All eyes were on Utah even before its Supreme Court took the historic step of green lighting its legal services sandbox and along with it implementing some key regularly changes.

Its work exploring and recommending a regulatory sandbox created a buzz in legal tech, innovation, and bar reform circles. Earlier this week, the Utah Regulatory Sandbox, was named a court finalist in the inaugural American Legal Technology Awards.

Utah Supreme Court justices

Admittedly, Utah wouldn’t have been top of mind if I were asked to think of models of progressive reform. But in legal, it’s ahead of the pack. This is true especially after Washington State abandoned its novel Limited Licensed Legal Technicians program.

Utah has a much better chance of making progress on closing the access to justice gap with its open and test-and-see approach. Rather than a narrowly focused pilot hampered by the constraints of the bar’s current regulatory model, Utah’s sandbox outlined in Standing Order No. 15 establishes a separate Office of Legal Services Innovation to help the court oversee and regulate nontraditional legal services providers.

What’s critical here is that this Innovation Office will be able to green light legal services approaches that would otherwise be barred by established professional conduct rules. These rules, under the guise of consumer protection, have hampered innovation and exacerbated the growing access to justice in criminal and civil proceedings. This gap is growing not just for low-income Americans, but for those in middle-income brackets.

One of the most striking parts of Utah’s order is its statement of objectives. While the overarching goal is the amorphous ideal of improving access to justice, the regularly goal is specific and I’ll posit, fairly radical: “To ensure consumers have access to a well-developed, high-quality, innovative,
affordable, and competitive market for legal services.”

What is especially important about this objective is that there is zero protectionism in the mix. This isn’t about how many lawyers have jobs or profitable practices. This is about the justice system serving the public.

“We cannot volunteer ourselves across the access-to-justice gap”

Justice Himonas

On Bob Ambrogi’s Legaltech Week podcast following the Utah announcement there was discussion about why the American Bar Association isn’t single-handedly solving the access to justice crisis. While there are approaches the ABA can take to be a leader in this space on the regulatory front, it’s really the states that are best positioned to step up, innovate, test, learn, and improve.

The ABA and other bar groups have unquestionably led the charge on pro bono and volunteerism. But as Utah Justice Deno Himonas said, “We cannot volunteer ourselves across the access-to-justice gap.”

Volunteerism will continue to be a core access-to-justice component, but we will also need to see vast improvements in service delivery methods, plain language adoption, online dispute resolution, court navigators, self-help systems, etc.

Utah took the plunge and did so in a way that should encourage other states to jump right in rather than wait until the water looks safe and calm.