Congratulations to the 2015 Wisconsin Legal Innovators who received their awards at today's meeting: Front row, left to right: Susan Hansen, Norman Gahn, and Aissa Olivarez. Back row, left to right: Bryan House, Greg Hildebrand, Qortney McLeod, and Jasmine Trimble.
Dec. 4, 2015 – The State Bar of Wisconsin’s 52-member Board of Governors voted unanimously to support an amended petition that would mandate electronic filing (e-filing) in circuit courts and discussed the possibility of allowing the sale of State Bar legal forms to the public, among other topics at its meeting today in Madison.
The board also adopted a succession plan to address the future absence, disability, death, or departure of the organization’s executive director, currently George Brown.
Board Supports Amended E-filing Petition
The board unanimously supported an amended e-filing petition that would create a mandatory system for e-filing legal documents at the circuit court level in Wisconsin, starting in July 2016 for civil, small claims, family, and paternity cases.
Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Richard Sankovitz appeared at the meeting to explain the new proposal, which relies on an initial fee of $20 per party, per case.
Judge Richard Sankovitz urges support for an amended petition to make e-filing mandatory in the circuit courts. The board voted unanimously to support it.
Earlier this year, the board voted to support an original e-filing petition (14-03) filed by the Wisconsin Committee of Chief Judges. But that petition relied on a state budget request of $2.1 million to fund start-up costs. The 2015-17 budget did not allocate funds for that purpose. Thus, the petition changed to address the lack of state funding.
Under the amended e-filing petition, the Director of State Courts would use statutory authority to set the e-filing fee, a one-time fee imposed on each party per case. Indigent parties and public agencies would be exempt from the fee. E-filing would not be mandatory for pro se litigants, but the fee would apply to those who e-file voluntarily.
Sankovitz noted that “every modern enterprise deals with its customers electronically,” and e-filing is inevitable. Getting on board now, he said, will allow parties, citizens, judges, and attorneys to realize the efficiencies and benefits of an e-filing system.
“The more the world goes electronic, the more we wonder whether we in the courthouse business are really in the warehouse business to warehouse all this paper,” he said.
“Electronic filing is overdue in Wisconsin. We have really fallen far behind,” said Sankovitz, noting that more than half of the nation’s states have mandatory e-filing.
Andrew Chevrez addressed a proposal on State Bar legal form sales to the public.
The original petition set the e-filing fee at $5. Without state investment in e-filing, Sankovitz said a $20 user fee is necessary to support a $1.5 million implementation cost. The $20 fee was determined by calculating the number of expected cases that will be filed by attorneys, based on the last three years.
The amended proposal mandates e-filing in two pilot counties prior to statewide adoption. Starting in July 2016, e-filing in the 41 counties that already offer voluntary e-filing would become mandatory in order of readiness, as resources allow, for civil, small claims, family, and paternity cases. In December 2017, the remaining 29 counties would begin implementation of mandatory e-filing for those same case types.
A third phase would mandate e-filing in criminal cases. Other case types, such as probate, forfeiture, and juvenile cases, would be added as resources permit.
The Consolidated Court Automation Programs (CCAP) – the court system’s information technology group – would create and maintain the mandatory e-filing platform.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court, which must approve the petition, has already hinted that mandatory e-filing is coming soon. Chief Justice Patience Roggensack made that indication in the State of the Judiciary Address last month.
Board Discusses Sale of Legal Forms
The board discussed (no action taken) a measure that would allow the State Bar of Wisconsin to sell legal forms to the public, in addition to State Bar members.
The State Bar currently sells legal forms to members through its Online Form Bank, which includes forms used in the areas of real estate law, family law, criminal law, elder law, civil litigation, business law, probate and estate planning, and appellate practice.
Michael Cohen, chair of the board's Business Plan Committee, addressed the board about a proposal that would allow the State Bar to sell legal forms to nonmembers.
Nonmembers can currently buy the PINNACLE® books that contain the forms. But the State Bar is currently self-restricted from selling the forms to the public as stand-alone products.
The board’s Business Plan Committee recommended that the board lift restrictions on form sales to nonmembers for a one-year trial period. The forms would contain cautionary messages about filling forms without attorney assistance and encourage consumers to consult an attorney through the State Bar of Wisconsin Lawyer Referral and Information Service (LRIS).
The proposal recognizes that consumers increasingly turn to online legal form retailers to draft wills, incorporate businesses, or complete other forms with legal effect.
Consumers of these products either cannot afford attorneys, believe they cannot afford attorneys, or simply choose to bypass lawyers in dealing with their legal issues.
State Bar forms would encourage these consumers to seek help from Wisconsin attorneys, who can provide limited-scope representation at lower costs, according to Dist. 2 Gov. Michael Cohen, chair of the Business Plan Committee recommending the proposal.
“The legal marketplace has experienced a proliferation of these types of forms through providers such as LegalZoom, Nolo, and Rocket Lawyer,” Cohen said. “Every lawyer has likely witnessed the repercussions for consumers who rely on forms that are not appropriate for Wisconsin, or without the help of a lawyer. They can create serious problems for themselves.”
Cohen said it’s within the State Bar’s mission to ensure the public has access to the right legal tools and services, including access to legal forms that are Wisconsin-specific and vetted by Wisconsin-licensed attorneys with an expertise in Wisconsin law.
From left, U.W. Law School students Aissa Olivarez, Qortney McLeod, and Jasmine Trimble appeared at the board meeting to accept a State Bar of Wisconsin “Legal Innovator” award. They are members of U.W. Law School’s Black Law Students and Latino Law Students associations, which created a video to avert violence from erupting after a Madison police officer shot and killed a biracial, unarmed man. Adjunct law school professor Stanley Davis spearheaded the students’ efforts.
Learn more about these and other legal innovators.
The Wisconsin Court System offers standard online forms required by Wisconsin circuit courts in civil, criminal, family, guardianship, juvenile, mental commitment, probate, and small claims cases. The forms are available to all pro se litigants for free. The State Bar’s Online Form Bank could expand on what’s already available to the public.
Patricia Carrera, director of the State Bar’s Professional Development Department, said the State Bar would sell a limited number of forms or form packages during a one-year test period, and then determine whether the program should continue and/or expand.
Revenue generated from sales would allow the State Bar, as a nonprofit organization, to create and develop more advanced forms and systems to benefit State Bar members.
The Business Plan Committee was created, in part, to explore non-dues revenue streams that can help support the State Bar’s mission and strategic plan.
Numerous board members raised concerns about the State Bar’s role in the public legal forms business and its impact on solo and small firm attorneys in particular.
Andrew Chevrez, a board member from Milwaukee and liaison to the State Bar’s Solo Small Firm & General Practice Section, said he has “more than a few concerns.”
He acknowledged that selling, selecting, and completing legal forms does not violate rules against the unauthorized practice of law (UPL), but said there’s a gray area “when providing a form to somebody else who could make a business out of filling it out.”
State Bar President Ralph Cagle celebrates his retirement as a professor of law at the University of Wisconsin after 25 years.
Chevrez questioned whether the State Bar should enter a commercialized space with legal form providers that have been alleged to be violating UPL rules.
State Bar Executive Director George Brown noted that LegalZoom, in particular, has successfully defended UPL challenges by bar associations and continues to expand.
Recently, LegalZoom settled an antitrust lawsuit against the North Carolina Bar Association, which had restricted LegalZoom's access to serve North Carolina consumers.
John Orton, from Mauston, was also on the Business Planning Committee and voted against the proposal, saying the State Bar should move more slowly on this.
Orton said he was the only committee member to vote against it, but not because he’s against the State Bar trying to find ways to use existing resources that improve revenues and control member dues.
He said he voted against it because simple transactions can be the “bread and butter” for solo and small firm attorneys and he wants make sure their voices are fully heard on this issue first.
Orton said he would likely favor the plan if solo and small firm lawyers are given the proper time to learn about the proposal and its potential benefits.
The board did not take action on the proposal. The State Bar’s Executive Committee will likely determine if the board should vote on the proposal at its Jan. 29, 2016, meeting.
The board approved a succession plan to replace the State Bar’s executive director if a vacancy occurs. The approved plan defines the process for selecting and approving candidates, including the appointment of a 12-person “transition and search committee.” Any final candidates would be presented to the State Bar board for approval.
Upon request, interested members may obtain a copy of the minutes of each meeting of the Board of Governors. For more information, contact State Bar Executive Coordinator Jan Marks byemail or by phone at (608) 250-6106.