Archives: Document Automation

Greedy LawyersUnder the guise of consumer protection, North Carolina has passed new legislation, at the direction of the North Carolina Bar, that imposes restrictions on distributing self-help legal software over the Web.  Rather than protecting consumers, this legislation is a frightened response by the North Carolina Bar to protect their incomes from the impact of advances in Internet technology that provide new ways for people to solve their legal problems at low cost.

The restrictions are so severe that the result is to deprive North Carolina’s citizens of low cost solutions to solving many legal problems, inhibits innovation in developing legal solutions by an emerging self-help legal software industry, stifles competition to attorneys from self-help legal software publishers in the State of North Carolina, and will eliminate any possibility of private investment in self-help legal software development.

The new legislation can be found here: http://www.ncleg.net/Sessions/2015/Bills/House/PDF/H436v5.pdf

Also see also previous blog post on efforts by the North Carolina Bar to stifle competition..

Continue Reading North Carolina Restricts the Distribution of Legal Self-Help Software to Consumers

Legal Start-Ups and the ABA Commission on the Future of Legal ServicesThe American Bar Association Commission on the Future of Legal Services was created last year by then ABA President William C. Hubbard to explore ways to meet the legal needs of the underserved. The Commission does its work by holding public hearings on an issue, creating discussions and conversations among different stakeholders, issuing Issues Papers, soliciting comments on these papers, and depending on the issue  —  proposing new rules or policy approaches sometimes approved by the ABA’s House of Delegates where they become “official”. Some policies will be adopted by State Bar Associations which govern the conduct of lawyers and which regulate the legal profession and the legal services industry. As discussed below I believe that the ideas discussed within the Issue Papers will have an immediate impact on the ability of some “legal start-ups” to raise investment funds for their companies.

Issue Paper on Unregulated LSP Entities and “Legal Start-Ups”.

An Issues Paper was released  by the Commission on the Future of Legal Services on March 31 which solicits comments from the public and the profession on an approach to impose a regulatory regime on “non-regulated legal service providers entities” such as independent legal technician and document preparers serving the public directly, on-line automated legal document preparation service companies, legal software publication companies, and other “non-lawyer” entities that provide legal solutions to consumer. Many “legal start-ups” fall within the scope of the Issues Paper. The Issues Paper can be viewed here.  The deadline for submitting comments is April 28, 2016.

The way the paper is written it could include in its concept of an “unregulated LSP entity,” legal software application providers (“legal software publishing companies”)  that provide legal solutions directly to the consumer as an alternative to the services that could be purchased from a lawyer. Examples might include: automated document assembly companies, legal expert systems developers, intelligent calculators, legal decision tools, intelligent data bases, consumer- centric legal analysis tools, and automated legal advice applications.  New rules could apply to many legal software publishing entities from larger companies such as http://www.nolo.com; http://www.avvo.com; and http://www.rocketlawyer.com to smaller publishers and providers such as http://www.neotalogic.comhttp://www.shakelaw.com,  http://www.completecase.com; and http://www.lawgeex.com.  Our market research indicates there are hundreds of these new entrants to the legal service marketplace offering legal software applications that enable consumers to do legal tasks themselves.

There are also important developments within the courts, government agencies, and the national legal services program designed to provide software powered legal solutions for use directly by consumers.

All of these entities provide “software only solutions” – not services, so as a category I consider them to be “software publishers”.  [ Disclosure: I am the CEO of SmartLegalForms, Inc., which is a legal software publisher ].

Services vs. Legal Software Applications

My colleague, Marc Lauritsen, has written extensively and in-depth about how regulating legal software publishers would be unwise, and probably unconstitutional as a prior restraint under the First Amendment of the Constitution. His analysis of the wisdom and the right of the state regulation of legal software publishers and software developers can be found in these law review articles:  Liberty, Justice, and Legal Automata, 88 Chi-Kent L. Rev. 917 (2013)  and Are We Free to Code the Law? – August 2013 Communications of the Association for Computing Machinery . Other commentators have cautioned about extending the regulation of legal services beyond the legal profession itself.

The Role of Private Capital in Legal Service Innovation

One bright spot in the move towards innovation in the delivery of legal services has been the interest by private investment and the venture capital community in legal start-ups.  See:
http://www.lawsitesblog.com/2016/04/number-legal-startups-nearly-triples-two-years.html. Legal software application development is a capital intensive process. Very few solos and small law firm have access to capital that can be dedicated to creating new applications that translate into low cost solutions for the under-served.  It is for this reason that most innovation in the delivery of legal solutions to consumers has been outside of law firms and within private companies or the public sector. (except within Big Law firms where internal capital resources are available). Capital is the fuel of innovation.

Regulation is a Barrier to Innovation: Bye Bye Legal Start-Ups

I predict that if the ideas proposed in the Issues Paper are translated into policies and regulations the impact will be to dry up sources of investment capital for legal start-ups. The regulatory constraints that are being discussed to protect the consumer, would make it impossible for one category of legal service provider – legal software companies that serve the public directly – to operate a sustainable business. These requirements include among others:

  • registration by the legal software publishing company in every state that the company serves in;
  • waiver of “as-is” liability in Terms and Conditions Statements;
  • enabling consumers to sue the publishing company in the state where the consumer lives;
  • prohibitive insurance coverage to cover potential claims;
  • requirements that legal software companies disclose whether a lawyer is involved in the production of the software product, the name of the lawyer, and the jurisdiction where the lawyer is licensed to practice;

If I were a venture capitalist thinking about investing in a legal software publisher that intends to serve the public directly, I would be hesitant to invest now because these ideas are being floated by the Commission  and could become a reality in the not to distant future.

“Legal Start-Ups” – Speak Out

If the authors of the Commission’s Issue Paper did not intend that “unregulated LSP entities” should include legal software publishers, I suggest that they make this clarification now. If they authors intended  that”unregulated LSP entities” include legal software publishers and legal application develolpers then this is alarming.

If you are a legal software publisher that serves the public directly with a legal solution, I suggest that you make your views known by commenting on their Issues Paper directly.

 

 

 

 

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client-centricThe American Bar Association Standing Committee on the Delivery of Legal Services, with the ABA Legal Access Job Corps Task Force and the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System (IAALS) is convening a national conference in Denver, Colorado on August 14-15, 2015  titled: Client-Centric Legal Services: Getting From Here to There.  The conference will have special value to practitioners who provide personal and small business legal services, bar leaders, judges and court administrators, legal educators, Access to Justice Commission members and staff, and incubator directors and law school clinicians. The focus of the conference is to explore new law firm business models that can enhancement engagement, re-define lawyer value, and pivot practitioners into 21st Century problem-solvers.

So what are client-centric legal services? 

The concept of client-centric legal services is part of a consumer revolution that puts the purchaser at the center of a commercial transaction shifting power from supplier to consumer. Power in the legal profession has always been on the supply side, but the legal profession is not immune from the consumer revolution and the demand by consumers for more transparency, information,  and control over the lawyer-client relationship. Consumers want fixed fee pricing so they can control their legal expenses and when possible be a co-producer of legal services to keep legal fees reasonable and manageable. This translates into “unbundled legal services” or “limited legal services”, powered by online delivery systems.

Internet based applications that either enhance the client’s understanding of their legal rights, or enable them to represent themselves with the assistance of an attorney, are examples of client-centric legal services.

A short list would include:

A law firm web site that consists of information only about a lawyer’s practice and biographies of the law firm’s lawyers is not client centric because it is solely focused on the supplier and provides no tools that empower the client as consumer.

Here are good examples of client-centric law firm web sites: The Rosen Law Firm in North Carolina – a family law firm; and The Baker Law Firm – an estate planning firm also in North Carolina.

Large law firms and their corporate clients are not immune from these developments as Big Law seeks to provide tools that enable corporate legal departments to service their internal clients more effectively.

For example Seyfarth and the Littler, Mendelson law firm  are developing expert systems applications on the NeotaLogic platform that can be used by their clients to more efficiently access legal advice at low cost. See Human Resources Compliance Application.

Prof. Stephanie Kimbro, author of The Consumer Revolution: The Lawyer’s Guide to the On-Line Legal Marketplace   predicts that:

“The client-centric law firms that are transparent in their business practices and provide communication and delivery methods that clients expect from professionals in any industry will be the firms that survive in our quickly changing legal marketplace.”

To learn more about creating client-centric law firms, register for the Denver conference, here.

FTC Disclosures:
I am a speaker at the ABA Denver Conference and I am also a liaison member of the ABA Standing Committee on the Delivery of Legal Services, and the company I am CEO of- DirectLaw – provides a virtual law firm platform for solo and small law firms that enables these firms to deliver legal services online.

SOFTWARE_EATS_

Marc Andreessen quipped in 2011: “Software is eating the world”.

We are already seeing how Andreesen’s prediction is working its way through the legal profession.

Predictive coding continues to make inroads in eDiscovery demonstrating that software analysis is more accurate and faster that hordes of associate lawyers clicking on documents on screens. Companies such as Recommind are leading the way.

Last week I attended  Conference at Georgetown Law School, co-sponsored by the ABA Journal, called: From Revolution to Evolution: Digital Tools in Legal Practice where a variety of new legal applications were discussed that replace the labor of an attorney.  In the hands of an attorney , this software results in faster, cheaper, and better legal work.

One panel, that I was honored to participate in featured Kingsley Martin from KMStandards and Noah Waisberg from KiraSystems formerly DiligenceEngine. Both demonstrated software applications that expedited the document review process in transactional work and rationalized the document creation process. Like predictive coding in eDiscovery these software tools will replace some of the work of associate lawyers in larger law firms leading to a smaller employment force that works more effectively. As Mr. Martin points out — legal software can be good, and lawyers can be good, but lawyers using legal software are best.

The day before this conference,  Georgetown Law School, under the leadership of Tanina Rostain , held their Iron Tech Lawyer competition, for the third year in a row.  Law students show case legal expert systems that have created using the NeotaLogic legal expert systems platform .This student work is impressive as I witnessed software applications generating legal advice to complex questions with more accuracy that your average lawyer and at the speed of light.

We are still at the beginning of the beginning of these developments, but the pace of change is likely to be more rapid than we think. If you want to become more aware of an impending tsunami of legal disruption read John O. McGinnis and  Russell G. Pearces’ law review article in Fordham Law Review, titled, The Great Disruption: How Machine Intelligence Will Transform the Role of Lawyers in the Delivery of Legal Services

On the other end of the legal spectrum from Big Law, there is an estimated $40 billion latent market for consumer legal services yet to be served by lawyers. In 2013, two-thirds (66%) of a random sample of adults in a middle-sized American city reported experiencing at least one of 12 categories of civil justice situations in the previous 18 months. The most commonly reported kinds of situations involved bread and butter issues with far-reaching impacts: problems with employment, money (finances, government benefits, and debts), insurance, and housing.  Most consumers handle these problems on their own, or do nothing.  Moderate income people rarely seek assistance from lawyers to deal with these legal problems. Either legal fees are too high or they do not understand their problems to be legal.  80% of the U.S. consuming public can’t afford legal fees.  This is the often discussed Justice Gap in America that is the subject of an ABA Presidential Commission on the Future of Legal Services and a National Summit on Innovation in Legal Services to be held at Stanford Law School next week on May 2-4, 2015. [See Agenda and Schedule Here. ]

Figuring out ways to have more lawyers serve this latent market at affordable prices has proved to be a challenge. My own view is that scalable solutions must be software solutions. There is ample evidence that software alone can solve the legal problems of everyday consumers. Last year 600,000 users assemble legal documents and resolved their problems without lawyer assistance in over 40 states with the support of the U.S. Legal Services Corporation through Law Help Interactive and legal services programs in those states. This number will continue to increase. Other private legal software companies, such as ShakeLaw, continue to enter the market that offer pure software solutions to the resolution of legal problems at low or no cost.

I often hear lawyers say these solutions are inferior. Last week I also attended in Chicago, an American Bar Association School on UPL and participated in a panel on UPL and new technology. I argued that since the legal profession wasn’t serving 80% of consumers anyway so we should continue to experiment with legal software solutions. There was push back from this group, with some participants arguing that automated legal advice could be the unauthorized practice of law. I argued that in the interest of access to justice we should have a safe harbor that encourages legal software development for consumers, if there were sufficient warnings to the consumer they were not dealing with a lawyer, but a software application.

One state, Texas, has famously passed such an exception to their definition of the practice of law which reads:

In this chapter, 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.’

I pitched to this group of UPL officials the idea I would like to see this exception to the definition of the practice of adopted in every state. My rationale is that it would remove a potential barrier to innovation and encourage the development of Internet-based software applications that could help close the Justice Gap. The response was underwhelming.

ibm_watsonDespite these constraints, legal software will continue to eat away at the lawyer’s market share. Where there is demand, entrepreneurs will find a way.  IBM’s Watson has demonstrated that it could beat the two world Jeopardy champions- not a trivial matter.

 

jeopardy_2

More relevant a team of law students at the University of Toronto students has created ROSS on the Watson platform to conduct legal research.  ROSS is not only for lawyers. It can be used by consumers to do their own legal research.

Lawyers who deny the power of these software applications to solve legal problems, and the exponential rate of change, have their heads in the sand,

heads

 

Greedy Lawyers A bill was introduced in the North Carolina legislature that would narrow the definition of the “practice of law” to exclude sell-help legal materials, including books, software, and legal information. [ See House Bill 663 ]. The text of the amendment is:

“(b) The phrase “practice law” does not encompass any of the following:” …  (2) the design, creation, assembly, completion, publication, distribution, display, or sale, including by means of an Internet Web site, of self-help legal written materials, books, documents, templates, 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. “

The bill was reported out favorably of the Senate Committee on June 24, 2014, and will be voted on by the North Carolina Senate on July 9.  The North Carolina Bar Association is opposing passage of the bill.   The real reason for this opposition is  protecting lawyer’s incomes at the expense of easier access to the legal system for consumers. 

Texas has had a similar exemption from the definition of the practice of law for years with no demonstrable harm to the public.

It is well documented that 80% of the U.S. consumer public can’t afford the high cost of legal fees, so self-representation, a constitutional right, is one way for consumers to get access to the legal system. [ North Carolina Const. Art 1 § 18:  [ “All courts shall be open; every person for an injury done him in lands, goods, person, or his reputation shall have remedy by due courts of law, and right and justice shall be administered without favor, denial, or delay.” ].

Self-representation enables consumers to resolve their legal problems at low cost. The U.S. Legal Services Corporation has endorsed this approach and funded over 40 states to enable citizens to assemble their own state-specific documents powered by a national document server managed by LawHelp Interactive.com. The Legal Services Corporation has also supported state-wide legal information Web sites. North Carolina also maintains a state-wide legal information Web site to provide tools to self-represented litigants and a legal forms site sponsored by the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts.  North Carolina has also automated three sets of interactive forms using the National HotDocs Server designed to enable a self-represented litigant to a pro se litigant appeal an eviction or file for custody in court without a lawyer.

These are the software and legal information tools that the North Carolina Bar seeks to restrict by not clarifying that the provision of self-help  legal publications, interactive software, intelligent Web advisors, and other emerging software-powered tools are not the “unauthorized practice of law.”

Instead of making it easier for citizens to exercise this constitutional right, the North Carolina Bar wants to make it more difficult.

A growing body of academic scholarship suggests that the major obstacle to access to the legal system for those who cannot afford legal services is the legal profession itself. Afraid of competition from new forms of legal solutions enabled by the Internet and more powerful software, the unauthorized practice of law committees of state bar associations target non-law firm Internet legal form web sites, non-lawyer legal document preparers, and other innovative means of enabling access on the theory they are protecting the public interest from harm.

The North Carolina definition of the “practice of law” is so broad it is arguably unconstitutionally vague and includes within it almost any act that results in creating a legal document.  [ See Act ]. Categorizing self-help legal information materials as “the practice of law” is a slippery slope.

In a recent article from Professor Deborah L. Rhode, from Stanford Law School,  & Lucy Buford Ricca, Director of the Center on the Legal Profession, Stanford Law School, titled: Protecting the Profession or the Public? Rethinking Unauthorized-Practice Enforcement., where the authors conducted a national comprehensive review of  unauthorized practice of law enforcement, they conclude that:

A third problem is the lack of focus on the public interest. Although bar leaders and case doctrine insist that broad prohibitions on unauthorized practice serve the public, support for that claim is notable for its absence.  Outside a few contexts such as immigration, foreclosures, and trusts and estates, it is rare for customers to assert injury, or for suits to be filed by consumer-protection agencies.  As noted earlier, three-quarters of jurisdictions reported that fewer than half of their complaints came from consumers or clients, and two-thirds of respondents could not recall a specific case of injury in the last year. Of those who did identify a case, almost all involved immigration. So too, the vast majority of UPL lawsuits filed against cyber-lawyer products are brought by lawyers or unauthorized-practice committees and generally settle without examples of harm.

More directly relevant Professor Renee Newman Knake from Michigan State Law School argues in:  Legal Information, the Consumer Law Market, and the First Amendment, 

“The economic arguments for liberalizing lawyer regulation to facilitate the free flow of information support the First Amendment analysis. Perhaps one state will bravely implement a regulatory structure to expand access to legal information without intervention by the U.S. Supreme Court. If not, as this Article has shown, many of the restrictions governing the organizational form of law practice and the distribution of legal services are constitutionally vulnerable to the extent they constrain the creation and distribution of legal information…”

Marc Lauritsen writing in Chicago Kent Law Review, in an article titled, Liberty, Justice and Legal Automa , (See also, Are We Free to Code the Law?) , concerned that the obstructionism of the organized bar will chill innovation when access to the legal system has become critical, asks whether we are free to code the law.

“It is in the enlightened interest of lawyers, as well as the best interest of society in general, to enable programmatic expression of legal knowledge.  We should be free to write code, run code, and let others run our code. If concerned citizens, law students, and entrepreneurs want to create tools that help people access and interact with the legal system, the government should not get in the way.  Are citizens at liberty to create and share software that helps others understand and interact with the legal system? Are we free to code the law?   We certainly should be.”

Professor Catherine J. Lanctot. from Villanova Law School concludes in an article on the same subject [ “Does LegalZoom Have First Amendment Rights: Some Thoughts about Freedom of Speech and the Unauthorized Practice of Law” Temple Political & Civil Rights Law Review 20 (2011): 255. ], that even if one assumes  that the practice of preparing routine legal documents for consumers runs afoul of many unauthorized practice statutes, however, there remains an open question of whether these statutes may themselves interfere with First Amendment guarantees.

“To the the extent that these statutes broadly sweep vast amounts of law-related speech within their scope, they may infringe on free speech rights. The article concludes with a “caution about aggressive pursuit of these online document preparers without careful consideration of the possible risks involved. A successful First Amendment challenge to an unauthorized practice statute could have repercussions far beyond the world of LegalZoom.”

Conclusion:  10 reasons the North Carolina Bar should support this amendment to the definition of the practice of law:

  1. The legal profession will be viewed more favorably as on the side of the consumer, rather than on then in the side of their pocket books;
  2. A challenge to a publisher that legal software is the unauthorized practice of law is likely to fail on 1st Amendment grounds;
  3. There is a difference between legal software (a “publication” ) and a lawyer providing legal advice. (‘conduct”);
  4. Technology innovation will be encouraged for the benefit of both consumers and lawyers;
  5. It will be clear that the publication of consumer facing web-enabled interactive legal forms by legal aid agencies in North Carolina, and other public agencies,  is not the unauthorized practice of law;
  6. The U.S Department of Justice and the U.S. Federal Trade Commission will have less reason to accuse the North Carolina Bar of anti-competitive behavior; [ See letter to Massachusetts Bar Association from the FTC on this subject ];
  7. Bar leadership can demonstrate that they understand that the legal profession is changing and can help prepare their members for 21st century law practice;
  8. With disclaimers, a consumer will understand the difference between using an interactive software application and receiving advice from a “live” person;
  9. The North Carolina Bar can avoid the charge it restricts access to the legal system;
  10. The North Carolina Bar can avoid the charge it is out of step with contemporary technological developments.
*Disclosure: My Company, SmartLegalForms, Inc.,   provides web-based interactive self-help legal forms directly to consumers and to non-lawyer companies nationally and in the state of North Carolina. [ See for example ]

Legal Documents On-LineThe American Bar Association’s eLawyering Task Force has compiled a draft set of best practice guidelines for legal document providers, which can be downloaded here*.  

An increasingly popular – and controversial – category of service providers are those that supply customer-specific documents over the Internet, using interactive software and/or human resources, without purporting to be engaged in the practice of law. There are literally hundreds of these legal documents Web sites. More of these legal document Web sites launch every month, of not every week on the Internet.

 

These Web sites include for example:

The Task Force believes that there are common principles that ought to guide these legal document sites, and practices that consumers should be able to expect.  The  eLawyering Task Force  also recognizes that consumers have different levels of knowledge in meeting their documentation needs.  Some believe, for instance, that it is simply a matter of getting “the” right form, and pay little attention to careful drafting and appropriate execution.  Others have a more sophisticated understanding of options and implications. Nevertheless there should be baseline expectations that meets the needs of all kinds of users. The goal is not to issue a "seal off approval" of these legal document Web sites. The objective is to encourage these Web sites to use acknowledged "best practices" in the development and delivery of their services.

These guidelines do not take a position on whether certain document services may constitute the unauthorized practice of law in certain jurisdictions if not performed by a licensed attorney, other than to urge providers to know and observe applicable law on that thorny subject.

The primary purpose is to aid consumers in making informed decisions about what they are buying.

Comments on these Guidelines are invited. They can be submitted on the eLawyering Task Force ListServ which any lawyer can join, Click here.

 

Hyatt Regency Incline Village Lake Taho, CaliforniaThe eLawyering Task Force is having a Quarterly Meeting at he Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe Resort, Spa and Casino on Friday, October 19, 2012 between 9:00 – 11:00 A,M,

This is an open meeting and individuals who want to submit comments on these Guidelines are invited to attend and participate.

Additional Conference details can be found here.

 

 

*(Disclosure: I am Co-Chair of the eLawyering Task Force. The Co-Chair of the Task Force is Marc Lauitsen, of Capstone Practice Systems, who is providing leadership to this project.)

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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  DirectLaw, a virtual law firm platform provider and SmartLegalForms, a web-based legal document 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.

 

 

Expert Systems in the LawDavid R. Johnson, a Visiting Professor at the Institute for Information Law and Policy and New York Law School, has written a new thought piece for the World Future Society on how the digitization of law changes the nature of law. Building on a theme first articulated by Ethan Katsh in his seminal work on The Electronic Media and the Transformation of Law (Oxford University Press, 1991).  Katsh speculated that digital technologies would change our ideas about what the law actually is. Johnson extends the analysis and notes that "Katsh’s speculations are only now becoming right-in ways that not even he predicted." I am indebted to Katsh as when I first read his book in 1991, in pre-internet days, it set me off on a journey and a path that I am still pursuing to this day. I underestimated that time that it would take for these predictions to become a reality by about two decades!

Johnson envisions a future where there will be a proliferation of expert systems developed by lawyers that will enter into dialogues with clients and consumers that will provide answers to legal questions at low cost and at scale. He sees law becoming conversational and dynamic, rather than static. Legal documents becoming wholly interactive. Statutes will also become dynamic with interpretations of language build into the code itself.

In an environment where law is conversational, the meaning of a term or rule will become less obscure and ambiguous, so that disputes will be resolved based on the facts, rather than what a particular term means.

Johnson predicts that that:

"As law becomes conversational code, we will talk to it directly. Some people may not get the answer they like. so lawyers will always need to be around to provide comfort or help formulate alternative plans for those who can afford them."

The tools to create such "expert systems" are getting to be easier to use. Neota Logic, an expert systems authoring tool company, collaborated this year with New York Law School and Georgetown Law School in a project to train law students to help students build expert legal systems in the context of  courses offered by both law schools. I have reviewed these student projects and I can tell you that they are quite good and useful aids to decision-making. Here is a video that describes these projects. These students are learning skills that will enable them to become a new kind of legal professional that creates systems that can have wide distribution, and as Johnson points out a potentially a new kind profitable law practice.

(Richard Susskind , another one of my mentors to whom I owe a great intellectual debt, also predicts the rise of a new class of legal software engineers, in his seminal book on The End of Lawyers).

It will be interesting to see how long it will take for Johnson’s predictions to become a reality. (Probably another two decades!) One constraint  that we know of, is that it takes capital to build any kind of a digital application, because it takes time to build, and if you are spending time building a digital application, you are not billing hours to clients.

It is for this reason for example. that although we make our document authoring system available for free when a lawyer subscribes to our DirectLaw virtual law firm platform , less than 5 lawyers out of hundreds of law firm subscribers have elected to automate their own legal documents.

Perhaps the current generation of lawyers simply don’t possess the skills to do this kind work – a problem that some law schools are trying to address. See Reinvent Law at Michigan State Law School. Change comes very slowly to the academy, so I would not expect a new cadre of legal software engineers to available soon.

For those that acquire these new skills, I think they will find themselves in demand – not by law firms – but by disruptive law start-ups, privately-financed companies, that will be the source of these new legal expert system applications.

You can download the entire Johnson article here.

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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  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, the leading online provider of legal services to consumers and small business, as predicted here previously, finally filed for an IPO last week. The company is seeking to raise $120 million to expand their services both in the US and internationally.

LegalZoom’s data in the S-1 filing is now available for everyone to analyze:

  • In 2011, 490,000 orders were placed through their web site;
  • 20% of all limited liability companies in California were done by LegalZoom;
  • During the past ten years, LegalZoom has served over 2,000,000 customers.
  • Revenue in 2011 was $156 million.

These are impressive statistics and provide support for the proposition that consumers and small business prefer a very limited legal solution that is just good enough to get the job done, rather than pay the high legal fees charged by the typical attorney.

This is LegalZoom’s analysis of the legal market for consumers and small business, buried on p. 62 of the S-1 filing: 

"Making the right choices with respect to legal matters can be difficult, especially for those with limited time and resources. The U.S. legal system consists of overlapping jurisdictions at the city, county, state and federal levels, each of which has its own evolving laws and regulations. Businesses may be subject to additional laws, regulations and legal issues applying specifically to the industries in which they operate. In addition, the policies and procedures associated with the creation, filing and certification of legal documents are often arcane and confusing."

        "When in need of legal help, small businesses and consumers lack an efficient and reliable way to find high quality, trustworthy attorneys with the appropriate experience to navigate this complex legal system and handle their specific needs. Small businesses and consumers often do not understand their legal needs or know where to start looking for an attorney. Some are wary of attorneys in general, and others may have heard from friends or family about negative experiences with attorneys or the legal system."

        "The high and unpredictable cost of traditional legal services also presents challenges for many small businesses and consumers. In 2011, the average billing rate for small and midsize law firms was $318 per hour, according to ALM’s 2012 Survey of Billing and Practices for Small and Midsize Law Firms. Attorneys are frequently unable to predict the time required to address a client’s legal matter, sometimes billing thousands of dollars to research a legal issue they have not previously encountered. This can be particularly true of generalist attorneys that offer many disparate legal services to members of their local communities. Unlike attorneys at large global law firms or specialty boutiques who handle high volumes of similar matters and develop expertise in specific domains, generalists can find it difficult to efficiently address a client’s particular legal issue due to their lack of specialized expertise. Due to the high and unpredictable costs of traditional legal services, many small businesses and consumers limit their use of attorneys and instead often attempt to resolve legal issues without assistance."

       "As a result of these factors, many small businesses and consumers often are unsure of or dissatisfied with the legal services available to them, and many either elect not to seek help or take no action to address their important legal needs."

Many lawyers are in denial about the desire of consumers and small business to purchase their services. They will assert that consumers and small business are exposing themselves to liability by using LegalZoom’s limited services which will bring regret later. But consumer’s don’t seem to care. What they get from LegalZoom is "good enough." The numbers tell the story.

Solos and small law firms will find that it will be very difficult to compete against LegalZoom with its superior capital resources. The organized bar (State and ABA) has given up on trying to put LegalZoom out of business on they theory that the company is violating UPL (‘unauthorized practice of law") rules. Any organized bar attacks will be resisted by LegalZoom which will now have the capital to fight any challenges to its business model. The American Bar Association has created a Solo and Small Law Firm Resource Center, but it is too little and too late.

LegalZoom is here to stay and will expand its market share as the major provider of the delivery of legal solutions to consumers and small business.

LegalZoom will, inevitably, put many solos and small law firms out of business as it grows and expands its suite of services.  For a related analysis on my theory about the venture capital industry and disruption in the legal industry see video at: Legal Startups – An Overview at PointOneLaw ].

To survive in this fast changing environment, solos and small law firms need to figure out strategies that extend their brand online, without detracting in any way from their role as a trusted adviser in the communities where they live and work.  I see too many solos and small law firms that think they can emulate LegalZoom’s success but don’t have either the capital or the skills to compete in an online environment.

The competitive response for solos and small law firms should be to create a "click and mortal" strategy that combines what can be learned from LegalZoom with the best management practices of a law firm that has the capacity to deliver "limited" or "unbundled" legal services at a competitive price point, both in the office and online.

Here is a previous blog post which lists steps that solos and small law firms can take to become more competitive in this rapidly changing environment. The cost of adapting to this new competitive environment is not the cost of software, which is relatively inexpensive. The cost is the investment in time that the lawyer has to make to learn new online skills, create more efficient production procedures, and adopt marketing approaches that amplify a lawyer’s experti
se both online and offline.

It will be interesting to see what the legal landscape for solos and small law firms looks like five years from now. 

The Center for Computer-Assisted Legal InstructionThe Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction (CALI) is offering a free online course on digital law practice, primarily for law students and law professors, but anyone can register.

 

I don’t doubt that most law faculty will find these topics to be irrelevant, but its connecting with law students, as over 500 law students have registered nationwide.

For lawyers interested in delivering legal services online, this course would be a good introduction to the subject.

The first session is February 10 at 2-3 EST. Stephanie Kimbro is doing a session on the virtual law office.

Later in the course, Marc Lauritsen is doing a session on document automation, and I am doing a session on “unbundling legal services”.

Here are some of the other sessions:

Week 5: Online Legal Forms in Legal Aid
Friday, Mar. 9, 2-3pm ET
Ronald W. Staudt, Professor of Law, Chicago-Kent College of Law

Week 6: Contract Standardization
Friday, Mar. 16, 2-3pm ET
Kingsley Martin, President, kiiac.com & contractstandards.com

Week 7: Free Legal Research Tools
Friday, Mar. 23, 2-3pm ET
Sarah Glassmeyer, Director of Content Development / Law Librarian, CALI

Week 8: Unauthorized Practice of Law in the 21st Century
Friday, Mar. 30, 2-3pm ET
William Hornsby, Staff Counsel at American Bar Association

Week 9: Social Media for Lawyers
Friday, Apr. 6, 2-3pm ET
Ernest Svenson, Attorney at Law

Here is the course description and the registration page:

http://www.cali.org/blog/2012/01/25/free-online-course-digital-law-practice

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.