Will Google Helpouts Bring Access to Justice?

Google is experimenting with a feature that provides live video chat advice to searchers looking for information on medical conditions. This chat feature is an evolved implementation Google Helpouts called Healthcare Helpouts.

talk to a doctor Google

Obviously, the vision is simple. Google wants to provide meaningful answers to particular search results. The company by providing an chance to visually consult a real medical professional is the best answer for any search result.

Helpouts work by allowing parties to connect via Google Hangouts and video conference. Providers opt to charge for the conferences, and if so, Google takes a percentage of the transaction. The Hangouts system is quite capable, allowing users to collaborate on screen, share desktops, or view images in high-definition.

The Access to Justice argument

“Access to Justice” is the new it buzzword in the world of legal services. Nobody really knows what “Access” actually is, though we commonly see the principles of “fairness,” “accessibility,” and “cost-effective,” tossed around as the defining features. Access to Justice requires statutory, public policy, accessibility, cost, and “less lawyer-intensive and court-intensive solutions” considerations in order to fully promote its goal. Most solutions center on the “less lawyers” elements, while neglecting other aspects. Naturally, I suspect idealistic participants believe less lawyers equals less cost and greater accessibility. Arguably, removing lawyers from the situation creates additional hassles and problems that might not arise with proper legal consulting.

The lack of relevant, or helpful information is perhaps the biggest disadvantage to individuals seeking “justice.” Lawyers, by nature, carefully hoard our “vast” stream of knowledge and skills, knowing that’s the only collateral we have with clients. Similarly, we’re often tied to time constraints (or mounting student loan or office overhead obligations), which means necessary consultation fees. We’re also probably all to familiar with the “quick question” client call that translates into lost time and lost revenue. Both scenarios create “losers” for one side. The lawyer’s happy with higher fees, while the client’s discouraged by cost. Or vice versa. But Google’s Helpouts tool showcases a concept that benefits both sides of the conversation — Helpouts isn’t currently available for legal services — especially when handled correctly.

One of the chief problems with clients’ abilities to “access” justice is the complex nature of the legal system. And complex questions create even more complex answers, which cost money. Thus, the move to create “simple” solutions for consumers to handle minor or relatively simple processes. Unfortunately, “simple” in terms of legal is only relative to the particular case or question, at a single moment in time.

In terms of access, Helpouts could foster communication between attorneys and individuals who need information. The nature of the legal Helpouts program could create a “win-win” transaction for both sides. Often, in any sort of litigation matter, there are particular trouble spots that slow down the legal process. Clients want (even crave) a quick tibit of information to move their cases forward, yet can’t find solutions without signing attorney-fee agreements or paying retainer fees.

A video-based consultation also helps lower attorney fees. An attorney can offer his or her consultation from any location, thus eliminating some of the necessary overhead that leads to often higher legal fees. Clients also know that they’re paying a fixed cost for the consultation. These lower costs foster one of the Access to Justice goals.

Helpouts meets at least two of the three Access to Justice goals.

My vision of “Legal Helpouts”

Generally, I suspect that the conversations would be short and concise, especially given the number of “I just have a simple question” client conversations. Since Helpouts is a fee-based service, both client and attorney benefit at the end of the transaction. I envision “Legal Helpouts” as a paid model or an “ask a lawyer” model.

A number of bar association celebrate Law Day with “ask a lawyer” events. These telephone call-in programs put lawyers in contact with consumers at no charge. Usually, these events are the lawyer’s and bar association’s way of “giving back.” Legal Helpouts would function in a similar way, except consumers would have access to lawyers at any time. The free Helpouts option would allow lawyers to offer legal advice for no cost.

The second option is a more traditional fee-based consultation. Helpouts allows providers to set a price and time-limit for the conversation. (We’ll talk about fee-sharing issues in a few paragraphs.)

We don’t really want to trust the cloud for confidential communications (and other problems with Helpouts)

There are, especially among lawyers, a clan of “the cloud can’t be trusted” provocateurs. I don’t fit into that mold, but I understand the reluctance. The biggest problem is that we don’t really trust the provider to protect the information. However, I don’t think that’s a certain concern with Helpouts.

First, although the information travels across the internet, we’re really only talking about a conversation between two people. This is no different than a telephone call, with the same risks. I doubt that most Helpouts cases would involve the sharing of highly confidential documents, but parties could take precautions to ensure protection. Additionally, any work done via the Helpouts module is still protected by the attorney-client privilege. And remember, it’s the client, not the attorney, who waives that privilege.

Second, if you’re truly worried about protecting the information, remember that Google encrypts all of the information travelling across its servers. This includes those conversations conducted through Helpouts. Thus, even though the conversation is occurring in real-time, it’s also being encrypted while the event is happening. You’d have to work hard to decrypt and decipher the conversation.

Some Helpouts conversations can be recorded. Google describes its Helpouts recording policies, but specifically mentions that Healthcare Helpouts will not be recorded (by Google) for quality assurance, abuse, or retention purposes. Furthermore, under the Helpouts terms of service, each side must consent to recording the conversation. Personally, I’d never opt to record any of these discussions.

Perhaps the greatest challenge to the Legal Hangouts model is jurisdiction. Lawyers are not only limited by their state’s bar association (or regulating agency), but state laws vary among the different states. An attorney in New York would necessarily know the laws of Oregon, and couldn’t practice without being properly licensed. The same principle applies to the various practice areas (though I suspect most questions would be deal with family law, criminal law, or estate planning.) The Helpouts program would need to be able to restrict access to providers geographically (or jurisdictionally) and by subject matter.

Finally, current legal regulations prohibit fee-sharing between lawyers and non-lawyers. That means a paid Helpouts option isn’t available, since Google charges 30% for the service. I doubt very many lawyers would willing offer numerous unpaid Helpouts without an ability to recoup service costs elsewhere.

Legal Helpouts could work

Legal Helpouts could work based simply on Google’s Healthcare Helpouts model. Google has specific requirements for Healthcare Helpouts providers (including a Business Associate Agreement to comply with HIPAA). Google could design similar policies for Legal Helpouts.

However, Google isn’t going to create policies for products that have almost no future. The technological advancements exceed the legal profession’s permissible uses, and I don’t expect states to change their regulations anytime soon.

Google may want to bring greater Access to Justice, but unfortunately, the legal profession doesn’t want more access.

Img src: Jason Houle/reddit

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Jeff Taylor

I’m just an ordinary guy living an extraordinary life. I’m also an attorney and I blog about Android for lawyers. You can follow me on Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, or Google+.