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 f
orms 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.

————————————————————————————————————————————-

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.

Cloud computing for Law firmsState bar associations are starting to address the issue of law firms storing confidential client information in the cloud and are rolling out ethics opinions to guide law firm conduct. You can find a list of these opinions here on the American Bar Association web site. The basic standard that is emerging is that the attorney must use "reasonable care" under the circumstances. This makes sense. It leaves to the attorney the responsibility of making a management judgment about the risks in choosing one cloud solution over another. This assumes that the law firm has sufficient technical knowledge to evaluate these new risks created by the development of new information technologies. [This is the  subject of a future blog post!].

The Massachusetts Bar Opinion Ethics Opinion on this subject is troubling because it  explicitly requires:

"Consistent with its prior opinions, the Committee further believes that the Lawyer remains bound to follow an express instruction from his client that the client’s confidential information not be stored or transmitted by means of the Internet, and that he should refrain from storing or transmitting particularly sensitive client information by means of the Internet without first seeking and obtaining the client’s express consent to do so"

The requirement that in every case the client’s express consent to store confidential information in the cloud is not realistic and not consistent with the way web technology is evolving. There are clearly situations where it would would be reasonable under the circumstances to secure a client’s consent for storing confidential information in the cloud, but the way this Opinion is framed law firms will interpret to this mean that in every case the client’s express consent needs to be explicitly secured. This adds unnecessary "friction" to creating the lawyer/client relationship.

This requirement actually puts Massachusetts lawyers, particularly solos and small law firms at a competitive disadvantage. Solos and small law firms now have to compete against software powered non-lawyer sites such as LegalZoom, LegacyWriter, MyLawyer.com, and RocketLawyer, to name only a few. None of these non-lawyer web sites require that their customers provide express consent to store their confidential data in the cloud, and if they do, the consent is buried so deep in the fine print that the average user is completely unaware of what they are consenting to.

The Opinion cites Google Docs as its leading example, which is a good example of how out of touch the Bar is with emerging technological trends. It won’t be long before a person will be able to create a Will using a mobile app on their cell phones.

Must the user then be required to give their express consent before storing their data?  What does that "express consent" mean in a mobile application context? The necessity of preserving the integrity of the lawyer/client relationship through the appropriate application of ethical rules is clearly appropriate. But adding unnecessary "friction" to accessing legal services for the average consumer is just going to result them turning to alternative non-lawyer providers who operate with less restrictions. Restrictions like this impede innovation in the delivery of legal services by the legal profession. No wonder the legal profession is lagging behind every other service industry in adapting to the mobile social web.

For a similar viewpoint see: Carolyn Elefant’s Blog Post: The Bar Associations Have Their Head in the clouds When it Comes to Cloud Computing.

For a thoughtful analysis of bar association ethical opinions on the use of cloud computing by lawyers see also:  Bob Ambrogi’s blog posts at Catalyst.
 

Legal forms, without the legal advice or assistance of a lawyer, continue to decline in value. As a pure digital product, a legal form follows the price curve of other digital goods eventually approaching zero.  Several new start-ups in the legal industry will accelerate this trend.

Docracy is a new legal document start-up, founded by Matt Hall and John Watkinson, that grew out of a TechCrunch Disrupt Hackathon in New York City. The idea is to provide a free depository of legal documents that meets the needs of small business and start-ups which are crowd sourced by individuals who register for the site. The concept is to provide an open source site for legal documents in the same way that GitHub is an open source site for code. The company is venture funded First Round Capital, Vaizra Seed Fund, Quotidian Ventures and Rick Webb by a group of investors who see opportunity in disrupting the legal profession. The documents are largely flat forms (MS Word or Adobe .PDF File format), with quality control provided by the "community." It’s not clear yet what the business model for this site will be. Online signing of legal documents is coming.

A second legal document start-up has emerged out of the New York City start-up web scene called Paperlex  .  Paperlex is also targeting the small business market. This site will contain standardized legal documents that can be modified within the web browser. A user will be able to store all of their documents online in their own private and secure web space, will be able to collaborate with third parties, and will have the capacity to execute/sign documents online.

Rather than crowd sourcing the legal form content, Paperlex will provide their own libraries of standard forms. Alison Anthoine, Esq., the CEO and Founder, hopes to provide an accessible legal document portal that small business can easily use with their customers and other parties at a cost that is much less that the cost of a custom document crafted by an attorney. The business model for Paperlex is a Saas subscription service provided for a low monthly fee.

DocStoc is another document repository that includes not only collections of legal documents, but collections of documents in other categories as well, such as human resource, travel, and personal finance documents. Documents are for free or can be purchased. The site is also built on crowd sourcing principles. Users can contribute documents and sell them through the site, with DocStoc taking a cut. Most documents are not automated and are provided in either MS Word or Adobe .PDF file format. However, a new feature called "custom documents" enables the user to answer an online questionnaire which generates a more customized document. The user can view the assembled document before making a decision to purchase a monthly subscription.Monthly subscriptions range from $9.95 a month to $39.95. The site claims to have 20,000,000 users.

Docstoc, Inc., was founded by Jason Nazar (bio) and Alon Shwartz (bio). The company was selected in September of 2007 to debut its product at the prestigious TechCrunch40 Conference. The platform was subsequently launched to the public in October 2007.

Docstoc is a venture backed company (Rustic Canyon) and received funding from the co-founders/investors in MySpace, LowerMyBills, Mp3.com, PriceGrabber and Baidu.

WhichDraft.com , founded by Jason and Geoff Anderman, brothers, and both attorneys, offers free contracts that can be assembled within the web browser. Legal documents can be easily shared with third parties, and you can build your  own Question and Answer templates. A nice feature enables a user the compare any two versions to see new and deleted text in the fee legal form. 

By A Legal Forms PLan frm MyLawyer.comMyLawyer.com, our  own consumer legal document portal, also offers legal document plans that are libraries of automated legal documents that when purchased in a bundle are less than the cost of a song on iTunes*.

 

 

In the nonprofit sector, LawHelp Interactive, a unit of LawHelp.org,with funding from the Legal Services Corporation, [ See Technology Initiative Grants ] has been working with a legal aid agencies nationwide to help the automate legal forms and publish them to state-wide legal form web sites which are available to any one within the state. The program is not limited to low income people. Hundreds of thousands of free legal forms are now created annually in more than 34 states. LSC has invested millions of dollars in the development of interactive legal form sites over the past 9 years.

Courts have also jumped into the free legal forms distribution game in response to the hoards of pro-se filers looking for free legal help. See for example: Online Court Assistance Program in Utah and Maryland Family Law Forms .

These free legal form web sites raise some interesting questions about the future role of the attorney and the changing nature of law practice.  What role will the lawyer play in this changing environment?  What is the impact of these relatively new sources of free or low cost legal forms on law practice, particularly the practice of solo and small law firms? Our own research provides support for the fact that solos and small law firms will continue to loose market share to these new providers.

"Unbundling" legal services by providing legal advice and legal document review for legal forms that clients secure from another source, may be a way of expanding access to the legal system, but it is also disruptive of law firm business models,  just like iTunes* was disruptive of the bundled album approach of the music industry. Value is shifting from the lawyer to the consumer and non-lawyer providers of legal forms. I can hear the sucking sound as law firm business models collapse.

Some questions to think about:

  • What risk do consumers and small business assume when they use a legal form without the advice or review of an attorney? The answer depends on the type of form, its complexity and the complexity of the transaction. If a user represents themselves in their own relatively simple name change, and their name ge
    ts changed by the court successfully,  then one can assume that self-representation worked.
     
  • But what about a Shareholder’s Agreement, where terms have to be negotiated, and the standard document doesn’t include the particular language required by the parties to reflect their intent? Should the parties now draft their own language? Should the parties simply ignore the need to include special language that reflects their intent hoping that there will be no situation in the future that will create a conflict between the shareholders because of a failure to include the language?
     
  • Who should negotiate the terms of the Agreement? The lawyer or the principal? Who would do the better job? How much shuld be charged for a successful negotiation?
     
  • How should the lawyer price services, when the client comes to the lawyer with their own standardized form and asks the lawyer to review it?
     
  • Will the lawyer refuse to serve the client, unless the client uses the lawyer’s form or document?
     
  • How important is the insurance that a lawyer provides that the document or form is valid for the purpose intended, accurate, and reflects the intent of the parties?
     
  • Lets assume that the 85% of the legal form content in many categories of documents is identical. [ This is what Kingsley Martin from KIIAC has concluded and he should know ! ] But 15% consisted of critical variable language not susceptible to easy document automation. Should the attorney charge on a fixed price for the entire project as if she drafted the entire agreement, although she only worked on several paragraphs? If the agreement fails because the variable paragraphs are incorrect for the particular case, why shouldn’t the attorney charge as if she he worked on the entire agreement?

If you have thought about these questions, and have some ideas on the impact of free legal forms on the legal industry, please share them here.

Document Automation as  DisruptuveTechnology

 

*iTunes is a trademark of Apple, Inc.

 

Recently several Web sites have emerged that enable consumers to bid for legal services. Examples include: ExpertBids and  Shpoonkle. (Don’t ask me how to pronounce  it). They all work pretty much the same way.

You submit a description of your project or the service you want, your location and your estimated budget. You create a secure account with a user name and password. Your service request is then posted or published to a lawyers who have registered for the service so they can bid on your work. When a lawyer bids for your work, you receive an email (each bid includes a rate, a description, and the lawyer’s profile, rating and client reviews). When the lawyer bids, whether bid by the hour or fixed price, you receive an email which includes a rate, a description, and the lawyer’s profile, rating and client reviews. The process gives you options and a basis for comparing how different lawyer;s will submit bids and pricing for similar work.

The process is always free to the potential client. Once you are connected to a lawyer you can continue your conversation either online or off-line. The sites enable you to communicate with the lawyer online directly, but often you don’t get any free legal advice or any legal service until you accept a retainer agreement and the lawyer/client relationship is established.

For law firms that have learned how to offer legal services for common legal matters for a fixed fee, these bidding sites could be another channel to the consumer and potential clients. These law firms, often virtual law firms, are low-cost producers of legal services, and can out bid more traditional legal firms without sacrificing quality or their profit margins.

Many of these law firms offer what are called, “limited legal services”, which enable these law firms to offer a low cost solution to consumers, but often consumers have no understanding of this concept. See for example the law firms listed in the MyLawyer.com Directory of  Virtual Law Firms. We think that the bidding sites should have articles and information on their web sites describing the “limited legal service” concept as this would be way to educate consumers about another way to cost effectively buy legal services.

A problem that we see with the bidding sites that we reviewed is that there is no easy for the consumer to describe that they want “limited legal services“, as distinguished from traditional legal services. There are options for bidding by the hour, or by the project, but no option for limiting the scope of representation. “Unbundling legal services“, is a relatively new idea, but many states (more than 35) have already passed amendments to their Professional Rules of Responsibility that enable law firms to offer “limited legal services” as long as the retainer clearly defines the scope of representation.

I think this is a critical gap in the way the operators of these site understand how middle class consumers want to purchase legal services. I also think that there is likely to be a disconnect between what the consumer bids for a service, and what they law firm delivers for the bid price. Without a clear specification of the scope of services, there is bound to be miscommunication and confusion.

It is too early to predict whether these “bidding sites” will survive. In the “dot-com boom and bust” era, there were several experiments with lawyer bidding, but all the sites failed because they could not generate enough volume to support their overhead structure.

Susan Cartier Liebel, the President of Solo Practice University has written a good blog post analyzing these sites,  that is worth reviewing by consumers who are interested in this approach to securing legal services.

Buy a Legal Forms Access Plan from MyLawyer.com

An editorial appeared in today’s (08/22/2011) Wall St. Journal , titled "Time to Deregulate the Practice of Law", by Clifford Winston and Robert W. Crandell, both Fellows at the Brookings Institution. [ Ungated version here ]. The editorial argues that it is time for the legal profession to be deregulated, as other industries have been, in order to create price competition for legal services, spur innovation in the delivery of legal services, and reduce the premium that lawyers get for pricing their services as a result of strict occupational licensing. The editorial is a summary of the conclusions of a book soon to be published by the authors, and Vikram Maheshri, titled, "First Thing We Do, Let’s Deregulate All the Lawyers" (2011, Brookings Press). This book is the opening salvo it what is sure to be an expanded debate about who should be allowed to provide legal services to the general public.

New Methods of Legal Service Delivery

With online companies such as LegalZoom, RocketLawyer, JustAnswer, LawBidding, Law Pivot and our own MyLawyer.com, pushing the boundaries of new ways to delivery of legal services,  there is renewed pressure on the organized bar to respond to consumer demand for affordable, transparent, competent, and reliable legal services. Law firms are exploring ways to delivery legal services online to compete with non-lawyer providers, but are often constrained by bar regulations.

Free White Paper: Virtual Law Practice; Success FactorsEssentially, the authors argue that lowering the barriers to entry into the legal profession would force lawyers to compete more intensely with each other, and  face competition from non-lawyers and firms not owned and managed by lawyers. The authors argue that legal fees are higher  because of occupational licensing and can be reduced by deregulation without sacrificing the quality of legal services.

Since heading the Philadelphia Institute for Paralegal Training, the nation’s first paralegal school and the institution that pioneered the paralegal profession in the United States,  I have argued that you don’t need a fully-trained and credentialed attorney to provide services to consumers for simpler, more routine legal problems, any more than you would need a brain surgeon to treat a headache, when a pharmacist will do. I am well aware of arguments that some lawyers make that there are no simple legal problems, but the reality is that many consumers will settle  for a "good enough" result, rather than spend thousands of dollars in legal fees.

On the other hand I am not comfortable with the idea that we should abandon all occupational licensing for legal professionals, lawyers and legal assistants, essentially converting the United States in a completely unregulated free market.

 

Arguments for a Regulated Legal Profession

1. The analogy between the legal profession to other deregulated industries, such as the airline industry, that the authors cite, is simply not relevant. There is fundamental differences between the manufacturing, mining, communication, transportation, and financial industries and the human service professions where the delivery of the service is expected to be of sufficient competence to accomplish the task at hand. If you follow the author’s logic, we should also deregulate the dentists, the teachers, the nurses, the social workers, and the doctors because it results in lower pricing and therefore would increase the availability of those services. e.g., Instead of going to a "Dentist" to get your root canal work, you would have the option of going to the "Tooth Fairy."

2. The authors assume that the quality of legal services would not deteriorate any more than when the planes didn’t stop flying when the airline industry was deregulated. Unfortunately the authors have no facts to back up this assertion. It is just wishful thinking.

3. When you look at the facts, however,  a more thoughtful response to reforming the delivery system for legal services is required.

On the anecdotal level, I can testify to the literally hundreds of botched legal matters that I have reviewed generated by "Immigration Specialists", Legal Technicians" and other non-lawyers operating in the grey area of offering document preparation services. In some instances, I have seen immigrants actually deported because of improperly prepared papers by "Immigration Specialists." I have reviewed "failure to discharge notices"  issued by U.S. Bankruptcy Court because of improperly prepared bankruptcy petitions. I have reviewed dozens of divorce petitions filed by "pro-se" parties, assisted by online document preparation companies that were rejected by the courts. I have seen enough of these cases to know that in many of these situations  incompetence and lack of knowledge and skill is evident. In some cases there is outright fraud and misrepresentation.

4. There have been almost no empirical studies that I know of that support the argument of the authors that the quality of legal services would not deteriorate in a completely deregulated marketplace – save one- and that study does not support the author’s conclusions.

Legal Services Consumer Panel Study

Very recently the Legal Services Consumer Panel of the Legal Services Board in the United Kingdom, the agency in charge of deregulating the legal profession in the United Kingdom, conducted an empirical study of the quality of wills prepared by both solicitors and non-lawyers.

 

The Panel concluded that on the issue of quality:

 "one in four wills in the shadow shops were failed with more than one in three of all assessments scoring either poor or very poor. The same proportion of wills prepared by solicitors and will-writing companies were failed. Wills were almost just as likely to fail when the client had simple or complex circumstances. Key problems where the will was not legally valid or did not meet the client’s stated requirements, were: inadequate treatment of the client’s needs; the client’s requests not being met; potentially illegal actions; inconsistent or contradictory language; insufficient detail; and poor presentation. Key problems relating to poor advice include: cutting and pasting of precedents; unnecessary complexity; and use of outdated terminology."

The United Kingdom has a legal market which is not only more deregulated that the US market, but will become even more deregulated in the future. Despite this more open environment, the Panel concluded that:

&q
uot;Inherent features of will-writing services place consumers at risk of detriment. Consumers lack the knowledge to identify technical problems or assess whether the additional services offered are necessary or represent good value for money. The reliance on extracting good information about the consumer‟s circumstances and preferences, combined with the range of possible ways to deal with these in the will, means there is potentially wide scope to give bad advice."

and

"However, there is a need to make consumers better aware of the suitability of online services as these received the highest proportion of fail marks in the shadow shopping, but wills sold over the internet are difficult to regulate."

Thus, the Panel proposes that:

"will-writing services should be made a reserved legal activity. Any business – not just a solicitors firm – satisfying an approved regulator‟s entry standards could provide will-writing services."

The UK approach is not to restrict will-writing just to lawyers, but to open up the system to any providers that can satisfy the educational, regulatory, and accountability standards within the reserved activity. This is a vastly different approach than eliminating standards all together, as the authors seem to suggest.

The compete UK Report on Regulating Will Writing can be downloaded here. See also our Resource Page on Regulation of the Legal Profession.  The Report is worth reading by any policy maker who is thinking about doing away with all regulation of the providers of legal services to the general public.

Some final thoughts:

The authors claims of the benefits of deregulation in general are not supported by current evidence.

Consider:

  • Deregulation of the mortgage baking industry brought the American economy to its knees;
  • Deregulation of the US banking industry has wreaked havoc on the world’s economy;
  • Lack of strong regulation of the proprietary higher education industry has resulted in thousands of graduates without an adequate education, low employment rates, and high default rates. (Of course, as the author’s point out, you could say the same about law schools and law school graduates, but then again the accreditation of law schools by the American Bar Association, it can be argued is another example of an "unregulated activity" without substantive standards that are meaningful).

The list can go on.

Perhaps I am premature in my judgment as the book has not been released, and I have just reviewed the salient conclusions. I can’t wait to give it a full read and review.

 http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?lt1=_blank&bc1=000000&IS2=1&bg1=FFFFFF&fc1=000000&lc1=0000FF&t=lawpracticetechn&o=1&p=8&l=as4&m=amazon&f=ifr&ref=ss_til&asins=0815721900

Legal Software Program On August 2, 2011, Federal District Judge Nanette K. Laughrey, for the Western District of Missouri, the Judge presiding over the class action case against LegalZoom for unauthorized practice of law, released an opinion denying, in part, Defendant’s Motion of Summary Judgment. The Court held that document preparation by non-lawyers, under Missouri Law, is conduct, and not entitled to First Amendment protection. ( See full opinion here ).

This is consistent with my own view, expressed in a previous post. (Is LegalZoom just a self help legal software company?).

The court’s opinion rejects the logic in an article authored by Professor Catherine J. Lanctot, titled, "Does LegalZoom Have First Amendment Rights: Some Thoughts About Freedom of Speech and the Unauthorized Practice of Law." , which doesn’t surprise me, as it is hard to characterize LegalZoom’s activities as "speech", when they have 500 employees working on customer’s documents.

One paragraph in the Court’s opinion is troubling. On Page 21, the Opinion states as follows:

"Furthermore, LegalZoom’s branching computer program is created by a LegalZoom employee using Missouri law.  It is that human input that creates the legal document. A computer sitting at a desk in California cannot prepare a legal document without a human programming it to fill in the document using legal principles derived from Missouri law that are selected for the customer based on the information provided by the customer. There is little or no difference between this and a lawyer in Missouri asking a client a series of questions and then preparing a legal document based on the answers provided and applicable Missouri law. That the Missouri lawyer may also give legal advice does not undermine the analogy because legal advice and document preparation are two different ways in which a person engages in the practice of law. "

…..
"The Missouri Supreme Court cases which specifically address the issue of document preparation, First Escrow, Mid-America and Eisel, make it clear that this is the unauthorized practice of law. The fact that the customer communicates via computer rather than face to face or that the document prepared using a computer program rather than a pen and paper does not change the essence of the transaction."

This Opinion could be interpreted to mean that all legal software programs are a form of conduct, and not entitled to First Amendment protection. I would argue that the Court comes to this conclusion because the legal software is used in the context of a document preparation service, and is not a stand alone program. As the Court further explains that:

As in Hulse, First Escrow, Mid-America, and Eisel, LegalZoom’s customers are rendered passive bystanders after providing the information necessary to complete the form. Yet LegalZoom charges a fee for its legal document preparation service. …..The customer merely provides information and "Legal takes over."

The facts of this case make a difference, I would argue, in understanding the scope of the Court’s Opinion.

If we define a legal software program as a "product", where there is no service element and no conduct whatever, then it is hard for me to believe that the Court intended to ban legal software programs from distribution directly to consumers, whether on-line or off-line.

If that was the Court’s intent, then companies like Nolo and Intuit, would have to pull their products off the shelves of Barnes & Noble and Staples and Amazon, programs like LawHelp Interactive, supported by the US Legal Services Corporation, would have to be terminated, and the many web sites that offer interactive forms, without any service component would have to be abandoned. Courts that are experimenting with distributing interactive forms from their web sites, would have to consider whether this activity is the "unauthorized practice of law", a strange result.

A2J Guided InterviewsLaw Schools like Chicago-Kent Law School that are experimenting with new legal software interfaces that connect citizens directly with legal help through software, might reconsider their efforts.

Stop No Entry

The only way that such legal software could be used, would be by attorneys in the context of delivering of legal service through their law firms. I think this would be an unfortunate result.

 

Other possible negative consequences of such an interpretation would be:

  • The legal profession would be further attacked for attempts to restrict commerce and maintain higher legal pricing by the consuming public causing further damage to the profession’s already declining reputation;
     
  • Pro se litigants would not have access to tools that enable them to represent themselves, further restricting access to the legal system;

It would be helpful, if the Missouri District Court clarified its language on page 21 of the Court Order to distinguish between fact situations where interactive legal software is used as part of a document preparation service business and situations where the programs are distributed as stand alone programs — products–  like a book or other publication. What do you think?

 Increasng Profit Margins With Document Automation- Free White Paper

In a Fortune Magazine blog post by Roger Parloff just last week, entitled Can Software Practice Law?, writing about the class action suit against LegalZoom in Missouri for violating Missouri’s UPL statute, Parloff argues that LegalZoom is no more than a self-help legal software company, and therefore entitled to the same protections as a self-help legal software publisher. The question of whether legal software constitutes the practice of law is a controversial one. When the Texas Bar won a suit against Nolo Press on the grounds that its WillMaker program constituted the practice of law, the Texas Legislature amended the UPL statute and further defined the practice of law  as follows:

Texas Code, 81.101 (c) the "practice of law" does not include the design, creation, publication, distribution, display, or sale, including publication, distribution, display, or sale by means of an Internet Web site, of written materials, books, forms, computer software, or similar products if the products clearly and conspicuously state that the products are not a substitute for the advice of an attorney. This subsection does not authorize the use of the products or similar media in violation of Chapter 83 and does not affect the applicability or enforceability of that chapter.

No other state has passed such an exemption, but there is a well-established line of cases that supports the position that the publication of information about the law, as well as self-help legal books, divorce forms with instructions, and do-it-yourself kits is not the practice of law and protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and may be protected by state constitutions as well. See, e.g., New York County Lawyers’ Ass’n v. Dacey, 21 N.Y.2d 694, 234 N.E.2d 459 (N.Y. 1967), aff’ing on grounds in dissenting opinion, 283 N.Y.S.2d 984 (N.Y. App. 1967); Oregon State Bar v. Gilchrist, 538 P.2d 913 (Or. 1975); State Bar of Michigan v. Cramer, 249 N.W.2d 1 (Mich. 1976); The Florida Bar v. Brumbaugh, 355 So.2d 1186 (Fla. 1978); People v. Landlords Professional Services, 215 Cal. App.3d 1599, 264 Cal. Rptr. 548 (Cal. 1989). 

LegalZoom takes the position that it is no more than a self-help legal publisher and seeks to fall within this classification, as Roger Parloff argues in his blog post. This is also the position that Legal Zoom takes on its Web site and in its answer to the Missouri Complaint:

From the LegalZoom Web site:

"Is LegalZoom engaged in the practice of law?"

"No.  LegalZoom is the latest and natural evolution of the centuries-old legal self-help industry."

"No jurisdiction prohibits the sale of software that generates a legal document based on a customer’s unique input.  LegalZoom has never been prohibited from operating in any state."

"Should consumers be concerned about LegalZoom losing this case?"

"No.  If LegalZoom is found to be engaged in the unauthorized practice of law in Missouri, then every guide and legal formbook in libraries and bookstores in the state would also be engaging in the unauthorized practice of law.  These days, nearly all such books are packaged with computer software that works in a similar manner to LegalZoom.  Just like with a Nolo Press® book or a preprinted form, LegalZoom customers have the ability to review and consider their legal form before committing to their purchase."

It is not possible to know how LegalZoom’s document technology actually works without further evidence. However, one can state with certainty that it doesn’t work like a true Web-enabled document automation technology which generates a document instantly from data entered into an on-line questionnaire that is presented through the Web browser.

Vendors of true Web-enabled document automation solutions, such as HotDocs, Exari, DealBuilder, WhichDraft and Rapidocs (our company) have document automation technologies that generate a document instantly after the user clicks on the submit button. Because LegalZoom’s technology seems to require a separate step that is executed off-line, it does not in my opinion, fit into the category of a Web-enabled document automation technology. [ For a more extensive discussion of Web-Enabled Document Automation as a Disruptive Technology, click here to download our white paper on the subject. ]

Instead, in the LegalZoom  business model, as described by LegalZoom, a data file is created, reviewed by a legal technician, and then imported into their – document assembly application utilizing some form of import mechanism. It is not clear whether the document is fully-assembled until this second step takes place, and it’s a distinction that makes a difference.

If LegalZoom were just a legal software company, it is hard to understand why it needs over 400 employees to provide services to its customers, other than the fact that these employees are conducting professional reviews and providing real service support. For these services, LegalZoom receives a substantially higher price than if they were just selling a self-help legal form. See for example on the LegalZoom Web site, the 30-point review of wills conducted by LegalZoom’s "professional legal document assistants."

These more labor intensive, personal services makes LegalZoom a "service business" and not just a "legal software publisher" entitled to the First Amendment protections that are afforded to publishers.

Andrea Riccio, a Canadian lawyer who has commented about this subject, responds to some of the arguments that LegalZoom makes in its defense:

LegalZoom’s argument: "Typically, there is no interaction between the customer and the person reviewing the file."

Riccio’s response:

“The mere fact that the employee is granted access to the customer’s response is an interaction between the employee and customer.”

LegalZoom’s argument: "If there is an inconsistency, it is NOT corrected by the employee – instead, it is brought to the attention of the customer." 

Riccio’s response:

“Whether it is the customer or the LegalZooM employee that physically changes the document is irrelevant. What is important is that it is the LegalZoom employee that has identified the inconsistency. That, in my opinion, goes beyond "self-help" and is an act of legal draftsmanship.”

LegalZoom’s argument: "no employee revises or corrects any portion of the customer’s self-created document." 

Riccio’s response:

“Identifying inconsistencies or errors in another person’s document is in my opinion an act of revision and correction. Who physically makes the changes is irrelevant.”


It is for these reasons that LegalZoom was required to be licensed under California law as a registered and bonded legal document assistant (see footer
LegalZoom Web site).

What is a Legal Document Assistant?

A "Legal Document Assistant", as defined by the California Business & Professions Code (Section 6400 (c)) is:

"Any person who is otherwise not exempted and who provides, or assists in providing, or offers to provide, or offers to assist in providing, for compensation, any self-help service to a member of the public who is representing himself or herself in a legal matter, or who holds himself or herself out as someone who offers that service or has that authority, or a corporation, partnership, association, or other entity that employs or contracts with any person who is not otherwise exempted who, as part of his or her responsibilities, provides, or assists in providing, or offers to provide, or offers to assist in providing, for compensation, any self-help service to a member of the public who is representing himself or herself in a legal matter or holds himself or herself out as someone who offers that service or has that authority."

This California statutory scheme is based on the idea that a non-lawyer can perform clerical support functions without violating the unauthorized practice of law statute in California. Only a few states have carved out this exception by statute (e.g., California, Florida, Arizona).  Missouri is not one of them.

Could LegalZoom operate in California, where it is headquartered, without being registered with the state as a Legal Document Assistant?  I think not.  

This is the category that LegalZoom fits into, not “self-help” software.

Otherwise, I suppose Nolo, a California-based self-help legal software publisher, and other California-based legal software publishers that sell directly to the public, would have to be licensed in California as Legal Document Assistants!!!  (See generally – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Legal_document_assistant, for a more extensive discussion of what a Legal Document Assistant is, and is not.)

Just to be clear, I am personally in favor of both self-help legal software and paralegal-assisted document preparation services as a way of providing access to the legal system, and personally think there should be more choices for consumers.  But my personal opinions are not the issue.  The issue is: 

“What does the law in the different states now require, and what can we do to change it if we don’t like it?”

It is becoming clear that LegalZoom’s defense strategy in the Missouri case is to associate itself with “self-help software”.  I am sure that its well-financed publicity machine is already approaching bloggers and the business press to write stories about whether “legal software” should be prohibited or regulated, when the real issue is whether and under what conditions a legal document preparation service should be regulated, or immune from regulation.

Definitions of what is “legal self-help software”, and what is not, are critical for carving out safe harbors for innovation, particularly as legal software applications that are distributed over the Internet have potential for great impact and for providing access to the legal system for those who cannot afford full service legal representation.

For example, LawHelpInteractive, a non-profit pro bono support organization, with grants from the US Legal Service Corporation, has assisted in the creation of true Web-based document assembly Web sites in many states that provides free legal forms directly to consumers that can be assembled directly on-line. 

LawHelpInteractive has generated thousands of legal forms during the past few years that are instantly available and free to consumers throughout the United States. No one is arguing that these Web sites constitute the practice of law.

Because of the wider reach of the Internet, Web-enabled legal software applications are actually more of a threat to the legal profession, than desktop software, and the opportunity for over-regulation remains ever present. I would regret the day that courts prohibit the sale of self-help legal software because it is the unauthorized practice of law.

However, stronger arguments can be made for protecting from regulation the distribution of legal software applications, than there are for exempting from regulation a "service business", so I maintain that confusing one category with another is dangerous and takes us down a slippery slope.

Whether or not LegalZoom provides a valuable service; whether or not consumers have been harmed by LegalZoom; and whether or not the company provides some form of legal advice are questions of fact for the Missouri jury, and beyond the scope of this post.

The question for the U.S. District Court in Missouri is whether, as a matter of Missouri law, LegalZoom’s document preparation service business constitutes the practice of law in Missouri, under the terms of the Missouri UPL statute.

I think it does. What do you think?

 

For years some law firms, but not all, have used some form of document automation in their law offices. Ranging from an MS Word macro to long standing programs such as HotDocs, as well as automated forms distributed by legal publishers such as Willmaker by Nolo, some law offices have incorporated some form of document automation in their law practices. Document automation of legal documents that are generated in high quantity by a law firm is an indispensable process for increasing law firm productivity and maintaining profit margins in an era of intense competition.

Legal Document Creation the Old Way

The manual process of cutting and pasting clauses from a master MS Word document into a new document, is a productivity process which is fast becoming out dated. It reminds me of the time before there were automated litigation support programs, and legal assistants would duplicate a set of case documents three or four times. The next step was filling one file cabinet with a set of documents in alpha order, filling another filing cabinet with a set of documents in date order, and finally, filling another filing cabinet with a set of documents in issue or subject order to enable "fast"   retrievable of relevant paper documents. It took awhile, but almost all litigation lawyers now use automated litigation support methods.. This is not true of transactional lawyers, many of whom still use out-dated methods of creating legal documents, as if each legal document were a unique novel, poem, or other work of fiction.

Barriers to Change

An obstacle to wider use of automated document assembly methods, is typically the lawyer’s insistence on crafting the words in each clause to their own satisfaction. Because most lawyer’s do not have the requisite programming skill to automate their own documents, law firms by default will opt to use their own non-automated documents, rather than risk using the legal documents automated by an independent provider, because by definition the content of the documents is "not their own." As a result, many law firms do not even use desk-top document assembly solutions when the forms are published by an independent provider or publisher, remaining stuck using more time consuming and less productive manual methods.

Typically, when a law firm does use document assembly methods, a paralegal inputs answers from a paper intake/questionnaire into a document assembly program running on a personal computer. This results in the extra time-consuming step of inputting data from the intake questionnaire to the document assembly program, but it is still more efficient than manual methods.

Web-Enabled Document Automation

Now comes, "web-enabled legal document automation" methods."  Web-enabled document automation is a process whereby the intake questionnaire is presented on-line to the client through the web browser to be completed directly.

When the client clicks the "Submit" button the document is instantly assembled, ready for the attorneys further review, analysis, revision, and customization if necessary.  The result is a further leap in productivity because the client is actually doing part of the work at no cost to the lawyer, freeing the lawyer up to focus on analysis and further customization of the document.

This is what the work flow looks like when using web-enabled document automation methods:

Client Journey- Web-Enabled Document Automation Work Flow

Unfortunately, lawyers have been slow to adapt to this process as well,  because of their reluctance to use legal documents drafted or automated by someone else. However in order to automate their own documents they must either acquire the skill to do the job, or commit the capital to have a skilled professional automate their documents for them. For solos and small law firms these two constraints create formidable obstacles to using more efficient methods.

Since neither condition is common within smaller law firms (programming skill, investment capital), the result is that the law firm gets stuck using older less productive methods of document creation.

Vendors that provide web-enabled document platforms include, our own Rapidocs, and Exari, Brightleaf, HotDocs, DealBuilder, and Wizilegal, to name only a few, all claim that their authoring systems are easy to use, but I have yet to see lawyers without any kind of programming skill create their own automated legal documents in any quantity. Thus, law firms become stuck in a negative loop of their own creation which reduces productivity (and profitability) :

"My legal documents are better than yours; I can’t automate them for the web because I don’t know how; thus I will be less productive and be required to charge you more because of my own inefficiency."

Competition

In the consumer space, now comes the non-lawyer providers to take advantage of the solo and small law firm’s competitive disadvantage. Research by companies like Kiiac provide support the conclusion that 85% of the language in transactional documents is actually the same. In more commoditized areas, where legal forms have been standardized,  the legal form content is 100% the same in all documents. Taking advantage of this consistency of legal form content,  companies like LegalZoom, Nolo, CompleteCase, SmartLegalForms, and LegacyWriter , with their superior on-line marketing and branding machines, now sell legal forms by the thousands at low cost which provide a "good enough" legal solution for consumers who would do any thing to avoid paying the higher fees to an attorney.

Its true that the consumer doesn’t get the benefit of the attorney’s legal advice and counsel, and the accountability and protection that dealing with an attorney provides, but consumers don’t seem to care.

What can be done?

The "web-based legal document automation solution" , used by non-lawyer providers, is a disruptive technology  that is eating away at the core business base of the typical solo and small law firm practitioner. 

What can solos and small law firms do to compete in this challenging competitive environment?
The American Bar Association’s Legal Technology Resource Center reported last year in their Annual Technology Survey that only 52.2% of solo practitioner’s don’t have a web site.  Even if this number is underestimated, it is shockingly low compared with web site utilization by other industries.  If you don’t even have a web site, the idea of "web-enabled document automation" is still a "light year" away.

What can be done to encourage more wide-spread use of web-enabled document automation technology by law firms, particularly solos and small law firms? A follow-up post will explore some solutions, but I
am open to ideas from anyone.

Download our White Paper on Web-Enabled Document Automation

 

Legal Cloud ComputingA  proposed Ethics Opinion of the North Carolina Bar  that provides guidelines for attorneys using cloud computing services, commonly known as SaaS (Software as a Service),  contains language that is troubling because of its potential impact on solos and small law firm practitioners who are creating virtual law practices. The Bar is soliciting comments prior to making the Opinion final. Here are some comments for consideration.

The Opinion states that to comply with the attorney’s duty to keep client data confidential there should be:

"a separate agreement that states that the employees at the vendor’s data center are agents of the law firm and have a fiduciary responsibility to protect confidential client information and client property."

 

DirectLaw is a SaaS vendor that hosts law firm data at a Tier IV Data Center that implements the security controls that a bank or major financial institution uses.  The idea that our data center would enter into an agreement that would make its employees agents of a law firm is not realistic. There is not sufficient consideration to expose the Data Center to this kind of liability, and there is no way that they would modify their terms and conditions to meet the needs of a single SaaS vendor. I doubt that counsel for the Data Center would ever approve such language. The Data Center would just tell us to take our business elsewhere. Amending the contract terms just for SaaS vendors that service the legal industry is not likely to happen.

There are other approaches to providing assurance to law firms that client confidential data is secure and less burdensome.

I think a better guideline would be to suggest or require that SaaS vendors host their data at a data center that is a Tier IV Data Center.  A Tier 4  Data Center is one which has the most stringent level requirements and one which is designed to host mission critical computer systems, with fully redundant subsystems and compartmentalized security zones controlled by biometric access controls methods. The Data Center should also be SAS 70 certified. The Data Center should also have PCI DSS certification if credit card data is stored within the Data Center. With these safeguards in place,  a law firm should be  considered to have undertaken reasonable due diligence to satisfy the obligation to insure that client data will remain confidential.

There are other problems with the North Carolina opinion. Another guideline:

"requires the attorney to undertake a financial investigation of the SaaS vendor: to determine its financial stability."

What does that mean? I am not about to divulge our private financial statements to just any lawyer who inquires. How is it relevant? If there are provisions for data capture and downloading data that is stored in the cloud, and the law firm has access to that data, what difference does it make if the SaaS actually goes out of business?

It would make more sense to simply require that a SaaS vendor carry Internet liability insurance for the benefit of its law firm clients. Law firms will have problems securing Internet Liability Insurance to cover data loss. Data loss as a result of a Data Center outage is not normally covered under a law firm’s malpractice policy. For solos and small law firm’s securing this kind of coverage would be a burden and cost prohibitive. It makes more sense to require the SaaS vendor to secure such coverage and make its law firm subscribers a beneficiary of the coverage.

Another guideline states that:

"The law firm, or a security professional, has reviewed copies of the SaaS vendor’s security audits and found them satisfactory."

How much does such an audit cost? Can solo practitioners afford such an audit? Who qualifies as a security professional? I think this requirement will act as deterrent to solos and small law firms who are seeking cloud-based solutions that they can use in their practice. I think that a less costly and more effective solution would be for an independent organization to issue a Certificate of Compliance to the SaaS vendor indicating that the SaaS vendors has satisfied or complied with well recognized standards. Like the Truste Certificate in the privacy area, this would give solos and small law firms this would provide stamp of approval that minimum standards have been satisfied. This would move the cost burden of undertaking due diligence to the SaaS vendor, rather than to the solo or small law firm practitioner.

Another guideline states:

"Clients with access to shared documents are aware of the confidentiality risks of showing the information to others. See 2008 FEO 5."

This guideline should be clarified because it is not clear what "shared documents" means. This kind of statement is likely to scare clients into thinking that a law firm that stores client data on the the Internet is putting the client’s data at more risk than storing the data in a file cabinet in the lawyer’s office.

As the American Bar American,  through its Ethics 20/20 Commission, and state bar associations adapt ethical rules to deal with the delivery of legal services over the Internet, it is important to consider that the burden of compliance may have a different impact on solos and small law firms, than on large law firms. The rules should not act as a barrier to solos and small law firms exploring new ways of delivering legal services online which are cost effective for both the law firms and their clients.

For a similar point of view see Stephanie Kimbro’s blog post on the same topic.

Disclosure: DirectLaw is a SaaS vendor that provides a virtual law firm platform to solos and small law firms.

One of the winners of TechCrunch Disrupt Hackathon is a new, yet to be launched, legal document web site called, Docracy,  The idea is that members will contribute their legal documents to an open source site so that there would be a basis for comparison between  "open source" documents and the document that the member needs for their business. The theory is that by comparing documents, with the document that the member has on hand, there would be a basis for comparison, resulting in an informed decision, without the cost or benefit of legal advice.

In this model, legal advice from an attorney is worth zero. The model is designed to eliminate the attorney from the transaction.

The idea was developed by mobile app developers Matt Hall and John Watkinson ,from Larva Labs, who were faced with signing an NDA with a client and were unsure of some of the terms and concluded that the cost of legal advice was either unnecessary or prohibitive.

This is another example of the resentment that the average consumer  and small business person has towards the legal profession resulting in the rise of non-lawyer legal form web sites such as LegalZoom.

Another example of an open source legal document repository is Docstoc which we have used as a research source. It is useful for us, because as lawyers we understand what we are reading. I think simply accessing raw documents as a consumer would be a daunting exercise, although I am sure that many consumers and small business use the site.

The problem with any  legal document web site as a source for creating binding legal documents  is that the use of a particular clause may be rooted in case law in a particular jurisdiction.

Without understanding all of the implications of using particular language in an agreement, the "non-lawyer" moves into a danger zone, because he or she has no idea what they are signing. 

A better alternative is a "self-help" book from Nolo that contains both legal forms and explanations of the implications of each clause, but that often involves reading and understanding a 300 page book, which is beyond the attention span of most consumers.

Another solution is an automated document with extensive help screens that explain the implications of choosing one clause over the other.

A third alternative, is to purchase "unbundled and limited legal services" from an on-line law firm  for a fixed price with legal advice bundled into the transaction. In that case you get a certain level of accountability and guarantee that the legal advice is correct for the user’s individual situation.

See for example the firms listed at DirectLaw’s legal document portal , where you can access legal forms for free, or forms bundled with legal advice for a fixed fee.

You don’t get legal advice from a legal forms web site or a LegalZoom for that matter, which can be a major limitation depending on the complexity of the document or the transaction. Without annotations that explain the significance of particular language in an agreement, the non-lawyer is stumbling around in the dark.
 
Nevertheless, I don’t doubt that consumers and small business will find this a popular site, despite its limitations. Caveat emptor!
 
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