Best Practice Guidelines for Legal Document Service Providers

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.)

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

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.

 

 

Serving Justice With Conversational Law: Expert Legal Systems Are Here

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.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

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 "Good Enough" Legal Solution

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 expertise 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. 

Free Online Course on Digital Law Practice

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 for the Price of a Song on iTunes?*

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 gets 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.

 

Is Legal Software Conduct? True or False?

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

Is LegalZoom Just a Self-Help Legal Software Company?

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?

 

Nolo is Acquired by Internet Brands as Part of Legal Roll Up

After 40 years of leading the self-help law movement, Nolo, is being acquired by Internet Brands an advertising driven Internet company. Nolo was created by two frustrated legal aid lawyers, Charles (Ed) Sherman and Ralph (Jake) Warner, who wanted to figure out a way to help the thousands of consumers with their legal problems who could not afford an attorney and were turned away by legal aid because their incomes were too high.

Based in Berkeley, California, the center of the counter cultural revolution of the 1960's, Nolo assembled a group of radical lawyers, editors, and writers who were determined to do something about a broken legal system where 90% of the US middle class were priced out of the legal system. Championing legal reforms that would make the U.S. justice system accessible to everyone, the company has seen these reforms become mainstream in the US.

Courts now offer their own automated self-help legal forms, legal aid agencies publish state-wide legal information web sites and also distribute automated legal forms, legal form web sites give away legal forms for free as a way to generate traffic, small claims court limits have been raised in many states, and lawyers are delivering "unbundled legal services" and creating virtual law firms,  figuring out ways to deliver legal services online for a fixed and affordable fee.

Its ironic that Nolo is being acquired by  Internet Brands, for an amount rumored to be in the range of $20,970,000, by an advertising company that is focused primarily on generating leads for law firms through their directories and advertising properties. How does self-help law fit into this business model?

The amount being paid is little more than one times revenue -- not exactly a premium.  Although, Nolo  publishes Willmaker and several other excellent web-based legal software programs, it is still primarily a book publisher. In its hey day, before the Internet penetrated almost every household in America, Nolo self-help law books were the primary source for accurate do it yourself legal information and forms.

As the web expanded hundreds of legal information and legal form web sites also emerged, plus national brands such as LegalZoom. These web-based alternatives also provided  legal solutions without the need to use a lawyer -- the same need that Nolo was meeting. Except that instead of reading a 200-300 page book in order to get to a legal solution --  web-based applications delivered a legal solution more efficiently, faster, and at less cost.

Nolo has migrated many of its legal forms online, too little and too late, and except for a few major products, non-automated forms. Here is another example of a print publisher whose business, despite the excellence of its product, has been eroded by the Internet.

It is well known that Nolo's book business actually declined during this recession and growth has been flat. The fastest growing area of Nolo's business is their Lawyer Directory. This is ironic for a company that prided itself in developing self-help legal solutions that don't require the assistance of an attorney.

The challenge for Internet Brands will be to figure out how to unlock the assets buried within Nolo's vast collection of self-help law books and turn these assets into web-based applications that can be distributed over the Internet. It remains to be seen whether the quality of Nolo's self-help legal content will deteriorate under the management of an advertising-driven company that measures results in page views and unique visitors.

Internet Brands, previously a public company, was recently taken private private when it was acquired by Hellman & Friedman, a private equity firm, based in San Francisco,  in December, 2010. Internet Brands has acquired over 70 vertical web sites in areas ranging from travel to cars to real estate. Internet Brands derives more than 70% of its revenues from advertising on its portfolio of web sites.

In December, 2010 Internet Brands also acquired ALLLAW.com , a consumer legal information portal and AttorneyLocate - an Attorney Directory Service. Both of these web sites are relatively weak properties. Compete.com shows that in March, 2011 Nolo had 498,769 unique visitors ( an 8% decline for the year), ALLLAW.com  had 190,069 unique visitors, (for the of March, 2011); AttorneyLocate.com was especially weak with only 18,277 unique visitors (for the month of March, 2011). Internet Brands also owns ExpertHub, which in turn manages web sites in verticals markets such as dentists, plastic surgery, accountants, tummy tuck, and of course lawyers. The ExpertHub site for lawyers only generates 96,289 unique visitors a month (March, 2011), so I wonder if that level of traffic is high enough to support their advertising rates.

There is irony in the fact that LegalZoom, a company that prides itself on offering  legal solutions from a non-law firm generates more traffic than any of the sites mentioned above at 889,762 unique visitors in March, 2011, trailing only Findlaw and Lawyers.com, (both of which offer similar services as the Internet Brands properties).  With the traffic that LegalZoom gets, maybe LegalZoom should consider creating their own lawyers directory for consumers who need just a bit of legal advice to go with their forms to keep them on the right track? I wonder what solos and small law firms would think if LegalZoom moved in that direction?.

It will be interesting to see how Internet Brands integrates these legal properties to leverage the assets in each acquisition as its tries to compete with the likes of Findlaw and Lawyers.com . It will also be interesting to see whether the quality of Nolo's self help legal content deteriorates under the management of an advertising company that measures results in impressions, clicks, and unique visitors. If Jake Warner, the present CEO stays involved, I am sure the quality of Nolo's products will remain "top of class."

It's an odd mix, --the best in class self-help legal book publisher with an excellent reputation, with some less than best in class lawyer directories and a legal information web site. Only time will tell whether this combination will work. (Although Internet Brands may intend to run each of these properties as separate brands, which would help Nolo maintain the quality of it self help legal content).

The Law Wizard - from Great Britain

I discovered an interesting web site called The Law Wizard,  still in beta, for pro se parties doing their own probate, in the United Kingdom.  The site promises to offer a unique package of online interactive tools, guides and videos. The Probate Wizard is initially designed for individuals who want to probate their own estates, but the site states that the tools will be made available for law firms as well.

The site is scheduled for launch later n 2011. The site looks interesting because it combines a web-enabled document automation system with extensive video and other information guides that takes the user through a  complicated process step by step. We will see more web sites like this, both in the legal form market space and the virtual law firm space.

On-Line Wills: Web Forms Only vs. Lawyer Services

Last week the New York Times, in it's Your Money column,  did an evaluation of non-lawyer legal form sites that offer wills on-line, including products offered by Legal Zoom and Nolo. The author concluded that a lawyer can still be very helpful:

"... a computer program can’t ask you about your family relationships or tease out complex dynamics, like your daughter’s rocky marriage."

"Still, the biggest risk might be summed up by Phillip J. Kenny, a lawyer in McLean, Va., who said that one client came back to him after looking at a software package and said, “I don’t know what I don’t know.”

A subsequent blog post in the New York Times Bucks  Blog that is linked to the column, discussed emerging online services that provide a lawyer review, or lawyer preparation of a will for a fixed price.  Services that were mentioned include: RocketLawyer, Nolo's Lawyer Directory, and DirectLaw's virtual law firm service for solos and small law firms. The MyLawyer.com web site, that wasn't mentioned,  is another example of a web site that links consumers to law firms that offer "unbundled legal services" over the Internet.

The lawyer review and lawyer assisted document preparation services are an example of how lawyers are learning from non-lawyer web sites to "productize" their services in a way that makes their legal services affordable to a wider range of consumers increasing their market penetration.

If more solos and small law firms followed the lead of the law firms delivering affordable online legal services, eventually the market share erosion from non-lawyer providers would diminish. More importantly, the legal profession could retain and consolidate its dominant position as the primary provider of legal services to the broad middle class. That's a big "if". At this point solos and small law firms continue to lose market share to new market entrants, despite the legal profession's UPL rules.

 

2010 ABA Legal Technology Survey Report on E-Lawyering: Questionable Data

Volume IV of the recently released 2010 ABA Legal Technology Survey Report is devoted to Web and Communication Technology. A section on E-Lawyering reports that 14% of Respondents over all, and 19% of solo practitioners, report that they have a virtual law office or virtual law practice. This question in the survey that deals with with the question of whether a law firm has a 
"virtual law practice" was framed in terms of whether the attorney primarily interacts with clients using Internet-based software and other electronic communications software.

In my opinion, these self-reported responses from attorneys are not meaningful and are much too high to be accurate. The reported numbers are not useful in understanding where the legal profession is in terms of adopting the concept of a "virtual law practice." The reality is that the adoption rate is much lower.

The ABA Law Practice Management Section's eLawyering Task Force (disclosure: I am Co-Chair of the eLawyering Task Force),  defines a "virtual law practice" as one that offers to its clients a secure client portal, as part of the law firm's web site, where the client can log in with a user name and password, and interact with their attorney, as well as consume other online legal services. A virtual law practice is more than simply communicating with clients by email and never meeting with clients face-to-face. In order to have a "virtual law practice" by our definition,  you have to have a web site and a portion of that web site has to be dedicated as a secure portal for clients. Without this distinction, many law firms can claim that they are "virtual law firms" simply because they use email extensively, as the ABA Study seems to imply, giving the impression that integration of Internet technologies as part of their legal service delivery system is much higher than it actually is.

For example, in another question, the survey participants were asked whether the firm has a web site. The solo practitioner group responded that only 52.1% had a web site, but this is the same group that responded that 19% has a "virtual law practice."  By our definition, if you don't have a web site you don't have a "virtual law practice." The only explanation for the discrepancy in these numbers is that the question of " Do you have a virtual law practice?" was phrased so broadly that more law firms where included in the category than should be.

Another question that was asked to determine what kinds of online legal services were offered by the firm was: "Does your law firm offer online document preparation?" 11.4% of solo firms reported that they did. Again this number doesn't make any sense. There were 149 respondents in the Solo category. Only 52.1% actually had a web site, or 77 firms had a web site from which online document preparation could be offered. 11.4% would suggest that only approximately 8 law firms could offer this service. Not only is this number too small to make any meaningful projections in terms of the total number of solo practitioners in the US (more than 400,000), but it is also likely to be misleading. Here's why:

The technological options for offering online document assembly for solo practitioners are very limited. One option is to provide fillable Adobe . pdf forms. But you can't easily use a fillable Adobe .pdf to create a text document such as a Will or a Shareholder's Agreement. The major document assembly vendors such as HotDocs, DealBuilder, and Exari have systems that support online document assembly but the price for licensing these systems is much too expensive for the average solo practitioner. Wizilegal, a new entrant to the field, provides a new low cost web-enabled document assembly solution, but our market information suggest that they have only a small number of users. (Disclosure: DIrectLaw, which sponsors this blog, is one of the few web-enabled document assembly solutions that is offered at a price that a solo practitioner can afford.)

In short, the question about the use of online document assembly should have been phrased much more narrowly, with a field in the questionnaire that would require that the law firm indicate what platform is being used to support online document assembly, and whether it is a third party vendor, or whether the programming was done in-house. My sense is that if the question were asked properly, the number of law firms offering online document assembly would be much lower than actually reported.

Finally, 3% of respondents report that their firms offer expert system on their web sites (compared with 1% in the 2009 survey), including 7% of the large firm respondents. Based on our surveys of law firms from solos to large law firms, this percentage seems very high to me. It is very rare that I come across a law firm web site that actually offers an "expert system" for use by its clients, and I review or check out literally thousands of law firm web sites a year.  Most lawyers don't even know what an "expert system" is! I would like to see a more precise question, where the respondent is required to name the kind of "expert system" they are offering and the url of the web site where it is offered, so that a reviewer could more closely examine what the law firm represents they are doing is in fact the case.

I think that it is commendable that the ABA Legal Technology Resource Center now has a separate section of its annual report just on web and communication technology. The platform for the delivery of legal services is gradually shifting from traditional face-to-face office practice to the Web, but my sense is that the the pace of adaptation is much slower than is being officially reported. This is understandable in a profession that views its core identity as one where clients are dealt with primarily face-to-face. 

On the other hand, our own research on consumer preferences suggests that more than half of consumers would like their law firm to have an online virtual component. Thus, the legal profession continues to lag behind what other service industries offer to their clients and customers online.

 

 

DirectLaw is Becoming an Open and Multi-Sided Platform for Virtual Law Firms

The DirectLaw Virtual Law Platform is evolving into what is called a multi-sided and open platform. Our latest feature enables the sales of non-Rapidocs documents and HOTDOCS templates, in addition to Rapidocs automated document templates.

We added this functionality in response to our #1 question from law firms -- "Can I use my own documents?" While this option doesn't have the benefits and efficiencies that our libraries of Rapidocs-based documents provide -- i.e., clients won't be immediately presented with an on-line Questionnaire that will automatically create their docs – firms now have the flexibility to easily put their own documents on the "menu" and convert them to sales.

Moreover, beginning in mid-June, 2010, law firms who have invested in automating their legal forms and documents in HOTDOCS for use on the desktop will be able to serve HOTDOCS Questionnaires through the Web browser via the DirectLaw Platform and charge clients for legal forms bundled with legal advice. We are also in the process of identifying other legal applications created by independent developers that can be served from DirectLaw’s Virtual Law Firm Platform.

The launch of our new consumer portal, MyLawyer.com, provides another side to DirectLaw’s Virtual Law Firm Platform. MyLawyer.com contains a searchable Law Firm Directory, legal information, legal tools such as calculators, and a limited number of free legal forms. 

The inclusion of free legal forms enhances DirectLaw's ability to promote the site most effectively through search engines.  DirectLaw also markets this site via press releases and articles/interviews in relevant media channels to drive traffic to DirectLaw’s network of virtual law firm web sites.  

Designed around the concept of limited ("unbundled") legal services, MyLawyer.com compares the differences between limited legal services provided through a law firm vs. a non-lawyer entity like LegalZoom.com

Consumers can easily search for a law firm in their state offering on-line, unbundled legal services, clicking directly through to the firm's MyLegalAffairs "menu of services". 

Wizilegal - A New SaaS Virtual Law Firm Provider Focuses Its Target

Wizilegal,  a relatively new company based in San Diego is offering a virtual law firm service to solos and small law firms. The company recently relaunched its web site with a focus on enabling law firms to compete against LegalZoom.  Like DirectLaw, Wizilegal offers web-enabled document automation that enables law firms to offer  legal documents and forms through a law  firm's web site. It is good to see new competition come into this market space  because it is healthy sign that the "virtual law firm" concept is receiving wider acceptance among solos and small law firms.

We have previously defined the "virtual law firm" as a law firm that has a secure "client portal" integrated with its web site that is accessible by a client only with the use of a secure user name and password. From this "client portal", the  law firm is able to offer various legal services online.

A number of companies have emerged during the past two years that offer a "client portal" that can be branded with the law firm's logo and integrated seamlessly with the law firm's web site. Typically, the client portal is provided as a SaaS on a subscription basis. These companies include DirectLaw, Total Attorney's Virtual Law Office Technology, Clio's Web-based Practice Management Software, and now Wizilegal. These companies are to be distinguished from web-based practice management software companies like RocketMatter , that offer just "back-office" practice management tools, but no "client portal." application.

Here is a quick summary of key features of the Wizilegal offering:

  • A web-enabled document authoring solution that is claimed to be very easy to use. (But no pre-automated legal documents or forms are included in their package). The document automaton function incorporates intelligent rule-based document assembly and can be applied to both text documents and .PDF forms. Interactive questionnaires appear within the web browser. I have not worked with this system, so I can't tell how easy it is to build out complex documents and forms. We welcome comments from users of Wizilegal about ease of use of the authoring system.
     
  • The capability of offering document downloads and reviews;
     
  • Integrated payment processing through PayPal. (but not through MC, VISA, or American Express);
     
  • The capacity to create a law-firm branded client portal;
     
  • Law firms can set up their own system almost immediately using the the company's web tools.
     
  • Pricing is based on a $49.00 set up fee, plus $65.00 a month with no long term contract. In addition for every  document created by a client there is a $4.00 per document charge. There is no document charge for documents created internally, but for each administrative log-on there is a separate $55.00 administrative fee.

As competition increases in the virtual law firm provider space, it will be interesting to see how much market share Wizilegal will be able to capture with its approach. It will also be interesting to see whether a new cadre of web-enabled "virtual law firms" offering a true legal services  will be able to have an impact on LegalZoom's growth rate. With  LegalZoom's superior capital resources and national branding power, it may be hard for individual law firms operating online to capture mind share. Out of date ethical rules that govern the legal profession don't help the competitive position of law firms when they go up against new non-law firm players like LegalZoom. So the playing field is not level and the legal profession operates from a disadvantage.

It doesn't help when Robert Shapiro of OJ fame, is proclaiming every few hours on many cableTV channels that "The Law  is on Your SIde". What does that mean anyway?

The Kre8tive Law Group Launches First DirectLaw Virtual Law Firm in Canada

The Kre8tive Law Group, managed by Solicitor Andrea Riccio in Calgary, Alberta, has become Canada's first virtual law firm using DirectLaw's virtual law firm platform. The firm offers "unbundled legal services" to both individual and small business clients.

Clients can:

  • buy completed legal documents together with legal advice
  • pay for legal advice at a fixed price
  • communicate with a lawyer on a secure basis
  • upload documents received from other parties for our review
  • archive copies of their completed documents

Solicitor Riccio said that he thought that it was important to provide a virtual law firm presence for web savvy clients and clients who wanted to work with their law firm over the Internet.  Riccio said that "our fixed price approach is appealing to clients who want to be able to control their legal expenses."

Kre8tive Law Group was founded in 1994. Andrea was admitted to the Ontario Bar in 1990 and practiced for a Bay Street firm in Toronto, Canada, working primarily on commercial real estate transactions, eventually becoming a partner of the firm. He was called to the Alberta Bar in 1994 and gained extensive experience in a broad range of corporate and commercial matters through his association with a local Calgary firm. His belief that "better people make better lawyers" led him to found Riccio Law. He also provides pro bono legal services to numerous non-profit organizations including the Italian-Canadian community at a local, regional and national level. He previously served as a national director of the National Congress of Italian-Canadians Foundation and President of the Calgary Italian Club.

LegalZoom Sued for UPL in Missouri

It seems like LegalZoom's practices are finally catching up with it. The company is being sued in Missouri on the grounds of unauthorized practice of law and the plaintiff's are requesting class certification. To give an example of how popular LegalZoom's services have become, LegalZoom in its petition for removal to Federal court claims that it has served over 14,000 Missouri residents in a five year period, generating over $5,000.000 in sales. Missouri is a relatively small state, so you can get some idea of what kind of business LegalZoom is doing nationwide. No wonder the legal profession is getting nervous and starting to pay attention to this disruptive player in the legal industry.

A good discussion of the case can be found on the IPWatchdog Blog in an article by the Blog's Founder Gene Quinn.

Click here for a copy of the Missouri Complaint,  LegalZoom's petition for removal to Federal court, and a copy of a letter from the North Carolina Bar requesting that LegalZoom Cease and Desist from operating within North Carolina because it is violating North Carolina's UPL statute when it prepares incorporation papers.

In its defense, LegalZoom in its removal petition,  claims that it is:

" a company whose principal business consists of providing an
online platform for customers to prepare their own legal documents. Customers choose a
product or service suitable to their needs and input data into a questionnaire. Where applicable,
the LegalZoom platform then generates a document using the product and data provided by the
customer."

It this were the case, LegalZoom would be functioning only as a "scrivener" transcribing the client's information into a form. It is well established in some states, including California, where LegalZoom is based, and also Florida for example, that non-lawyers, often called "legal technicians" can help consumers prepare legal documents, as long as they don't give legal advice.

The question of whether LegalZoom's  staff do more than they say, and actually provide legal advice, even if it is limited legal advice, is a question of fact to be determined. It  would be interesting to see what the discovery process turns up and what the  LegalZoom, "platform" actually does and how it works.

For comparison, We the People, a retail chain of 35  "Legal Document Preparation stores  operating in six states, operates under the same principles. Customers complete paper questionnaires which are faxed to a central processing center where a technician simply inserts the client's data into a desktop document assembly program which generates a form. (This is  the same process that many lawyer's use, except lawyers provide legal advice and analysis).  This document preparation process is essentially the same as LegalZoom's except that it takes place off the Internet through a network of retail stores. We the People has been attacked by the Bar in several states for UPL, but the company has worked hard to assure bar authorities that its staff and franchisees don't provide  legal advice.

In theory, We the People, stores are able to reach a market of customers that do not have Internet access and prefer to deal with a human being directly. This market base is likely to have even lower incomes, and ignored by  both attorneys as a target market, and have too much income to qualify for legal aid.  Ironically, however, the We the People pricing is even higher than the LegalZoom pricing, probably because of the cost of maintaining a  retail location. Yet the remaining We the People stores, ( down from a high of 140 stores), seem to be sustainable, if not thriving.

Both companies provide a needed service in the sense that they provide an alternative to consumers who are willing to invest their own time and resources to make sure that the forms offered are the correct forms for their particular situation. Neither company can advise a consumer about what form they should use for their situation, as that would be a form of legal advice. Consumers may be taking a risk when they buy from a self-help document preparation forms company, but it seems this is a risk that consumers are willing to take to avoid what are perceived by many as high legal fees for the same  transaction. For these consumers, what they get is a "good enough" result at a price they can afford.

The other reality is that it is deceptive for LegalZoom and We the People , to claim that using their services will save hundreds or thousands of dollars in legal fees, when two very different category of services are being compared: 
 

  • one a legal information service;
  • and the other a true legal service from a licensed attorney.

    The content of the services are fundamentally different and to compare the services to each other is like comparing "apples' and " oranges". 

    Sometimes you get the same legal result when you use a document preparation service, but often you don't.  Apart from UPL issues, it seems to me that this is a misrepresentation in advertising and these claims should receive closer scrutiny from state consumer protection agencies. (Although I am sure that many of LegalZoom's satisfied customers would say that they don't need any protection).

Both companies demonstrate the principle that you can solve certain legal problems by having access to "legal information." Legal information by itself is a problem solver for many consumers, and the access to legal information and legal forms on the Internet, has simply accelerated this trend at a much faster rate in the last five years than the self-help law book industry has been able to accomplish in 30-35 years of its existence. This means that lawyers will have to do more to demonstrate their value to the consumer, particularly solos and smaller law firms that serve the broad middle class.

A better solution for consumers, as we have advocated in these pages, is for attorneys to offer legal forms bundled with legal advice at an affordable price, perhaps slightly higher than LegalZoom, but offering much greater value, over the Internet. This is often called. "unbundled legal services," enabling a consumer to purchase just the legal services they need, and no more.

Using virtual law firm technology, like DirectLaw's virtual law firm platform, lawyers can be even more efficient that the LegalZoom or We the People models, because the entire document assembly process is software driven creating a legal document instantly from the user's input, ready for the lawyers further review, drafting, and advice-giving. The increased productivity that results from a web-enabled document automation process enables the lawyer to offer a very price competitive service that in fact offers more value. The value of each sale is lower, from the attorney's point of view, but volume can be much higher if effectively marketed. (Neither LegalZoom nor We the People have such a technology in place. No wonder there prices are so high for what you get!).

As long as the legal document preparers don't give legal advice, they should be able to coexist with the legal profession, for certain kinds of common legal transactions, but not all.

But lawyers will have to work harder to provide their value and start offering true legal services online over the Internet. Driving non-lawyer legal document preparers out of business on UPL grounds is not an answer. At the end of the day prosecution efforts, will seem to the consuming public as just another attempt by the legal profession to maintain high legal fees for common transactions, while avoiding the cost of innovation.
 

Legal Outsourcing from Israel

The Rimon Law Group, based in Israel, is a virtual law firm of lawyers who are members of various U.S. bars but who live in Israel and offer their services to lawyers and corporate legal departments in the United States at fees which are less than half U.S.-based legal fees.  The Group claims that its attorneys all have experience in complex legal matters and can deliver legal services that are comparable to legal services offered by U.S. based lawyers for much less cost because of the different cost structures between the U.S. and Israel. I think this is an interesting example of a law firm building a virtual business based on identifying a niche market and maximizing a comparative economic advantage.

With today's connectivity, some  kinds of legal work no longer require face to face interaction. This  results in a kind of economic leverage based on geographic location. It is interesting to note that the Rimon Law Group has as its clients other law firms and corporate legal departments, rather than working with clients directly.

To take this model even further, one could envision a virtual law firm of attorneys who are members of various U.S. state bars, and who are active members of those bars, but serving clients directly by telephone and email, and using virtual tools that are now being developed that facilitate the delivery of online legal services directly to consumers. These attorneys, for various reasons may live in locations that are lower in cost, than our major metropolitan areas, such as downtown Chicago or New York, and and are able to translate lower costs into reduced fees. Such lawyers don't have to live in Israel. They could live where ever it is possible to leverage a lower cost of living into reduced legal fees particularly, for the same commodity transactions that traditional face-to-face lawyers, with dedicated expensive offices, charge out at a much higher rate.

After all, I operate a virtual law firm in Maryland, where I am an active member of the bar, from my home in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. Not a bad life style if you make it work.

I predict we will see many more "virtual networks" of lawyers emerge in the coming decade, some based in the United States, and some based in other parts of the world, serving not only client law firms in the U.S., but U.S. consumers directly.

Automated Document Assembly as a Disruptive Legal Technology

Richard Susskind, in his new book, The End of Lawyers? Rethinking the Nature of Legal Services, devotes a chapter to disruptive legal technologies and identifies automated document assembly as a leading example. A related analysis can be found in a paper produced by Darryl Mountain, a Vancouver attorney, that is titled "Disrupting Conventional Law Firm Business Models Using Document Assembly" Both authors make the point that automating legal documents is one of the major ways that a lawyer can increase productivity, particularly for document intensive practices. Offering these documents over the web directly to clients through a secure client area, where the client completes an online questionnaire increases productivity even more. It is much more efficient than a process where a lawyer or paralegal types data into a desktop windows application manually.

Once the user answers a series of questions that appear in the web browser, a document is instantly created ready for the lawyer's further review and analysis. If the client misses a question, the lawyer can easily communicate by email and request additional information or provide a clarification on how a question should be answered. But that is much more efficient that jotting down the client's answers to the attorney's questions on a yellow pad.

This is consistent with Susskind's analysis that lawyers should automate what they can, leaving to human intelligence what it does best, which is providing legal advice and more customized and individualized drafting. Today automated document assembly solutions  are very robust and can automate very complex documents with multiple levels of "if-then" clauses to accommodate hundreds of different fact situations. Automation of more standardized legal documents should be a "no-brainer."  Using automated document assembly reduces greatly the amount of time the attorney has to spend on an individual document project enabling alternative billing systems that yield a higher margin for the law firm and also potentially lower pricing to the client.

We have seen these efficiencies in our own business activities. Through our affiliate company, Epoq, US, we sell thousands of standardized legal documents a month directly to consumers. Many of these documents are court documents, available for free from court sites, in Adobe .PDF format. Examples are non-contested divorce actions, name change actions, child support modification actions, incorporation documents, and other corporate filings.  By automating these documents and legal forms and adding extensive help screens we add value and make it easier for self-help ("pro se"  parties to complete online.

We know that our legal forms business is taking away market share from law firms, even though we do not provide legal advice and we are selling legal forms only. This is a classic case of "pure-play" disruption. Because the user is "doing"  the work by completing an online questionnaire, and the software does the rest, we have a very high profit margin on these forms, once they are automated. I call this, "making money while I am sleeping."

We also know the limitations of a "forms only" , self-help approach. Our DirectLaw, virtual law office platform, makes our legal forms and automated document assembly technology, available to law firms as a hosted service.  In the law firm configuration, the lawyer can bundle legal advice for legal forms offering a much valued-added offering at a price point which is significantly higher that the sale of automated legal forms only. The lawyer still provides a personal service element, but the document assembly technology enables the lawyer to spend more time with the client because creating the first draft of the document is instantaneous. Moreover, the client is doing part of the work as the lawyer doesn't have to waste time gathering basic factual information which is captured online within a web page. This also can be a very profitable business model. I know from operating my own Maryland virtual law firm , from my home in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida,  just how profitable and satisfying this can be.

I have heard some critics of automated methods remark that lawyers were not trained to be "robots." This perspective misses the point by a mile. By figuring out what parts of a legal process can be efficiently automated, and which parts need to remain the domain of human intelligence, the productivity of the lawyer is greatly enhanced. In the future automated document assembly over the web will become the norm, as it offers the promise of greater value and lower fees or prices.  If not through law firms, then through non-lawyer legal form publishers who have migrated their legal form content to a dynamic and interactive format.

Solos and small law firms ignore these developments at their peril. While many solos practitioners ponder these developments, non-lawyer operated web sites like SmartLegalForms, Wills Online, the Name Change Law Center [ disclosure: We also operate these aforementioned legal form web sites ], Nolo, and LegalZoom, and other non-lawyer sites, will continue to eat away at the market share of the legal profession, particularly solos and small law firms.

It is time for the legal profession to catch up and not cede this piece of business to non-lawyer operators. At the end of the time day, it is the consumer who will suffer by not having access to the legal profession.

 

Client Confidentiality and Online Document Preparation

Some of our law firm clients have asked us whether there is a breach of confidentiality if a law firm uses our automated legal documents and virtual law firm technology as part of their web site. In our model, we provide a technology platform where a client who has been accepted by the law firm can complete an on-line questionnaire which captures answers provided by the client through the web browser. All information provided by the client is passed by the client to the law firm in encrypted form. These factual answers from the client, and client choices, are used by our web-enabled document automation technology ( Rapidocs) to instantly create a first draft for the lawyer to review or amend as appropriate.

The question is:

Does a lawyer breach his or her obligation to maintain a client’s confidentiality when using an online document automation application for his or her clients, which is provided from a third party vendor?

The rules of professional conduct of every state impose an obligation on lawyers to maintain the confidences of their clients. In addition, rules of evidence protect lawyers from testifying against their clients under the attorney-client privilege.

ABA Model Rule 1.6 addresses confidentiality and has been adopted by most states. The rule provides that a “lawyer shall not reveal information relating to the representation of a client unless the client gives informed consent, the disclosure is impliedly authorized in order to carry out the representation or the disclosure is permitted” by one of the exceptions set out in the next part of the rule, none of which pertain to this situation. Paragraph 16 of the comment to the rule states, “A lawyer must act competently to safeguard information relating to the representation of a client against inadvertent or unauthorized disclosure by the lawyer or other persons who are participating in the representation of the client or who are subject to the lawyer’s supervision.”

Opinions that examine the lawyer’s obligation to maintain confidentiality when using technology generally address email. The leading analysis of this is ABA Formal Opinion 99-413 (March 10, 1999). The opinion examined different modes of email transmission and concluded that in all modes, “lawyers have a reasonable expectation of privacy …despite some risk of interception and disclosure.” The opinion also cautions that when a lawyer may send information that is “so highly sensitive that extraordinary measures to protect the transmission are warranted,” the lawyer should consult the client about the mode of the transmission.

Opinion 99-413 is of particular note here because it includes an examination of email transmitted over the Internet, like online forms. The opinion states that confidentiality may be compromised by an ISP’s legal right to monitor what is transmitted through it or stored on its network and by illegal hacking. On the first point, the opinion indicates that by law providers may conduct random monitoring only for mechanical or quality service control checks. Therefore, the interception of content of a communication sent through the Internet would be illegal in either situation. This gives the lawyer a reasonable expectation of privacy that requires no further action, except as noted in the highly sensitive communication.

Although not required under the ABA Opinion or those of various states, encryption makes the possibility of interception even more remote and creates even greater assurances the information will be confidential. Nevertheless, under the analysis of these opinions, the transmission of online forms over the Internet would not breach the lawyer’s obligation to maintain the client’s confidentiality even when the communication is not encrypted.

For other opinions on this subject see: New State Laws Requiring Encryption May Affect Law Practices  on the Blog on Virtual Law Office Technology.

 

UPL Issue in On-Line Document Assembly

Recently a prospect for our DirectLaw Web Service asked me whether it was the unauthorized practice of law for a law firm to use a legal document that is generated by our web-enabled document automation system (Rapidocs), because the legal form did not originate within the law firm itself. In this model, a client completes an on-line questionnaire which generates a legal form or legal document instantly ready for attorney review and further modification. I asked my colleague Will Hornsby, who is Counsel to the Standing Committee on the Delivery of Legal Services, American Bar Association, and a leading expert on ethical issues that arise from delivering legal services over the Internet.

Hornsby says that a lawyer commits the unauthorized practice of law when the lawyer assists a non-lawyer, whether that is a person or a corporation, to undertake the practice of law. This leads to the question of whether online document automation that creates a legal form or document from data provided by the client is the practice law. The definition of “the practice of law” varies from state-to-state but frequently includes the drafting of legal documents and the use of legal knowledge or skill. (For specific state definitions of what is the practice of law, or the unauthorized practice of law, click here.

 

However, the question here revolves around whether the lawyer is “assisting” the software vendor in practicing law when the document preparation is provided as a legal service of the law firm. This is analogous to services provided by paralegals and other outsourced services. In most states, for example, paralegals have no independent authority to provide legal services. If they independently provide document preparation or use their legal skills in serving clients, they may be deemed in violation of their state’s UPL laws, as are any lawyers who assist them in providing those services. [This is the LegalZoom model ]. However, if paralegals provide those same services under the direction of a lawyer and the lawyer assumes supervisory obligations, the paralegal is not practicing law and is not violating UPL laws, nor is the lawyer who provides the supervision “assisting” in the unauthorized practice of law.

 

ABA Formal Opinion 08-451 (Aug. 5, 2008) clarifies that a lawyer may outsource legal services, subject to several considerations. The opinion directly addresses independent contractors, such as temporary lawyers, but also mentions sources of tasks such as a photocopy shop, a document management company and a third-party vendor for the firm’s computer services. In its discussion of Model Rule 5.5 and the unauthorized practice of law, the Opinion states, “Ordinarily, an individual who is not admitted to practice law in a particular jurisdiction may work for a lawyer who is so admitted, provided that the lawyer remains responsible for the work being performed and that the individual is not held out as being a duly admitted lawyer.”

 

Therefore, according to Hornsby, and I agree, even if a document automation application would be deemed the unauthorized practice of law if its services were provided independently of a lawyer’s services, once those service or the documents produced by the software application are provided under the lawyer’s direction and supervision, within the scope of the lawyer’s services, the lawyer can no longer be assisting the document preparation in the practice of law and no longer has a risk of assisting in the unauthorized practice of law.

 

 

First DirectLaw firm in Georgia

EssentiaLegal, based in Atlanta, Georgia, and founded by Robert Arrington, Latif Oduolo-Owoo, & Michael Mason, three alumni from large law firm practices in Atlanta, is a new style law firm, part virtual and part physical that is designed to serve the broad middle class with unbundled legal services. The physical office is located in a shopping mall for easy access, but the virtual component is powered by our DirectLaw Service and enables the firm to serve clients throughout the state of Georgia. Clients can complete Questionnaires either on-line, or within the physical office, which results in the instant creation of the first draft of a document or form, ready for the lawyer's review and further modification. Clients have the option of meeting with an attorney at their offices or relating to the firm on purely virtual basis through the MyLegalAffairs application created within the web site by our DirectLaw Web Service. I believe that this "click and mortar" strategy will be ultimately more effective than a purely virtual strategy because clients have the option of face to face contact with their attorney. "Click and mortar" refers to a business model that has both on-line and off-line components.

LEGALTECH NEW YORK 2009

We are exhibiting our DirectLaw Web Service at LEGALTECH in New York on February 2-4, 2009. This show is one of the largest legal technology shows involving over 450 legal technology vendors which attract over 13,000 participants. The show is at the New York Hilton at 1335 Sixth Avenue. We are Booth #1621 on Level II.  If you are planning to attend, please stop by for a demonstration of our DIrectLaw Service or just to chat about new developments in the delivery of online legal services. We will be introducing the latest version of Rapidocs, known as Rapidocs 4.0, which is our web-enabled document automation solution that operates totally within the web browser without requiring the downloading of an Active X control, Java Applet, or other software application.  Come see legal documents assembled in real time within the web browser.

Richard Cohen, CO-CEO of EPOQ, our sister company in the London, will also be in attendance and is up to date on new developments to de-regulate the legal profession in the UK and EPOQ's new mylawyer network of web-enabled UK law firms that serve consumers.