eLawyering Ethical Issues

access_to_justivceOne of the obstacles to the development of innovative software solutions that automate part of the legal service delivery process resulting in lower, more affordable legal fees is the absence of capital. Traditional methods of legal service delivery based on hourly billing rates out of reach for low and moderate income clients.  Capital investment is required to create innovative web-based software solutions that can enable low and moderate income clients to either solve legal problems on their own as pro-se litigants, or to enable law firms to offer legal solutions at a more affordable price point.

The major obstacle to making more capital available to law firms, is the prohibition on investment in law firms by non-lawyers enshrined in the ABA’s Model Rules of Professional Responsibility and replicated in the state rules of professional responsibility that regulate lawyers in their state. [ See Rule 5.4 – Professional Independence of a Lawyer ].

There has been little innovation within solo and smaller law firms to develop client-centered, web-based applications that provide a low cost solution to low and moderate income clients. Instead innovation is centered in the vendor community that provides tools to law firms, usually as a SaaS service for a monthly subscription fee. A good example is our own DirectLaw virtual law firm platform that provides a client-centered document automation application, and other tools that enables a law firm to unbundled legal services for a fixed fee to clients online. While the value of innovation outside of the law firm, within the vendor sector of the legal industry, is not to minimized, it is the lawyer within the law firm that has the most nuanced view about what their clients need and want. The lawyer within the law firm also has the primary interest in figuring out how to develop and manage the delivery of legal services so that for certain kinds of legal problems a scalable, volume-based business model can be implemented.

Innovation requires capital. It is capital intensive to develop software applications and new delivery systems for legal services. Solos and small law firms that serve individuals and families do not have access to capital. Whatever innovation is taking place in the delivery of legal services is happening outside of the legal profession in organizations like LegalZoom financed by venture capital, or the within legal aid programs funded in part by the Technology grant program within the Legal Services Program, or outside of the United States. [See also, blog post from Lexicata – How Law Firms Can be More Like LegalZoom ].

There has been much controversial discussion with the legal profession on modifying the ownership rules that apply to law firms, with little result. For example, the American Bar Association created last year a Commission on the Future of Legal Services to address the access to justice problem, under the under the leadership of then ABA-President William C. Hubbard.   The Commission convened a National Summit on Innovation in Legal Services, in May, 2015 where private investment in law firms as a prerequisite to innovation was on the agenda. But I have yet to see any progress on this issue within the American Bar Association. Unlike other countries, private investment in law firms as a way to develop new ways of serving a latent market for legal services is dead on arrival when it reaches the ABA’s House of Delegates, although 80% of the U.S. population can’t afford the cost of legal services and is unserved by the legal profession.

The evidence we have seen in the United Kingdom, where the legal profession has moved towards de-regulation, and where capital can flow freely into law firms, suggests that the United States will remain a laggard in innovation in the delivery of legal services until this problem can be fixed. In the UK, LegalZoom is taking advantage of this de-regulation by becoming an ABS [ Alternative Business Structure ].  As a private company, operating in the UK, LegalZoom can offer legal services directly to the public. LegalZoom plans to use this opportunity to develop and experiment with new end-to-end legal services for consumers with the idea that in the far distant future these innovations can be imported into the U.S. legal market.

The bottom line is that you can’t really innovate without access to capital – it is the fuel of innovation. For solo and small law firms that serve people, rather than large corporations, capital is not available for innovation unless the lawyer or law firm has generated capital from their practice and makes a conscious decision to invest in software automation and web-based solutions.

An example of a law firm that has accumulated capital because of litigation against the mortgage servicing companies and the banks in the robo-signing scandal during the U.S foreclosure crisis, is IceLegal, P.A., a small law firm based in Florida. IceLegal under the leadership of Thomas Ice,  is launching its own access to justice initiative at: http://www.legalyou.com.  The firm has also created its own LegalYou video channel for educating pro-se litigants.  This is a project of the law firm (not of a private company), and will  provide low cost legal solutions to Florida residents. If LegalYou is a success it will serve a new latent market ignored by most of Florida’s law firms. LegalYou is the exception rather than the rule.

One would think that Internet-savvy, recent law school graduates would be motivated to serve a latent market for legal services by developing innovative solutions, but handicapped by large student loans they are forced into career roles that provide sufficient cash flow to amortize those loans. Risk-taking is not an option for them.

A Proposal Safe Harbor for Law Firms Serving Low and Moderate Income Clients

To increase the flow of capital to law solos and small law firms who wish to serve just low and moderate income clients with automated legal solutions I propose that:

  • The American Bar Association amend Rule 5.4 to permit private investment in just those law firms that serve low and moderate income clients exclusively.
  • Personal injury and other contingent fee practices would be excluded from this exception as capital is self-generating for successful firms in these practice areas.
  • To comfort to those who are concerned that the independence of the lawyer is compromised by this proposal, the law firm must remain at least a 51% owner of the law firm. Private investors can be minority shareholders only.
  • It is relatively easy to create an income generation screen to capture just low and moderate income clients for the law firm, and exclude those of higher income. The data from this intake process can be archived and audited to comply with the exception to the rule.

Creating this exception opens up the opportunity for smaller law firms to take advantage of crowd-funding opportunities, the angel investor community, and the new SEC rules that permit crowd-funding investment. Further, the rich relatives and friends (if they exist) of a young lawyer could fund the new lawyer’s law firm, and get a return on investment, without the lawyer risking disbarment because of violation of the 5.4.

An argument can also be made that enabling law firms that serve primarily corporate entities can create capital on their own without additional incentives and should not be able to take advantage of this safe harbor. Most large law firms represent corporate entities (banks, insurance companies, health care organizations, drug companies,  manufacturers, financial organizations) whose legal positions are opposed to many consumer interests.  These firms should have to use their own capital to become more efficient so as not to tip the balances against the consumer even more than it is.

One would think that this modest proposal to enable innovation designed to increase access to the legal system for clients who can’t afford the high cost of legal fees would be an idea that that American Bar Association and state bar associations might entertain or even discuss.

However, given that the structure of regulation of the legal profession is controlled by the legal profession, this idea will probably be dead on arrival.


I had the honor of speaking at ReInventLawSiliconValley, a conference on innovation and the legal system sponsored by the ReInvent Law Laboratory at Michigan State Law School, co-founded by Professors Dan Martin Katz and Renee Newman Knake. This was a great learning day for me and I suggest if you are interested in the subject of change in the legal profession and legal education that you watch the videos when they are published on the ReInventLaw Law Channel. See also on Twitter #ReInventLaw and my pre-conference post on this Conference.

Here are the slides from my ReInventLaw presentation.

Private capital into law firmsI am interested in the subject of how to get private capital into law firms to spur innovation despite the prohibitions of 5.4 of the ABA Model Rule of Professional Conduct. This is the rule that prevents a non-lawyer from owning an equity interest n a law firm in all US states, except on a limited basis in the District of Columbia. This is a controversial issue in the US, and the the ABA Ethics 20/20 Commission decided not to address the subject in its recent deliberations. The ABA House of Delegates and almost all state bar associations are dead set against any change to this rule.


Jacoby & Meyers


Jacoby & Meyers, the pioneering consumer law firm, has filed a suit against the judiciary in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut  in Federal court to overturn the rule, but that’s another story.


I am interested in finding out if clever lawyers have figured out away around the rule. I discovered at least two instances where law firms have created a business model that enables private capital to fund technology and management support that would be beyond the ability of the law partners to fund by themselves.

The law firms are Clearspire and RajPatent, recently re-branded as LegalForceLaw.  Both law firms are built around the same concept – a law firm that is supported by an independent management company that provides technology and management services to the law firm.

ClearsspireClearspire invested over $5,000,000 in a technology and management platform to support the delivery of legal services to corporate legal clients. The firm is growing rapidly and recently opened a San Francisco Office.

LegalForceLaw was founded by a solo practitioner, Raj Abhyanker. The underlying company is called Trademarkia, Inc., which created the Trademarkia web site, the legal web site with the most traffic on the Internet. Like Clearspire, Trademarkia developed a technology to make it easy for non-lawyers to do a trademark search. The traffic to the Trademarkia site generates business for the law firm. [See previous post on LegalForce ].

In both cases, a separate management and independent management company provides services to the law firm. In theory the management company could serve other law firms, but in these cases the management company only has one client.

Foloow the MoneyThe arrangement raises more questions and the answers are not apparent.

I would like to learn more about how these management companies price their services to the law firms they serve. They can’t take a percentage of the legal fees or it would be a violation of Rule 5.4 How much of the cash generated by the law firm can be siphoned off by the management contract between the management company and the law firm? What is the pricing mechanism between the management company and the law firm? Is it a cost plus contract or are market rates charged for the services provided?

Why would an investor put funds at risk within the management company as there would be no easy exit. The law firm can’t go public and if the managing partners of the law firm were hit by a bus the law firm would go out of existence. The brand belongs to the law firm, not the management company. The financial return to the management company is limited because of the 5.4 prohibition. So where is the upside for the investors in the management company?

I think that these innovative law firms should be more transparent about the nature of the management agreement between their management company and their law firm, so that other law firms interested in replicating this business model can experiment.

Maybe these management agreement should be  scrutinized and approved by the ethics counsel from the bar associations in the jurisdictions where these law firms are located, so there is no question that there is no violation of 5.4?


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.




The ABA Commission on Ethics 20/20 Working Group on Uniformity, Choice of Law, and Conflict of Interest has identified some issues related to defining limits on Virtual Practice under Rule 5.5. Model Rule 5.5 (b) (1) requires a lawyer to obtain a license in a jurisdiction if the lawyer has an office or a “systematic and continuous” presence there, unless the lawyer’s work falls within one of the exception identified in Rule 5.5 (d). The Commission has identified as a potential problem the situation where lawyers are physically present in one jurisdiction, yet have a substantial virtual practice in another. The problem is “that it is not always clear when this virtual practice in a jurisdiction is sufficiently “systematic and continuous” to require a license in that jurisdiction.”

This comment could be interpreted to mean that lawyers who have a virtual law practice, mostly solos and small law firms, may have an issue about whether they need to “secure a license” in the other jurisdiction.

This is a solution looking for a problem where none exists as far as the typical virtual law practice is concerned.

A virtual law practice is commonly associated with the online delivery of legal services. Lawyers engaging in virtual practice are only able to provide legal work that pertains to the laws of the state(s) in which they are licensed or they are in violation of 5.5. Whether or not their delivery methods or work with the clients takes place in a physical location other than where the lawyer is licensed, the key factor is that the lawyer is practicing the law of the jurisdiction they are licensed in and to which the client’s legal needs pertain. A law firm will have a website that anyone in any jurisdiction may find and read online. The lawyer places the appropriate disclaimers on the website and makes it clear in any registration process for a client portal that the law firm is only permitted to practice the laws of a certain jurisdiction. This is not misleading to the public nor is it the unauthorized practice of law.

For example, a client living in Florida who owns real estate in Maryland should be able to work online with a lawyer licensed in Maryland to handle the matter. That lawyer licensed in Maryland, whether he or she lives in Florida or New York, is not creating a “systematic or continuous presence” in the state of Florida to subject the lawyer to Rule 5.5(b). Contacts for the purpose of determining “systematic and continuous presence” in the context of determining “personal jurisdiction” have nothing to do with a virtual law firm that limits its practice to residents of the state in which it is primarily located, or serving out of state residents who have matters that are within the state where the attorney is licensed.

When an attorney creates a virtual law office, the gateway to the virtual law office is a Website that any other law firm would create and which is available for viewing by anyone in the world. The difference is the addition of a secure client portal where the prospective client and existing clients will register for assistance. The virtual law office Website states throughout where the attorney is licensed to practice law. The terms and conditions or disclaimers on the site should clearly explain where the attorney is licensed to practice law. This is no different than a traditional law firm Website.

Only residents of the state where the attorney is licensed, or out of state residents who have a legal matter within the state are permitted to register as clients of the law firm. Often the attorney may have the online client sign a traditional or digital engagement agreement that provides notice of which state’s law will apply should there be any dispute.

In addition, some virtual law office platforms have jurisdiction checks so that in order to register, the prospective client must provide their address. If the client is not physically located in the state, a notice is sent to the attorney reminding the attorney that before the client can be accepted as a client of the firm the attorney has to determined that the matter to be handled is a legal matter within the attorney’s jurisdiction. A notice is also sent to the client, reminding the client that the attorney is only licensed to practice law in the state in which the attorney is located. A client’s presence in a different geographic location than his or her attorney does not mean that a state’s ethics rules should come into play for the attorney handling a project that is unrelated to that state’s laws. Just because an attorney’s Website can be viewed in another state, doesn’t mean that a state should have disciplinary authority over that attorney because the Website and the law firm are not offering to provide “legal services” in that state. The alternative logic would suggest that a law firm should be available to be viewed only in the state in which the lawyer is a member of the bar – a truly absurd result – not worthy of further discussion.

To summarize: There are two separate questions about when a UPL claim would arise. First, what contacts does a state require to establish presence when the lawyer is not admitted there but is working with a client who physically resides in that state? Second, in the situation where the lawyer is admitted to practice in that state, but the lawyer physically wants to reside outside of that jurisdiction, what are the contacts that would need to be required to establish presence in the state where the lawyer is licensed? Again, the answer to both questions should be that the legal work that the lawyer provides to the client is what matters rather than where either the client or the lawyer is physically located. 

Stephanie Kimbro contributed to this post and see:  What constitutes virtual presence?  see also Carolyn Elefant’s post on this subject on her MyShingle Blog.


Virtual Law PracticeThe latest edition of the ABA’s Law Practice Today webzine has good articles on elawyering and virtual practice and a really innovative piece by Marc Laurtisen titled,  Dancing in the Cloud, and an introduction to the elawyering concept by Stephanie Kimbro —  Getting Started With eLawyering).

I also wrote a short article on Document Assembly Over the Internet , which as readers of this Blog will know is an old theme for me.

For our latest analysis on what is working in the virtual law firm space, download our White Paper on Virtual Law Practice: Success Factors.



The Legal Cloud Computing Association (LCCA) has published responses to proposals issued by the ABA Commission on Ethics 20/20 and the North Carolina State Bar regarding the use of cloud computing within a law practice.

The Legal Cloud Computing Association ("LCCA"), formed in December 2010, is the collective voice of the leading cloud computing software providers for the legal profession, consisting of Clio (Themis Solutions, Inc.), DiaLawg, LLC, DirectLaw, Inc., NetDocuments, Nextpoint, Inc., RealPractice, Inc., Rocket Matter, LLC, and Total Attorneys, LLC.

Response to ABA Commission on Ethics 20/20

The LCCA’s letter to the ABA Commission on Ethics was issued in response to the Commission’s Initial Draft Proposals on "Technology and Confidentiality" published on May 2, 2011. The Proposals include certain modifications to the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct that are designed to facilitate the responsible adoption of technology that will increase the quality, and reduce the cost, of legal services.  The Proposals were issued as part of a process initiated in early in 2010 where the Commission published an Issues Paper requesting comments and feedback from the legal community.

The LCCA fully supported the Commission’s Proposals, and concluded that the Commission ‘s recommendations provided a reasonable framework the would enable law firms to make infomed decisions about using cloud computing resources.

Response to North Carolina State Bar Proposed 2011FEO6

The LCCA’s letter to the North Carolina State Bar pertains to Proposed Formal Ethics Opinion 2011FEO6. The Proposed FEO attempts to address the ethical issues relating to the use of Software-as-a-Service or cloud computing within a law firm environment.

While the LCCA supported the NC State Bar’s efforts to provide clarity on the use of cloud computing, the Proposed FEO as written would negatively impact a broad scope of attorneys from those who do nothing more than use a web-based email client or conduct online legal research to those that do full scale online delivery of legal services.

The onerous requirements of the Proposed FEO, detailed in full in the LCCA’s response to the NC State Bar, would force many cloud computing providers to withdraw from the NC market entirely, thus negatively impacting the technological capabilities and competitiveness of NC-based law firms.

Unlike the recommendations of the ABA Ethics 20/20 Commission, the draft North Carolina bar opinion, as it stands, is likely to have a negative impact on the use of cloud computing resources and applications by law firms in North Carolina. One result is that North Carolina’s law  firms, particularly solos and small law firms would be handicapped when competing with law firms from other states.

We are hopeful that the revised opinion will be more compatible with the recommendations of the ABA Ethics 20/20 Commission.  Why is it necessary for each state bar to have their own set of guidelines in this area, when the companies that offer cloud computing services operate nationally?

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?


The Committee on Attorney Advertising of the New Jersey Court System issued an Advisory Opinion this week that stated that a Total Bankruptcy web site,  published by TotalAttorneys®, a law firm marketing and services organization based in Chicago, is misleading and in violation of the Rule of Professional  Conduct 7.1 (a) .Download Full Opinion .

The Committee also ruled that the web site was not an impermissible referral service and that Attorneys are not flatly prohibited from paying for advertising on a "pay-per-lead" or "pay per click" basis. That’s good news for TotalAttorneys and other performance-based marketing schemes on the Internet.

The Committee sets out clearly that "Attorney advertising cannot be misleading or omit operative facts." and found that the website did not provide sufficient information to the user and is misleading. 

In this case, the user was directed to only one attorney based on the purchase of exclusive rights to a geographical area. To avoid misleading consumers, the Committee stated, the methodology for the selection of the attorney’s name must be made clear, including the fact that the website limited participation to one (paying) attorney per geographical area. Further, the Committee specified that all requirements to participate in the website must be clearly specified; a full list of participating attorneys must be readily accessible, and the website must inform the user that the attorneys have paid a fee to participate.

It is easy for attorneys to violate their professional obligations and expose themselves to bar sanctions, by ignoring the fine print in their agreements with Internet-based marketing websites.

For example, no less a credible organization as Lexis-Nexis®,  recently launched a direct to consumer web site, called  EZLAW.COM. The website purports to offer wills, powers of attorney and advance directives forms bundled with legal advice for a fixed and reasonable fee. A goal I would heartily endorse.

However, the site seems to suffer from the same issues as the TotalAttorney’s web site when viewed through the lense of the New Jersey Advisory Opinion.

At EZLAW, the site operator provides a mechanism for consumers to assemble legal documents on-line and then make available a network of attorneys to provide legal advice as part of the offered package. In describing its Attorney Network, EZLAW states that:

They are all prescreened by EZLaw to ensure that you get professional, experienced and confidential legal counsel. To be included in our network, attorneys must meet our rigorous 12-point checklist of criteria.

This suggests that EZLAW is vouching for the quality of the qualifications of the participating attorneys, not only whether an attorney has practiced a number of years or maintains a certain level of malpractice, and this could be construed as misleading.

Moreover, the NJ Opinion states clearly that as a form of attorney advertising, " a full list of participating attorneys must be readily accessible," but on the EZLAW web site no list of participating attorneys is to be found.

Moreover the limited representation agreement executed by the client with the law firm is provided by EZLAW on behalf of the law firm, so the client never knows the identity of the law firm prior to entering into an engagement with the attorney. Normally you would expect that the client would enter into a limited retainer agreement directly with the law firm. I never heard of a retainer agreement that wasn’t entered into directly between the client and the law firm. Not in this case.

Click here for a copy of the Representation Agreement between EZLAW and the client.  You decide whether  this agreement is ethically compliant? I am interested in hearing other opinions about this agreement. If you have one. please comment.

So what’s the bottom line? Lawyer’s need to read the fine print. Lawyers need to have a  full understanding of how their ethical obligations apply  to these new Internet-based marketing schemes lest they be caught in a web of disciplinary proceedings that wasn’t part of the bargain. 

Apparently LegalZoom is in the early stages of planning an IPO, (going public),  according to an unnamed source at VentureBeat. Employing more that 500 employees, and having raised over $45 million in venture capital over the last few years, LegalZoom is clearly the leading non-lawyer legal document preparation web site. This is a good example of a disruptive innovation in the delivery of legal solutions by a non-lawyer provider that continues to eat away at the market share of solo practitioners and small law firms.

Focusing on a market that is not served well by the legal profession, in the same way that Southwest Airlines first targeted people who traveled by bus, rather than by air because air travel was too expensive, LegalZoom is will undoubtedly figure out a way to move up the value chain, capturing even more complex business from law firms, without actually giving legal advice.

In the United States, because the definition of what constitutes the "unauthorized practice of law" is so vague. (perhaps unconstitutionally vague),  it would seem that even though LegalZoom does not actually provide legal advice, it would be prohibited from assembling legal documents, even when the document assembly is purely software-driven. 

The reality is that bar associations have a tough case to make against a non-lawyer provider when no actual legal advice is given. UPL statutes haven’t been truly tested on the issue of whether a non-lawyer can assemble legal documents without actually giving legal advice. In Florida, when the issue came up, there was a compromise between the bar and non-lawyer providers and non-lawyers can help a consumer complete court forms as long as no legal advice is provided. It gets murky when you move beyond courts forms, to more complex transactional documents such as a will,  a living trust, or a marital separation agreement, even if the user is making the selection through a software driven questionnaire. Some UPL advocates, have argued that the selection of alternative clauses is still UPL, because a person had to "program" the clauses. There is some precedent for this position, but the State of Texas on the other hand, specifically excludes software driven document assembly from the "unauthorized practice of law., provided there there are disclaimers which state "clearly and conspicuously that the products are not the substitute for the advice of an attorney."

I think the risk portion of the prospectus will make for fascinating reading, particularly since in many states UPL is a felony. I can just visualize this language: "Investors should be aware that the company may be violating unauthorized practice of law statutes in many states, and as a result, if convicted, one or more executive officers may be required to serve time in the pokey."

In the interest of full disclosure,  Epoq US,  of which I am President, and which is the parent company of DirectLaw, also provides legal document preparation services over the web directly to consumers through a network of legal web sites    So perhaps I should be worried as well.

Another interesting start-up has emerged out of Silicon Valley to provide crowdsourced legal advice to other start-ups for free.

Vertical Q&A web sites seems to be the next new thing among venture capital investors. Even Facebook  rolled out this year a crowd-sourced Q&A service.

LawPivot, a legal Q&A web site founded in 2009,  hopes to fill a niche by providing legal advice to the founders of start-up and early stage high-tech companies based in California at a legal fee they can afford — FREE.   Legal advice is provided by an experienced network of high-priced business law attorneys, recruited from the top 200 hundred or so law firms, who hope to pick up new clients by entering into discussions by providing free legal advice services to start-up companies.

Free legal advice or the “free consult” has been employed by lawyers for years, pre-Internet, as a tried and true marketing strategy for acquiring new clients. Now many lawyers are beginning to offer free legal advice online from their web sites directly. See for example,  VirtualEsq.Com . By next year there will be hundreds of these free legal advice services offered directly by lawyers from their web sites as the virtual law firm movement begins to scale.

However, free legal advice from an individual law firm’s web site, is not the same thing as a vertical web site that aggregates answers from many lawyers, giving consumers a wider variety of responses to their particular situation.

Free legal advice online is not a completely new idea. FreeAdvice has been doing it for years, and consumers can get answers to their basic legal questions from sites such as AVVO, RocketLawyer, and JustAnswer. What is new, is that LawPivot provides through its network of lawyers “real” legal advice that applies to the client’s particular situation, as distinguished from merely legal information. And this advice is reputedly to be "high quality" given the stature of the lawyers recruited to the LawPivot network.

However, genuine legal advice, [as distinguished from “legal advice” that is characterized as “legal information” ],  like any legal service, has to be delivered in an ethically compliant way requiring that the client’s information be kept confidential, that an attorney/client relationship be established, and that the attorney providing the legal advice be a member of the bar within the jurisdiction  where the client is located. Presumably LawPivot is addressing these issues. The LawPivot service is presently limited to California, but the company, according to its representations, plans to expand nationwide.

Although the company recently raised $600,000 from Google Ventures, the venture capital arm of Google, after a $400,0000 round from from a group of angel investors, it will be interesting to see how or whether it survives. At this point, neither the clients are charged for legal advice, nor are the participating attorneys charged an advertising fee. So there is no revenue, and apparently no business model. However, I doubt that the investors thought they were making  charitable contributions, so there must be a business model lurking in the background somewhere?

Unfortunately, the only business model that is ethically compliant in the US, is one where the participating lawyers pay an advertising fee to play (get listed) and get exposure. Splitting legal advice fees between a law firm and a non-law firm , is a big “No, No” and an ethical prohibition that exposes the participating attorneys to bar sanctions which could lead to disbarment.   Perhaps because Google is now involved as a major backer of  LawPivot , and the company is planning to move to the GooglePlex campus start-up incubator,  "they can do no wrong.!"

Many other Western common law jurisdictions, like the United Kingdom, have abolished the division of fees, but the rules against splitting fees with non-lawyers remains sacrosanct  in the US, on the theory that splitting fees would compromise the independent judgment of the attorney. However, in the UK, lawyers are permitted to work for a profit-making company and provide legal advice directly to consumers, and no one seems to be complaining about compromised judgment. [ See: FirstAssist in the UK  for an example ].

Charging clients an administrative fee to “use” the web site, as an alternative revenue source, has been tried before in an earlier Internet era, and it failed then. [ e.g. AmeriCounsel ]. I doubt that this model will work today when consumers are expecting everything on the web to be for free.

I think it is a good sign that innovation is happening in the legal industry, and that private capital is finally looking for a way to get a return by investing in the delivery of legal services. [See: Total Attorneys Receives Multi-Million Dollar Investment ].

I would like to see companies like LawPivot thrive, but at this point I don’t see the juice.  Are advertising revenues sufficient to make this venture sustainable, or has LawPivot  figured out another legitimate source of revenue that doesn’t violate US ethical prohibitions? Only time will tell.