LegalZoom's Achilles' Heel: Free Legal Forms

For those of you following the LegalZoom IPO, which was scheduled for Friday, August 2, 2012, it was postponed for the usual stated reason that market conditions were not suitable. This really means that the offering could not get off at the $10-$12 price per share that the selling shareholders wanted. Instead the maximum price institutional buyers were willing to pay was reportedly $7-$8 a share, which would have reduced the valuation of the company by one-third. The reasons that were given for this lower valuation were comparisons with other transactional-based companies like www,ancestry.com which is selling at a price to earnings ratio of 21.73, compared to a projected price to earnings ratio for LegalZoom of over 40x.

Perhaps the research analysts on the buy side perceived a more fundamental flaw in LegalZoom's business model.

The LegalZoom product offering at its core is still the provision of legal forms offered up to recently, without the option of the legal advice from an attorney. The pricing for these legal forms are comparable to the pricing of paralegal prepared  legal forms offered for example by the many legal technicians in the State of California who work with consumers off line in face-to-face meetings, like lawyers.  

Thus for example LegalZoom charges $299  for no-fault divorce forms, and $139 for name change forms. Many virtual law firms now offer comparable legal form services but bundled with legal advice. See for example www.morrisfamilylaw.com  where a no-fault divorce is offered with the full accountability and the backing of an attorney for a fee of $275. For another example see FlashDivorce a virtual law firm service that offers  no-fault divorce in four states for $199.

Law firms are going virtual and are finally figuring out ways to compete against LegalZoom on its own playing field. To be sure, these small law firms don't have the capital and marketing budgets of a LegalZoom, but as thousands of these law firms eventually migrate to delivering online legal services they will not only offer a better value to consumers, but they will constrain LegalZoom's growth and dominance.

The problem with the LegalZoom pricing model is that automated legal forms are digital goods whose marginal cost is zero. Eventually a pure digital good has a marginal cost of zero and will be made available a price which is either free or close to free. It is for this reason that a song, for example, on iTunes cost only .99. [I wrote about this idea previously at Legal Forms for the Price of a Song on iTunes? which identifies other legal start-ups moving into the free legal forms market space.]

LegalZoom itself has aggressively argued that it services are essentially software-powered and its document assembly processes are publications entitled to the same First Amendment protections as other kinds of commercial speech. Its products are therefore, it argues, immune from organized bar claims that their services constitute the unauthorized practice of law. By its own admission, the professional review of legal documents by LegalZoom is very limited and does not constitute legal advice.

If this is the case, once consumers figure out that the product that they get from LegalZoom is essentially the same digital form that can be purchased from many automated legal form websites at a price which is 10% of LegalZoom’s existing selling prices,  -LZ's revenue should implode, in theory. I say, "in theory", because LegalZoom has done an excellent job in persuading consumers that what they have to offer is a better service than what they get from the typical lawyer.

Because of the overwhelming advertising that LegalZoom pushes into multiple channels the LegalZoom brand  is likely to remain intact, because the truth about the nature of LegalZoom's product offering is obscured by their aggressive advertising messaging.

For many consumers,  if a service does not appear on page one of a Google search, they will look no further, and the opportunity to avoid using a lawyer in solving a legal problem is often the controlling decision factor.

For example, many consumers are still unaware of the fact that the US Legal Services Corporation has subsidized the creation of free automated legal forms available to people of all income levels that are available for  free from a network of state-based legal information and legal document web sites. These free legal form services have no budget for marketing, certainly nothing like the $40 million a year that LegalZoom's spends on marketing and advertising.

These legal forms are  fully automated, web-enabled, automated,easy to use, and often employ a visual graphical interface to help users navigate through online questions and courthouse procedures. The program is not limited to low- income people.

Even without a marketing budget, last year more than 500,000 legal forms were downloaded by users in 34 states using this program. This transactional volume already exceeds LegalZoom's annual volume and it is increasing as more legal forms are automated and the number of states participating in this program increases.

State courts have also jumped into the free legal forms market in response to the demands of pro se filers looking for free legal help. See for example Online Court Assistance in Utah and Maryland Family Law Forms.

Even the US Bankruptcy courts are prototyping a free online set of Chapter 7 bankruptcy forms to be used by self-filers. This service will eventually be rolled out nationwide to every US Bankruptcy Court Website.

I can think of other ways that the development and distribution of free automated legal forms can be monetized, without the need to charge a transactional fee to the consumer. (This is the subject of a future blog post).

Free legal forms are here and the supply is expanding. Lawyer's won't like the fact, any more than LegalZoom, that this development will disrupt their business models. The reality is that both kinds of suppliers of legal solutions will have to accept the challenge of the accelerated pace of technological change.

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In accordance with the   FTC 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guidelines Concerning Use of Endorsements and Testimonial in Advertising" I am disclosing that I have a material connection to some of the companies referred to in this Post. I am the Founder/CEO of MyLawyer.com, a smart legal forms Website, and Founder/CEO of DirectLaw, a virtual law firm platform provider. The opinions expressed here are my own. I did not receive any compensation from any source for writing this post. DirectLaw sponsors this blog by paying for the costs of hosting.

LegalZoom is a trademark of LegalZoom, Inc.

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Comments (3) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
Ken Adams - August 5, 2012 7:59 AM

You say "Eventually a pure digital good has a marginal cost of zero and will be made available a price which is either free or close to free." That's not necessarily the case: I find myself paying real money for ebooks.

Ken - that's true- but its a pretty low price and would probably be lower if the large book publishers were not dictating price levels to Apple and Amazon.

In any case, I was contrasting a higher-priced service based on digital content to the lower price of the digital content itself and concluded that the output was the same, so eventually the lower price would prevail if markets were truly efficient.

Richard

Cat Moon - August 6, 2012 4:59 PM

To add to Richard's list of states that provide court-approved free legal forms: Tennessee's AOC is aggressively pursuing an Access to Justice initiative, which includes offering TN Supreme Court-approved divorce forms (http://www.tsc.state.tn.us/node/622453). As well, local court clerks offer forms for simple matters, such as a name change petition (http://www.williamsoncounty-tn.gov/DocumentCenter/Home/View/308).

The TN AOC also maintains the website http://justiceforalltn.com/, as a self-service portal for Tennesseans needing legal help.

I'm certain that there are many more such initiatives around the country. While this does expand access to justice, I share Richard's concern that these excellent sources for free legal help and forms go undiscovered. LegalZoom (and other pay form sites) monopolize the first page in Google. The nonprofit sources can't compete with LZ's advertising budget. So they often go undiscovered.

And, as a side note, a LegalZoom name-change package won't be accepted by the clerk and master in the district where I practice. So unwitting folks shell out for those forms only to be handed a free form to complete from the clerk.

Bob Christensen - September 18, 2012 8:56 PM

Here's another take on LZ's IPO fiasco that parallels your own
Has LegalZoom Lost Its Bloom?

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