
When selecting an ALSP and implementing it in your practice, there are several key points that are needed:
- Understanding how the ALSP receives, stores, and otherwise manages the data it receives. For example, is the data stored in one location, multiple locations domestically, and/or internationally? Further, the vendors of your vendor can play a role. In one example, a vender was used for data storage and analysis for material that was ITAR controlled. However, a vendor of a vendor was not ITAR compliant creating ethical and regulatory issues.
- Understanding the ALSP’s policies such as its security policies, disclosure policies, and ability to return or destroy data is important both in operation (and what) as they provide informed consent to the client.
- Obtaining informed consent from the client can be a requirement in some, if not most, cases. As we see ALSPs continue to invest in technology, the lawyer can capitalize on these new technologies and tools, but not necessarily without the client’s permission.
- Ensuring confidentiality.
- Providing oversight so that the lawyer does not blindly rely upon the ALSP since the duty of communications, competence, and confidentiality cannot be delegated. We learned this from the case J-M Mfg. Co. v. McDermott Will & Emery where the client instigated a legal malpractice claim alleging the negligent handling of e-discovery. The client pled that its counsel’s professional duty of care was breached when its counsel failed to supervise its e-discovery vendors and contract lawyers which resulted in the inadvertent production of thousands of non-responsive, privileged documents.
Properly implemented, ALSPs can be used effectively for the benefit of the lawyer and the client, but not without investigations, precautions, and oversight. Unfortunately, there is not a single checklist for this as each ALSP has unique and ever-changing procedures, policies, and processes, especially with the introduction of AI. Nevertheless, cost savings, efficiency, speed, large data access and analysis, and future predictive services can provide the law firm with a competitive advantage without requiring the traditional “team of lawyers.” Planned, controlled and thoughtful implementation of ALSPs is the way of the future. As discovered in the Alternative Legal Services Providers 2023 Report, ALSP use is growing in large part to the ability of the ALSP to provide specialized expertise (e.g., intellectual property portfolio management) and access to technology that is not available within the firm (e.g., artificial intelligence).
Also, AI is not without its entertainment…
Doug: Please write a closing paragraph for an article discussing alternative legal service providers
ChatGPT: In an era marked by rapidly evolving legal demands and the imperative to optimize resources, alternative legal service providers have unquestionably earned their place in the legal landscape. Their innovative approaches, cost-effectiveness, and commitment to efficiency are reshaping the way legal services are delivered and consumed. As clients and law firms alike continue to seek innovative solutions, the rise of ALSPs stands as a testament to the legal industry’s adaptability and responsiveness to change. While traditional law firms remain a cornerstone of the profession, the symbiotic relationship between traditional and alternative legal service providers is fostering a legal ecosystem that not only meets but anticipates the diverse needs of clients in our increasingly complex and dynamic world. The future of the legal industry appears to be one where the combined strengths of both models will continue to drive progress, making legal services more accessible, efficient, and effective for all.
Doug: Now, write it in the voice of a pirate.
ChatGPT: Arrr, me hearties, in this ever-changin’ legal seascape, these here alternative legal service providers be a treasure worth discoverin’! Their swashbucklin’ methods, savvy for savin’ doubloons, and their knack for speedin’ through legal waters be transformin’ the way we handle our legal affairs. As clients and law firms seek new horizons, these ALSPs be showin’ their mettle, provin’ they be a vital part o’ the legal crew. While traditional law firms be anchorin’ the profession, the partnership ‘twixt old salts and these newfangled ALSPs be creatin’ a legal realm that not only meets but anticipates the diverse needs o’ clients in this ever-twistin’ and turnin’ world. The future of the legal sea be one where both models be workin’ in tandem to chart a course towards makin’ legal services more accessible, efficient, and effective for all ye landlubbers!
Doug Kim, a Physics major from Davidson College, began his professional career as a computer programmer and software engineer. His intellectual property career began in 1998 when he combined his business experience with his legal education and was involved with enforcing a client’s patent against multiple infringers. Since then, Doug has created a well-rounded IP practice that provides legal solutions and strategies tailored to each client from multinational corporations to start-ups.
- https://www.thomsonreuters.com/en-us/posts/legal/alsp-report-2023/ (according to the Alternative Legal Services Providers 2023 Report, published in 2023 and conducted June 1 to July
18, 2022 by the Thomson Reuters Institute, the Center on Ethics and the Legal Profession at Georgetown Law, and the Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford.
- 73 CFR 42781
- Id (See MPEP § 140 (8th ed., Rev. 5, Aug. 2006).
- 15 CFR Parts 730–774.
- 37 C.F.R. § 2.193(a); TMEP § 611.01(b).
- Case No. 2012-208067.
- Rule 1.1 Comment .
- Rule 1.4 Comment.