Private Investment in US Legal Services

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?

 

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.)

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

 

 

Virtual Lawyering and "Virtual Presence" under Model Rule 5.5 (b) (1)

 

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.

 

December Law Practice Today Issue Focuses on eLawyering

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.

 

 

Legal Cloud Computing Association Publishes Responses to ABA, North Carolina State Bar

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?


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?

 

NJ Attorney Advertising Committee Rules that a TotalAttorneys WebSite is Misleading

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. 

LegalZoom is Considering an IPO

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.

LawPivot: Another Legal Advice Web Site

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.

 

Will LegalZoom Become the Largest Law Firm in the US?

 

LegalZoom has been beta testing a concept which links its marketing capabilities to a network of law firms that offer legal services under the LegalZoom brand. With some state bar associations accusing LegalZoom of  the unauthorized practice of law,  it might makes sense for the company to seek deeper alliances with networks of attorneys who are able to offer a full and ethically compliant legal service. Solos and small law firms, leveraging off the visibility and prominence of the LegalZoom brand, could reduce their marketing costs and enable these firms to better capture consumers who are part of the “latent legal market”  on the Internet. It could be a win/win for both parties.

Unfortunately, linking the capital and management resources of profit-making organization with private law firms is almost impossible in the United States, given the regulatory framework that governs law practice. Unlike, the United Kingdom, which is in the process of deregulating the legal profession, enabling profit-making companies, from banks  and insurance companies to retail chains like Tesco,  to actually own a law firm, and/or split legal fees with a non-law firm, these practices in the US are strictly taboo.

In the US, law directories can charge a flat marketing fee for a listing, but sharing legal fees with a marketing organization can get you disbarred.

During the dot-com boom around 1999-2000, a company emerged by the name of AmeriCounsel that tried to create a hybrid organizational structure similar to the LegalZoom experiment. The company sought to enable a network of attorneys to offer legal services at a fixed and reasonable price and to mediate between the consumer and the law firm in terms of guaranteeing the quality of the legal services offered. The company failed during the dot-com bust for various reasons, including lack of financing, but on the way to failure, secured some opinions from state bar associations that blessed their model and provides a blue print for hybrid delivery systems which combine the expertise of a law firm with the marketing, management, and technological resources of a non-law firm.

One such opinion was issued by the Nassau County Bar Association New York State.

The Bar Association reasoned that the AmeriCounsel scheme was permissible because:

[S]ince AmeriCounsel does not charge attorneys any fee and since AmeriCounsel does not “recommend” or “promote” the use of any particular lawyer ’s services, it does not fall within the purview of DR 2-103(B) or (D). Rather, AmeriCounsel is a form of group advertising permitted by the Code of Professional Responsibility and by ethics opinions interpreting the Code.

In this model, AmeriCounsel provided technology and administrative services to link the client with the lawyer, but the law firm made no payment to AmeriCounsel. Instead, a separate administrative/technology fee was paid by the consumer to AmericCounsel for using the web site and gaining access to the lawyer. (This is not a practical scheme in today’s web environment, in my opinion), Moreover, AmeriCounsel did not choose the lawyer. The client was able to compare the credentials of different attorneys and choose their own lawyer. Thus no legal referral was involved, which would not be permitted in New York, as only an approved non-profit organization can make legal referrals.

In my opinion, this model, forced on AmeriCounsel, by the Rules of Professional Responsibility, is cumbersome, hard to implement, and was not economically viable for AmeriCounsel. Perhaps this was one of the causes of its failure.

Almost a decade later, companies that want to enter into this kind of hybrid relationship with lawyers, have to follow the same rule structure, as the ABA Model Rules of Professional Responsibility as the rules have not changed in any significant way. changed.  It will be interesting to see whether the ABA Ethics 20/20 Commission, which was set up just last year, will address these issues at all.

Perhaps there should be a “safe harbor” that enables organization’s like LegalZoom to experiment with new patterns of legal service delivery that could operate for a limited period of time in a specific state, like California, The experience would be evaluated carefully as a basis for rule and policy change. The evaluation would be aimed to see if client's interests are compromised in any way, and whether the delivered legal service is less expensive, without compromising the quality of legal service.

Instead of creating legal profession regulatory policies that are based on the legal profession's idea about what is good for the consumer, policy could be based on real experience and facts. Experimentation is good. It leads to change, and in other industries improvement of methods and approaches over a period of time.

Of course, I don’t believe that this will ever happen in the US, at least not in my professional lifetime.

 

Update on North Carolina Bar and"Cloud Computing" Investigation

The North Carolina Bar Committee reviewing the appropriateness of "cloud computing" has posted an Opinion for Comment which is posted on line courtesy of Stephanie Kimbro.  There are two parts to the Opinion. The first part leaves the issue of Cloud Computing to the law firm, leaving to the attorney to use his or her judgment in protecting client confidentiality and client data. The section part of the Opinion lists "best practices" for the use of Software as  a Service (SaaS), which are likely to be further refined by both comments and a review by a subcommittee.The proposed opinion will be published in the next issue of The State Bar Journal.

North Carolina Bar Ethics Starts Inquiry into "Cloud Computing" for Law Firms

The Ethics Committee of the North Carolina Bar, in response to an inquiry from a law firm, is assessing whether a law firm can utilize "cloud-based" legal applications where client and other law firm data is stored on the Internet.  It could result in a determination that law firms in North Carolina cannot operate as "virtual law firms."

Stephanie Kimbro, the founder of one of the first North Carolina virtual law firms, and  Virtual Law Office Technology, Inc., a web-based virtual law firm services provider, and originally a North Carolina company, (now owned by TotalAttorneys, Inc., which is based in Chicago),  has written an excellent post on this topic.

 "Cloud Computing" enables solo practitioners and small law firms to provide online legal services to individuals and small business at affordable legal fees, and therefore enables them to compete effectively against non-law firm providers, such as LegalZoom, which also operates in "the cloud."

The eLawyering Task Force of the Law Practice Management Section of the American Bar Association has submitted a statement to the North Carolina Ethics Committee on the issue of the relationship of "cloud computing" to solos and small law firms. the delivery of online legal services,  and access to the legal system by individuals of moderate income.

Interested parties who wish to submit comments, should submit them to:

Alice Neece Mine
Assistant Executive Director
North Carolina Bar Association
208 Fayetteville Street Mall
PO Box 25908
Raleigh, North Carolina 27611-5908
EMAIL: 
amine@ncbar.gov

NJ Bar States that "Virtual Law Firms" Violate the Bona Fide Office Rule

New Jersey is one of the few states that has what is known as a "bona fide office" rule. A NJ Bar Committee recently endorsed the role and this has created a lively debate within the legal blogosphere. [ See ABA Journal Article ].

“Virtual law offices” violate the state requirement for a bona fide office, according to a joint opinion by the New Jersey Advisory Committee on Professional Ethics and the Committee on Attorney Advertising. See Opinion ACPE 718/CAA 41.

Rule 1:21-1(a) requires that a New Jersey attorney maintain a bona fide office for the practice of law.

For the purpose of this section, a bona fide office is a place where clients are met, files are kept, the telephone is answered, mail is received and the attorney or a responsible person acting on the attorney’s behalf can be reached in person and by telephone during normal business hours to answer questions posed by the courts, clients or adversaries and to ensure that competent advice from the attorney can be obtained within a reasonable period of time.

The purpose, according to the opinion, is to make sure lawyers are available and can be found by clients.

The Committee quotes on a 1994 Opinion:See Committee on Attorney Advertising Opinion 19, 138 N.J.L.J. 286, 3 N.J.L. 1821 (September 19, 1994):

"A so-called “virtual office” does not qualify as a bona fide office. A “virtual office” refers to a type of time-share arrangement whereby one leases the right to reserve space in an office building on an hourly or daily basis. Accordingly, an attorney’s use of a “virtual office” is by appointment only. The office building ordinarily has a receptionist with a list of all lessees who directs visitors to the appropriate room at the appointed time. Depending on the terms of the lease, the receptionist may also receive and forward mail addressed to lessees or receive and forward telephone calls to lessees."

"As noted above, a bona fide office is, in part, a place where “the attorney or a responsible person acting on the attorney’s behalf can be reached in person and by telephone during normal business hours to answer questions posed by the courts, clients or adversaries . . . .” R. 1:21-1 (a). A “virtual office” cannot be a bona fide office since the attorney generally is not present during normal business hours but will only be present when he or she has reserved the space. Moreover, the receptionist at a “virtual office” does not qualify as a “responsible person acting on the attorney’s behalf” who can “answer questions posed by the courts, clients or adversaries.” Presumably, the receptionist can redirect a telephone call to the attorney lessee of the “virtual office” much like an answering service, but would not be privy to legal matters being handled by the attorney and so would be unable to “act[] on the attorney’s behalf” in any matter."

Note that this is a "1994" Opinion that was published before the Internet affected every aspect of American society. Stephanie Kimbro in her post of this topic correctly points out that the Committee is solely focused on "physical office sharing" arrangements and not the concept of the "Web-based virtual office" that is designed to serve clients exclusively over the Internet. A pure "virtual law firm" that operates solely on the Internet, has the capacity of offering legal services at much lower fees, because of less "friction" in the transaction, resulting in increased access to the legal system for clients who can't afford the the high fees of a traditional legal practice.

Carolyn Elefant in her blog, MyShingle.com thinks the rule is moronic because it is out of touch with modern Internet technology, increases the cost of running a solo practice, which therefore increases the costs to consumers who are looking for lower priced legal services. She argues that the ruling discriminates against work at home parents with child care responsibilities, Although "home offices" are permitted, provided the address of the home office is published.

Brian Tannenbaum, who writes the blog My Law License, agrees with the opinion because he states that he is a "traditionalist", consumers should not be telling the legal profession how to practice law, and cites the Florida bona fide office rules where he practices, as another good example of a state that is seeks to maintain high standards of legal practice.

Josh King, AVVO General Counsel and Vice President for Business Development, agrees with Carolyn Elefant, that the impact of this ruling is to increase the overhead of solo practitioners and the cost of legal services to consumers.

This issue has been debated or a long period of time. In a 2002 article in the New York Times it was reported that the real reason for the rule is to keep lawyers who are a member of the New Jersey bar, but who practice elsewhere, such as Philadelphia, from encroaching on the territory of "traditional" law firms in New Jersey.

One Philadelphia lawyer commenting on the rule stated:

"In this age of Internet, e-mail, overnight delivery, and faxes, we're dealing with people all over the world, and this clearly is a protectionist stance," said Leonard Bernstein of Reed Smith, a Philadelphia-based law firm. "The New Jersey lawyer is an anachronism that is out of step with the times, and the rule should be changed."

What was true in 2002, is even more true today. The Internet is changing the way legal services are delivered and for solos and small law firms to remain competitive with non-lawyer online legal service providers like LegalZoom, who continue to take market share from solos and small law firms. This is a blow to innovation in the delivery of legal services. I wish the Committee would have examined more closely developments in Internet and information technology generally as these developments are providing the platform for a new way of delivering legal services.

The Opinion reinforces the market position of established law firms who already have made an investment in physical offices and continue to offer legal services based on a high cost, bill by the hour economic model. The "traditional" model works best for certain kinds of cases and certain kinds of clients, but our market research shows that millions of consumers are turning their backs on the legal profession and searching for lower cost alternatives, often on the Internet. It is interesting that none of these considerations enter into the analysis of the NJ Bar committee. It is as if the Committee is stuck in 1994 and is unaware of the changing patterns of legal service delivery that are being driven by the Internet.

In fact, the ruling is not in the consumer interest. The ruling will raise law firm costs and restrict competition in the legal profession in New Jersey, and raises costs to consumers. The United Kingdom recently reorganized the legal profession by taking the subject of law firm regulation away from the legal profession and putting it in the hands of an official who would be more sensitive to consumer needs and interests. Perhaps it is time to do the same in the United States. If state bar associations make regulatory decisions which in fact are designed to maintain the status quo of established law firms within their states, at the expense of consumer interests and innovation in the delivery of legal services, perhaps it is time for more fundamental change in the way the legal profession is regulated.

Disclosure: I am happy that I am not a member of the New Jersey Bar. I operate a virtual law firm in Maryland, from my home in Florida that has served hundreds of Maryland residents since 2004 over the Internet. We are clear on our web site about the fact that we don't have a physical office, and this hasn't stopped consumers from dealing with us. We do maintain a Maryland address for registration purposes.

 

 

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?

Ethics 20/20 Commission

The ABA Ethics 20/20 Commission had public hearings at the ABA mid-year meeting in Orlando. Florida this week-end. A focus of the Commission's work is the impact of Internet technology on the delivery of legal services, both globally and within the United States. The Commission has a 3 year period to undertake research, conduct hearings, and report its findings and recommendations.  Three years from now Internet technology will be further transformed, and by 2020 who knows what technologies will be available. By then, I am sure, legal business (negotiations, dispute settlement) could well be conducted by our avatars in virtual legal environments on an international and cross jurisdictional basis. Licensing of lawyers by states may prove to be increasingly anachronistic by 2020, although it is unlikely that state bars will go away without fight.

I was honored to be able to testify before the Commission and submit a written statement which can be found here. Stephanie Kimbro now a member of the ABA's eLawyering Task Force, also made a presentation on the virtual law office concept which I thought was very well received.  My impression was that the Commission members were very interested in our statements and explanations of how Internet technology enables the more effective delivery of legal services.

Innovation and Rules of Professional Responsibility

ABA President B. Lamm has created a new Commission on Ethics called Ethics 20/20 to review  ethics rules and regulation of the legal profession in the United States in the context of a global legal services marketplace. Hearings will be held at ABA Meetings to get input from various interests on how to reform or modify the ABA Code to enable US law firms to remain competitive in an age where Internet  technology is pervasive.

I have been invited by the Commission to testify and submit a statement at the ABA Mid-Year Meeting in Orlando, where the Commission is holding one of its first public hearings.

My statement will discuss the following topics:

  • how the rules of professional responsibility function as a deterrent to innovation;
  • issues relating to the unauthorized practice of law and the definition of "the practice of law;"
  • legal referral concepts in the age of the Internet;
  • state rules of professional responsibility that require a "physical" business office in order to practice law in that state;
  • the potential for cloud computing;
  • enabling the delivery of limited legal services online;
  • law firm ownership structure as it relates to innovation in the delivery of legal services;
  • and the eLawyering Task Force Recommended Guidelines for the Delivery of OnLine Legal Services.

I am looking for suggestions and ideas about other issues that relate to the delivery of online legal services and the rules of professional responsibility. Any ideas are welcome. Just comment on this blog.

ABA Teleconference on the Virtual Law Firm

The Law Practice Management Section of the American Bar Association is sponsoring a Teleconference on the The Virtual Law Firm: Benefits, Costs, and Ethical Pitfalls to Avoid, on Thursday, December 17, 2009 between 1:00 P.M. and 2:30 P.M.

The program is a Live Audio Webcast with PowerPoint support.

I am participating in the program, together with Stephanie Kimbro of KimbroLaw Services and Marc Lauritsen, President, Capstone Practice, and Co-Chair, eLawyering Task Force, ABA Law Practicement Section .You can register online.

 

Minimum Requirements for Virtual Law Firms

The eLawyering Task Force,  which is part of the Law Practice Management Section of the American Bar Association has been developing a recommended set of minimum requirements for law firms delivering legal services online.  The draft that has been published is a working draft and we are soliciting comments as we move towards a final document. The draft document can be downloaded here.

The ABA does not have a comment facility on their web site, but comments can be contributed on this blog, well as a discussion group  that has been set up on LinkedIn called Virtual Lawyering.

Any comments that are submitted will be circulated among members of the Task Force.

Disclosure: I am Co-Chair of the eLawyering Task Force

The "Good Enough" Legal Solution

There has been some recent blog comments [See: Carolyn Elefant 's Blog  [about  the meaning of Robert Capps article  in this month's WIRED Magazine, (September 2009) about the concept of "Good Enough",  "Good Enough" solutions, (when cheap and simple is just fine). , and my quote about how this concept applies to the legal profession.

When I was interviewed for the Wired Article, I didn't know the focus of the article, and I was simply reporting my experience in offering limited legal services to consumers for a fee they can afford. I wasn't saying at all that lawyer's should do less competent or less excellent work. Rather I was thinking about how legal transactional events between consumer and lawyer can be restructured to get to the "good enough result" that many consumers seem to want.

My best example is one that I participate in daily, and which I mentioned in previous blog post. Divorcing couples opt for a quick settlement, even if they don't get "every right" they are entitled to in the interest of reducing their legal fees and getting on with their lives.

Divorce lawyers can charge from $5,000 - $10,000 (low-end of fee schedule) for even a relatively simple divorce. case. The lawyers will say there are no simple divorce cases. But that is from the the viewpoint of the lawyer. From the consumer point of view, they have a choice to spend $5,000 for each counsel who is representing either party- or to take the money and use it to get on with their lives. The question is--  what is the ROI from the consumer's point of view?  Sometimes the investment of $5,000.00 in legal fees is worth it. ($5,000.00 is really a low end estimate). Consumers don't think so, or there would not be thousands of pro se litigants representing themselves in family court. Pro Se Representation is a good example of a restructuring of the lawyer/client relationship to get a "good enough result." The success of LegalZoom -  admittedly a service which is a very small step above a bare legal forms service is more evidence of consumer preferences.

So is the movement towards "limited legal services." Lawyers, mostly solos and small law firms, that think that otherwise and think that full service representation is the only way to go are not facing consumer reality. These lawyers are living in a dream world.

Consumers want solutions to their legal problems. If they can get legal solutions in a different form than a traditional legal service from an attorney that is "good enough" at much less cost, they will turn away from the legal profession and seek those alternatives if they get a result that satisfies their expectations. 

 

The Good Enough Revolution

The month's WIRED Magazine, (September 2009) has an interesting article on how the Internet is enabling "Good Enough" solutions, (when cheap and simple is just fine). I have maintained for a long time that often there is a certain amount of overkill when lawyers tackle a problem, when consumers really want a quick and reasonably priced result. Consumers will often sacrifice securing every "right" they have in order to save thousands of dollars in legal fees. I see this in the divorce area in my online practice all of the time. Often the divorcing parties want to get on with their life at the lowest possible cost. Rather than spend $15,000 in legal fees pursuing every right that the parties think they have, often the best solution is to use the funds that would have been spent on legal fees to invest in their individual futures. The present recession is accelerating these trend.

Lawyers are taught to represent a client "zealously". In fact they are required by the ethical codes of professional conduct to do so -- but at what price. Pursuing every legal angle results in prohibitive legal fees that the average consumer or small business can't afford. There must be a better way to practice law without breaking the bank.

Total Attorneys Responds to Zenas Zelotes Attack

Total Attorneys has responded to Attorney Zenas Zelotes filing of ethics complaints in 47 different jurisdictions.

The Total Attorneys response can be found here.

Total Attorneys summarizes its response as follows:

"In a nutshell, Mr. Zelotes’s 303-page complaint (including exhibits) alleges that Total Bankruptcy (and various other Total Attorneys companies) is a for-profit referral service, that the business model of the Total Attorneys marketing sites amounts to impermissible fee splitting, that our advertising is impermissible solicitation and that our advertising is misleading. The complaint is a hodge-podge of hearsay, factually inaccurate statements, and carefully selected lines from a myriad of state advisory opinions taken wholly out of context, all crafted together to paint a picture of our program that could not be ignored by state regulatory counsel."

This is a complicated issue that needs further analysis, as there are two sides to this story. Supporting documents in the Total Attorneys response which require further examination include:

Zelotes Complaint with Exhibits

Total Attorneys Response filed in Illinois

Zelotes Reply

South Carolina Ethics Opinion

Kentucky Ethics Opinion

Total Attorneys Being Sued for Violation of Legal Referral Rules

 TotalAttorneys, a so-called marketing association of attorneys that operates legal referral web sites,  such as TotalDivorce and TotalBankruptcy , is being sued in multiple jurisdictions by Attorney Zenas Zelotes, a consumer bankruptcy attorney, based in Hartford, Connecticut and Nevada, for violation of bar referral rules that exist in every state. The Connecticut Law Tribune just released a headline story about the pending Zelotes v. Chern et al .ethics investigations (wherein more than 500 bankruptcy practitioners face possible professional discipline for certain business transactions with Illinois Attorney Kevin W. Chern d/b/a Total Attorneys et al.).  The story in Monday's Connecticut Law Tribune summarizes recent findings of probable cause in Connecticut that certain attorneys doing (or having done) business with Chern committed professional misconduct.  The story (which is available on line now and which will be released in print edition on Monday) can be found by clicking on the following link: http://www.ctlawtribune.com/default.aspx .

One problem with web-based legal referral directories like the TotalAttorney directories is that the user doesn't see the qualifications of the law firm on the web site, Instead, the prospect submits information about their case which is then sent to a selected number of law firms who pay  high referral fees for the leads. The consumer is really unaware of the identity of the law firm to which they are being referred. Placement in the directory is based on the law firm's ability to pay the "marketing fee" .

Other law firm directories are more transparent and let the consumer view the attorneys profile on line which enables the prospect to make their own judgment about which law firm they want to explore a potential relationship or engagement. These more transparent directories include FindlawLawyers.comNolo.com, and AVVO. The more transparent and information robust an attorney directory is, the more consumer friendly it is.  When a consumer provides information to an on line questionnaire when the identity of the law firm is masked by the web site, the consumer is assuming more risk that the attorney really meets their needs. Caveat Emptor !!

 

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.

Analyzing LegalZoom's Advertising Practices

There is a blog post at For Connecticut Lawyers which analyzes LegalZoom's deceptive advertising practices that are designed to persuade consumers that purchasing legal documents from LegalZoom is the same as a service from an attorney. The post examines the hidden nature of the disclaimer notice that LegalZoom cannot give legal advice, and questions what "Put the Law on Your Side" - [ Legal Zoom's tagline] means when proclaimed by a non-lawyer, legal document preparation services organization. Since LegalZoom's staff members cannot provide legal advice  when they review a document one could ask the question:  What they really do and what justifies the relatively high cost of a LegalZoom's services? How are LegalZoom's services different from a legal form that is purchased from an on-line legal form web site such as US Legal Forms, which are available at much less cost?

Best Practices for Virtual Law Firms

The eLawyering Task Force of the Law Practice Management Section of the ABA, had its monthly telephone call on Friday. One of the action items is a renewed interest and commitment to produce a set of best practice guidelines for law firms that want to deliver legal services online. These guidelines would complement the Best Practice Guidelines for Legal Information Web Site Providers that were produced by the eLawyering Task Force and approved by the ABA House of Delegates in 2003. The Legal Information Best Practices Guidelines apply to both law firms and non-law firms and don't deal specifically with issues that lawyers face when they want to deliver legal services online. In some cases it has been reported that malpractice insurance carriers have declined coverage when a law firm attempts to provide legal services directly through their web site. With more law firms embracing the concept of virtual legal practice, it becomes even more important to provide a framework for best practices.  The guidelines would cover such topics as ethical issues in delivering online legal services, security issues, and the attorney/client relationship.

In addition, a new group of software vendors that license "software as a service" {SaaS) have emerged to provide online software applications that support virtual law practice. Some of these vendors include: Virtual Law Office Technology, RocketMatter, Clio, and our own DirectLaw, Inc.,  As part of the guidelines development process, we plan to seek input from this emerging group of software as service vendors.

The goal is to have a draft ready for the discussion by the eLawyering Task Force at the ABA mid-year meeting and then a revised draft for further discussion as the quarterly meeting of the Law Practice Management Section in New Orleans in May, 13- 16, 2009.

Feedback and ideas about what issues should be covered are welcome from all.

 

Best Practice Guidelines for Legal Information Web Site Providers

There are hundreds of non-law firm legal information and legal form web sites, some good, but many are inaccurate containing out of date legal information and legal forms that are not valid in many jurisdictions. [ Disclosure our company operates automated legal form web sites such as SmartLegalForms. ].  

To help consumers evaluate the quality of legal information on the Web, the American Bar Association approved a set of best practice guidelines for legal information web site providers in 2003. These best practice guidelines provide a set of standards which are very basic,  such as the recommendation that legal information web sites publish contact information, provide notice of the jurisdiction where the legal content is valid, and publish a date which indicates the currency of the content and when the content was last up-dated. The guidelines are designed to be applied to both law firm web sites and non-law firm web sites as they focus on the quality and accuracy of the legal information provided within the web site, and not the ethical issues that apply only to law firms.

Unfortunately, the ABA never fully promoted these guidelines, because of other association priorities, and as a result most legal information web sites are unaware of them. As "best practices" they don't have much force other than than to provide a framework for "best practice" and are advisory only.  Many law firm and legal information web sites incorporate these best practices in their design even though they are unaware of the "best practice" guidelines themselves.

On the other hand, we notice new legal information and legal form web sites monthly that pop-up that not only don't conform to these guidelines but border on out right deception. Here is an example: Illinois DivorceOnline.com - subtitled "Official Illinois Divorce Forms"

This web site almost looks like a law firm web site with the picture of a smiling older gentleman with a beard as if to send a signal that this is a web site that can be trusted. The site refers to "divorce specialists, " whatever that is. In many states attorneys cannot even advertise that they are "specialists" and here we have a web site that represents that "divorce specialists" will review your forms. 

Closer inspection, however, reveals, that there is no contact information, no support page, no indication of the date when the legal forms were revised, and fine print disclaims any responsibility for their accuracy, which is typical of these sites, but further makes the promise that the company will guarantee that the forms will be accepted by the court and if they are not, then the consumer will get a full refund, less a $50.00 administrative fee. There is no explanation as to why a $50.00 fee should be deducted when the forms are rejected, as distinguished from a full refund. In fact, the only way for a consumer to figure out the refund policy is to read all of the fine print in the Terms and Conditions statement. The price is of the service doesn't appear on the home page. Instead, the user must first register their case and provide information, before learning what the charges will be.

This web site should be compared to: IllinoisDivorce.com , the Chicago web site of the law firm of Cowell Taradash, P.C., This web site also offers a low cost divorce for pro se parties, but there is a clear explanation of the services offered and the identity of the publisher of the site.

The first site is a non-lawyer paralegal document preparation web site which is opaque as to identity, scope of services, pricing, and follow-on support. The second site, is a law firm web site, that is transparent with respect to all of these factors. The consumers would benefit from more law firm web sites like this, and less deceptive non-lawyer legal form web sites.

 

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.

 

LegalZoom.com Sued Over Trademark Filing Fees

Apparently LegalZoom has been advertising to its customers that the trademark filing fee is $325.00, when it was actually $275.00,  an obvious misrepresentation. Apparently they have been doing this since 2005. This has resulted in a consumer class action suit to recover the $50.00 overcharge on behalf of all customers who have paid the higher fee. Here is a good summary of the details of the case.  LegalZoom has since changed its web site to characterize the additional $50.00 fee as an administrative fee. If a law firm made this kind of misrepresentation on its web site it would receive a sanction from the bar for misrepresentation. This is another example of the lack of regulatory control over non-lawyer providers of legal services and the absence of any accountability other than the response of the market -- which is in inefficient as consumers  rarely have sufficient knowledge to understand the nature of a misrepresentation.  LegalZoom's claim that a consumer can save thousands of dollars by using its service, rather than lawyer, assumes that somehow the services of LegalZoom and an attorney are identical. Nothing could be further from the truth. Caveat Emptor!!!

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.

 

 

What is LegalZoom?

LegalZoom is a California-based company that offers on-line paralegal document preparation services on a nationwide basis.  A nationwide advertising program, financed in part by a relatively large capital investment from Polaris Venture Partners,  is now underway in major national media markets with the goal of branding LegalZoom as the leading legal services web site on the Internet. With Robert Shapiro of OJ fame,  as the company's leading spokesperson, LegalZoom uses the  tag line: "We Put the Law on Your Side", a claim that the company could not make if it were a law firm under the marketing roles that govern the legal profession in all states. LegalZoom, as it is not a law firm, is not bound by these rules, Nevertheless, the company claims to be the leading legal web site. Is there something wrong with this picture?

When a customer arrives at the LegalZoom web site they are presented with a menu of legal documents that are sold for a fixed price. The documents are common legal documents that range from wills, powers of attorney, living wills, and no-fault divorce, on hand to business documents such as incorporation, trademark, and copyright on the other. The customer completes a web form and pays with a credit card. From the data inserted by the customer into the web form, a paralegal aided by document assembly software of some kind, generates a legal document or form, which is returned to the customer in paper format by regular mail.

Under long standing bar rules that are operative in every jurisdiction in the U.S, LegalZoom as a non law firm,  cannot give legal advice of any kind, cannot modify a customer's answers in any way, and cannot do any custom drafting that is responsive to a customer's particular set of facts. The company in a very fine print disclaimer makes clear that it is not a law firm and that" "LegalZoom is prohibited from providing any kind of advice, explanation, opinion, or recommendation to a consumer about possible legal rights, remedies, defenses, options, selection of forms or strategies. " The company does do a review which has to be limited to making sure that all answers are completed in the Questionnaire, that the spelling is correct, and minor tasks that are limited to very narrow role of being a proof-reader of the customer's data entries.

The company claims that: "With LegalZoom's lawyer-free service, you can save up to 85% off the rates an attorney would charge for the same procedure. " This comparison misrepresents the contribution that an attorney makes when serving a client. It suggests that the LegalZoom service is equivalent to the services of an attorney, when it clearly isn't. The representation suggests that a consumer will receive the same result that they would get if they went to an attorney, which is clearly not the case. Moreover, there are many attorneys who charge fees which compare favorably with LegalZoom's fee structure, so the fees that lawyers charge for comparable transactions which are published on the LegalZoom web site are true of some law firms, but not all solo and small firms.

LegalZoom's prices are in fact not cheap, when you consider that with a bit of effort searching  on Google a customer can find identical forms on the Internet that are either free, or which are sold for a modest fee, when compared to the "document preparation fees" that LegalZoom charges for very common legal documents.

But if the role of LegalZoom is really limited to data input and some minor editing and proofing, where's the beef?

There is no doubt that this service concept has been successful, because the company has claimed to have served 500,000 customers. LegalZoom's customers may believe that they are getting a service that is equivalent to the service that they would get from an attorney.

As a disruptive innovation, LegalZoom is demonstrating that there is room for competition in the delivery of legal services and that there are other way's to solve people's legal problems than going to an attorney, despite the very real limitations of the LegalZoom service.

It will be interesting to see how the organized bar responds to LegalZoom as the company becomes more dominant and continues to eat away at the legal profession's dominance in helping people solve their everyday legal problems.