Another interesting start-up has emerged out of Silicon Valley to provide crowdsourced legal advice to other start-ups for free.
LawPivot, a legal Q&A web site founded in 2009, hopes to fill a niche by providing legal advice to the founders of start-up and early stage high-tech companies based in California at a legal fee they can afford — FREE. Legal advice is provided by an experienced network of high-priced business law attorneys, recruited from the top 200 hundred or so law firms, who hope to pick up new clients by entering into discussions by providing free legal advice services to start-up companies.
Free legal advice or the “free consult” has been employed by lawyers for years, pre-Internet, as a tried and true marketing strategy for acquiring new clients. Now many lawyers are beginning to offer free legal advice online from their web sites directly. See for example, VirtualEsq.Com . By next year there will be hundreds of these free legal advice services offered directly by lawyers from their web sites as the virtual law firm movement begins to scale.
However, free legal advice from an individual law firm’s web site, is not the same thing as a vertical web site that aggregates answers from many lawyers, giving consumers a wider variety of responses to their particular situation.
Free legal advice online is not a completely new idea. FreeAdvice has been doing it for years, and consumers can get answers to their basic legal questions from sites such as AVVO, RocketLawyer, and JustAnswer. What is new, is that LawPivot provides through its network of lawyers “real” legal advice that applies to the client’s particular situation, as distinguished from merely legal information. And this advice is reputedly to be "high quality" given the stature of the lawyers recruited to the LawPivot network.
However, genuine legal advice, [as distinguished from “legal advice” that is characterized as “legal information” ], like any legal service, has to be delivered in an ethically compliant way requiring that the client’s information be kept confidential, that an attorney/client relationship be established, and that the attorney providing the legal advice be a member of the bar within the jurisdiction where the client is located. Presumably LawPivot is addressing these issues. The LawPivot service is presently limited to California, but the company, according to its representations, plans to expand nationwide.
Although the company recently raised $600,000 from Google Ventures, the venture capital arm of Google, after a $400,0000 round from from a group of angel investors, it will be interesting to see how or whether it survives. At this point, neither the clients are charged for legal advice, nor are the participating attorneys charged an advertising fee. So there is no revenue, and apparently no business model. However, I doubt that the investors thought they were making charitable contributions, so there must be a business model lurking in the background somewhere?
Unfortunately, the only business model that is ethically compliant in the US, is one where the participating lawyers pay an advertising fee to play (get listed) and get exposure. Splitting legal advice fees between a law firm and a non-law firm , is a big “No, No” and an ethical prohibition that exposes the participating attorneys to bar sanctions which could lead to disbarment. Perhaps because Google is now involved as a major backer of LawPivot , and the company is planning to move to the GooglePlex campus start-up incubator, "they can do no wrong.!"
Many other Western common law jurisdictions, like the United Kingdom, have abolished the division of fees, but the rules against splitting fees with non-lawyers remains sacrosanct in the US, on the theory that splitting fees would compromise the independent judgment of the attorney. However, in the UK, lawyers are permitted to work for a profit-making company and provide legal advice directly to consumers, and no one seems to be complaining about compromised judgment. [ See: FirstAssist in the UK for an example ].
Charging clients an administrative fee to “use” the web site, as an alternative revenue source, has been tried before in an earlier Internet era, and it failed then. [ e.g. AmeriCounsel ]. I doubt that this model will work today when consumers are expecting everything on the web to be for free.
I think it is a good sign that innovation is happening in the legal industry, and that private capital is finally looking for a way to get a return by investing in the delivery of legal services. [See: Total Attorneys Receives Multi-Million Dollar Investment ].
I would like to see companies like LawPivot thrive, but at this point I don’t see the juice. Are advertising revenues sufficient to make this venture sustainable, or has LawPivot figured out another legitimate source of revenue that doesn’t violate US ethical prohibitions? Only time will tell.