Project Management for Lawyers at ABA TECH SHOW

legal Project anagementLegal Project ManagementHere comes Lean for Lawyers! Legal project management in large law firms is becoming a mandatory discipline, rather than a way to differentiate one firm from another. Larger law firms are now marketing their skills in legal project management - the ability to complete a legal assignment on time and within a budget The Law Practice Division of the ABA recently published a book titled: "Legal Project Management for Lawyers in One Hour. " One large law firm, SeyfarthShaw has created an affiliated unit, SeyfarthLean , to apply legal project management technologies plus other lean technologies such as Lean Six Sigma, process management techniques, knowledge management technologies to reduce the price of legal services from 15% to 50%.

Smaller law firms can use off the shelf products like Basecamp, inexpensive and easy to use,  to incorporate legal project management technology into their practices. But these off the shelf products have to be adapted to the law practice environment.

At this last week's ABA TECHSHOW,  there was one excellent presentation on visual work flow applications by Aaron Brooks  . There were also new developments by vendors on the exhibit floor where project management tools that solos and small law firms can use that embedded into other applications:

mycase,com, a web-based  practice management application has a feature that enables a solo or small law firm practitioner to create task templates and work flows.

LawPal has re-launched its web site as a Trello/Basecamp for lawyers to manage transactions online and securely with their clients. It includes project management, document review, markup, storage and signing as part of version 1. They will be adding guided workflow in the next version to allow firms to further automate their transactions. (Disclosure: Author is an advisor to LawPal).

RocketLawyer has now fully integrated the LawPivot Q&A platform into Rocketlawyer and announced at ABA TECH SHOW a new management tool for its on call network of lawyers which has a Lawyer Dash Board that organizes and manages work flow around the provision of legal advice.

RocketMatter, not to be confused with RocketLawyer, has a feature that enables task tracking. You can drag-and -drop tasks to prioritize them and tag them to assemble a "Gettings Things Done" checklist.

I predict that we will see more legal project management tools built into law practice management applications designed for solos and small law firms. If your company is building legal project management tools for lawyers we would like to know about it. Just let us know in the comment section.

I also think that there will be demand for full-time project managers within larger law firms, or lawyers who have project management skills. To this end, we are a launching this summer an on-line course in Legal Project Management through the Center for Law Practice Technology, Florida Coastal School of Law that initially will be open only to law students. The course is being taught by Mark Lassiter, a consultant to law firms on how to implement project management technologies within a law firm. 

Lean Lawyering is the next big thing.

LegalForce Store Offers Walk-in Lawyer Access in Palo Alto

Ray Abyhanker, the entrepreneur lawyer behind the Trademarkia web site,  the highest traffic legal sites on the Web, opened a kind of Apple Store for legal stuff and other stuff (self-help law books, non-Apple tablets, tablet accessories, etc), right across from the Apple Store on University Avenue in Palo Alto. [See previous post on this company at: May the LegalForce Be With You! ]

Beautifully designed in a historic building the idea is to provide an  "third place" where lawyers can meet and mingle with potential clients, provide community law classes, and generally demystify the law by creating an accessible and friendly legal environment.

The ultimate goal is to create a branded network of law firms that promises a high value client experience for the broad range of consumers and small business that are also attracted to pure online ventures such as LegalZoom and RocketLawyer, but want something more.

LegalForce Store in Palo AltoThere is a lot to be said for a "click and mortar" strategy which involves lawyers working with clients in their offices, and interacting as well online,  but also meeting and interacting in a neutral physical space that is a retail environment. Sort of like having a  "Genius Bar" for legal problems where you can ask a question and get a quick legal answer or get assistance in knowing how to start out to solve a legal problem.

Where do I start? Do I need a legal form or a self-help law book? An "unbundled"  legal service, or full service representation? What's the lowest cost solution to my legal problem?

The LegalForce lawyer store staff call themselves  "Concierges" and I believe that is an apt title. We need more legal concierges, on the web, and in the real world.

Legal services, particularly the more complex the legal service, depends on the presence of a skilled trusted adviser. Sometimes the lawyer presence can be virtual, but sometimes the legal problem requires a face to face meeting with a client so that a thorough exploration of the facts of the case can be fully understood.  For lawyers, the ideal strategy is one that combines an off-line practice with an online presence and a brand that expresses both dimensions of the practice.

 

The term "Click and Mortar" is attributed to David Pottruck, then CEO of Charles Schwab Corp, in a July, 1999 speech at a conference sponsored by the Industry Standard. Pottruck is quoted as saying:

 "Schwab's vision has always been designed around customer needs and the company is engaged in constant reinvention to stay ahead of these powerful investors. Schwab believes that it is the combination of people and technology that investors want -- a "high-tech and high-touch" approach. As such, Schwab is redefining the full-service business around the integration of "clicks and mortar."

Pottruck subsequently wrote a book about the strategy.  A brokerage firm is more like a law firm, than a law firm is to a ecommerce web site with no human touch. It might be fine to buy your shoes online from Zappos, but I am not so sure that in the fullness of time will clients want a purely virtual experience with their law firms. As someone who runs a company ( DirecttLaw) that provides a virtual law firm platform to law firms, and has operated my own virtual law firm since 2003,  I have experienced both the advantages and the  disadvantages of a pure legal service without any human meeting.

By linking together an online experience with an off-line, real work experience, Abyhanker may have come with a legal service concept that is unique. Trademarkia is being re-branded under the LegalForce brand and recruiting  law firms for the network, first in California and then nationwide has begun..To be clear this is not a franchise, but more of a marketing network with productivity benefits for its law firm members.

Disclosure: Our company created an interactive legal form portal under the LegalForce brand and a "legal form kiosk" for the store.

Serving Justice With Conversational Law: Expert Legal Systems Are Here

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

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

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

Johnson predicts that that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can download the entire Johnson article here.

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

 

 

Law Startups in La La Land

I was at a panel in San Francisco this week titled: Law + Tech - The Unpopulated Multi-Billion Dollar Industry .

By "La La Land" I don't mean Los Angeles or California, but rather "to be in one's own world" as defined by the Urban Dictionary.  As I listened to the founders talk, I couldn't help thinking that given the absence of a clear business model, or the understanding of what it takes to market to consumers or to lawyers,  that many of these start-ups will simply die after the founders run out of cash.  However, out of the ashes one or two  are bound to survive and have a lasting impact on the markets they are targeting.

This was an interesting group of companies - all focused on the idea that there is a need for changing the way legal services are identified, purchased, and delivered and the way that lawyers practice law.

You could classify these companies into three categories:

  • companies that want to connect consumers with lawyers and plan to monetize the traffic stream in some way;
  • companies that want to provide tools to increase law firm productivity;
  • companies that aim to deliver direct legal services through a network of lawyers online or provide a legal solution to a consumer through the use of a digital application.

Here is a list of these companies, some of which were at the Panel,  and one or two which announced within the past 30 days.

Companies linking consumers to lawyers:

MyLawSuit.com - seeks to link clients which have personal injury claims with personal injury lawyers. The company takes 5% of the recovery from the client side. Has a legal opinion that says this is not fee-splitting.

LegalSonar.com -  potential clients find lawyers by searching social media to see which of the searcher's friends have had an experience with a lawyer and whether the friend would recommend them. Free to users, lawyers pay a fee for listing. Limited to Kansas City. Missouri for now, which is where the company is based. This is an interesting idea and makes more sense to me than traditional legal referral services offered by bar associations where recommendation of a lawyer for a client is more arbitrary. Company plans to expand nationwide.

AttorneyFee.com - company provides detailed legal fee information to users to help them evaluate legal services based on price.

LawGives.com - working on a software algorithm that would analyze a user's factual statement (submitted through a secure web form) of their legal problem and match the client to the most suitable attorney based on a software analysis of all of the attorney's experience, education, background, recommendations, and other selection factors. The proprietary algorithm being developed is based on advanced semantic search technologies. This is an interesting concept because if it works, it could be used in a variety of legal contexts such as in large law firms where there is sometimes a need to match the skills of lawyers within the firm to the needs of new cases and clients. LawGives.com would also be a challenge to typical bar sponsored legal referral methods which are based on antiquated pre-Internet technologies (telephone and categorized lists of lawyers). Ethics 20/20 Commission take note.

Start-ups that aim to increase the productivity of law firms:

LawLoop.com - comprehensive, affordable cloud-based practice management system that incorporates in one place document management, practice management tools, time-keeping and billing (next release), calendaring, Outlook email integration, and client communications. A unique feature is the ability to create client extranets between client, lawyer, and other third parties on the fly, by drawing a loop, not unlike creating a Google circle of contacts. Thus, for example, a secure deal space could be created instantly between all of the parties to a deal which would could contain documents, correspondence, and other supporting materials instantly. Price is affordable at $39.00 a user. More competition for RocketMatter and Clio.

LegalReach,com  - Provides cloud-based applications for lawyers.  An App Store now offers Referral Manager, an app designed to securely send and receive business to/from other attorneys while keeping track of vital statistics. Coming soon apps include: Website Builder, CLE Tracker and more. Attorneys can also create on-line Attorney Profiles so a dimension of the business model is to connect prospects with attorneys.

Kiiac.com - Contract analysis and contract standards tool that creates documents through the web browser using Google Docs. Create an NDA online. See also related Contract Standards web site. This is a fabulous resource for lawyers drafting contracts.

Startups that will offer legal solutions directly to consumers:

DocRun.com - DocRun is a SaaS solution that creates highly-customized, state-specific legal contracts and agreements instantly just by asking the user a series of simple, intuitive questions. Site is in alpha. The company has raised 1.1 in seed funding. At public launch, DocRun claims it will provide hundreds of personalized documents, including everything from prenuptial agreements to operating agreements to employment agreements, specially tailored to each individual user using a web-based Q&A engine. Sounds like they are building another web-enabled document assembly application.Claims documents will be very affordable.

UpCounsel.com - Company will offer sophisticated legal services from a network of lawyers to hi-tech start-up companies in California. Not yet launched.

Paperlex.com - Company will offer legal documents online and web-enabled document assembly tools to customize for the individuals personal circumstances. Read More.

Docracy is a new legal document start-up, founded by Matt Hall and John Watkinson, that grew out of a TechCrunch Disrupt Hackathon in New York City. The idea is to provide a free depository of legal documents that meets the needs of small business and start-ups which are crowd sourced by individuals who register for the site. The concept is to provide an open source site for legal documents in the same way that GitHub is an open source site for code. Read more.

LawPivot.com - Free crowd sourced legal advice from lawyers. Rumored to be getting ready to launch an eLance type service for consumers to connect with lawyers on specific projects.  Funded by Google Ventures. Will be interesting to see how LawPivot team creates an ethically compliant business model.

If you hear about other recent start-ups in the legal industry, funded or otherwise, we would like to know about them. Just mention them in the Comment field to this post. All of this recent activity reminds me of 2001, when we saw many law start-ups funded during the dot.com heyday. Most didn't survive the crash. (USLAW.com; AmeriCounsel; MyCounsel  to name just a few).

Maybe it will be different this time around.

 INcreasing Profit Margins with Document Automation

Legal Forms for the Price of a Song on iTunes?*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

Some questions to think about:

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

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

Document Automation as  DisruptuveTechnology

 

*iTunes is a trademark of Apple, Inc.

 

Venture Capital Flowing Into Legal Enterprises: Total Attorneys Receives Infusion of Capital

Private capital is beginning to flow into companies that are operating at the intersection of the delivery of legal services and the Internet.

Total Attorneys, a Chicago-based company,  just announced that they received a multimillion dollar investment from BIA Digital Partners, a Virginia-based venture capital firm. Total Attorneys is most known for the marketing services that it provides to law firms and the recent ethical controversy in some states surrounding the use of pay-per-click advertising on behalf of law firms. (Apparently this controversy has been resolved in favor of Total Attorneys in every state where it was considered by bar ethics committees.)

The company plans to extend its technology assisted services to law firms by expanding its virtual law firm Software as a Service offerings (SaaS).   Total Attorneys mission is to become a leading provider of elawyering Services to solos and small law firms by providing a comprehensive suite of outsourced technology services, from marketing to web-based practice management tools to a robust client portal.

The company licenses virtual law office technology to solos and small law firms as a subscription service, that now consists primarily of a robust suite of "back-office" practice management tools. The pan is to expand the service into a more comprehensive "front-office" client portal, providing a total solution to solos and small law firms.

This expansion would entitle the company to claim that it is a leading provider in the eLawyering space  and it would compete more directly with our own DirectLaw virtual law firm platform service and other web-based companies moving in the same direction.  [ See:  Legal Vendors Cloud Computing Association ] .

The concept of "technology-assisted service" is an interesting category for  the legal industry for it describes a form of outsourcing which combines both a digitally-based service combined with human service. Thus Total Attorneys also provides "virtual receptionist services", and at one point virtual support services to bankruptcy law firms. One management solution for solos and small law firms it to out source to independent specialized companies functions which can be done more effectively and at less cost than the law firm can do itself using internal resources.

It is good to see competition heating up in the eLawyering space, which has been moribund for a long period of time.  The eLawyering Task Force of the Law Practice Management Section of the ABA was created in 2000, more than a decade ago. For many  years there was not much to report in terms of the innovative delivery of on-line legal services by law firms. The last 2 years has witnessed an explosion in elawyering industry developments as lawyers adapt to change -- caused by a severe recession, widespread unemployment of recent law school graduates, and the challenges created by consumers who are seeking lower-cost and "good enough" alternatives to lawyers, [such as LegalZoom.]

Competition among a variety of vendors provides choices to law firms.  Competition focuses attention on the fact that delivering legal applications as a SaaS is emerging as a new paradigm for enabling solos and small law firms to access complex Internet technologies at a fraction of the capital cost of developing these applications internally.  Private capital moving into the legal industry will create more choices for law firms, and as a consequence more choices for consumers.

Creative legal outsourcing will enable solos and small law firms to become more productive and survive in an increasingly competitive environment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Framing the Discussion About Virtual Law Firm Practice

There is a thoughtful discussion going on about the value of adding the capability of offering legal services online to a law firm's business model that was started by Lee Rosen's blog post titled, "What the Virtual Office Advocates Aren't Telling You."  Responses, so far,  include a post by Carolyn Elefant, an astute observer of solo practice, a post from Susan Carter Liebel, the  Founder of Solo Practice University, and a comment by Stephanie Kimbro, the founder of Virtual Law Office Technology, now owned by TotalAttorneys and the author of the recently published book, Delivering Legal Services Online. Lee Rosen is the winner of the ABA/LPM James Keane Memorial Award for Excellence in eLawyering in 2010, and Stephanie Kimbro won the same Award in 2009 for her work in creating her virtual law firm at KimbroLaw. Donna Seyle, a member of the ABA/LPM eLawyering Task Force and a consultant to solo law firms on law practice strategy, also commented on Lee Rosen's blog arguing that there is a great demand for "unbundled" legal services by the middle class.

Lee's argues that in his opinion there isn't much demand by clients for virtual services and that many clients if they want a virtual service are perfectly happy with LegalZoom. He says he has seen, "a survey indicating that many clients prefer a paralegal-provided service to an attorney-provided service, even when both are offered at the same price." Moreover it will be very hard to turn around consumer preferences now that LegalZoom has established a nationwide legal brand.
He also argues that it is very difficult, or not impossible, for a lawyer to generate a stream of income from a purely virtual practice and that a low-end practice doesn't generate the kind of clients that a law firm needs to be successful. Carolyn Elefant makes a similar argument that it is very difficult to generate significant profits from a low end practice unless you have volume which is difficult for the average solo practitioner to create without some capital and the skills to market their legal services on the Internet. I would agree with these points, but whether a solo or small law firm should consider adding a virtual law firm presence to their web site and modifying their business model is really a more complex discussion than can be easily done within the context of a blog post. There is much wisdom in Lee's observations, but the story is more complicated than he makes out.

I would make the following additional points:

1. A virtual law firm as we define it, is one that has a “client portal” where clients can interact with their attorneys online, view copies of their documents, pay their bills online, communicate with their lawyer in a secure space where their attorneys responses are archived and available, assemble documents through an online questionnaire, and access other digital applications. In my opinion, the benefit of using a virtual law firm platform is to increase law firm productivity, law firm transparency, client retention, and client acquisition. These are all positive values that studies of consumers indicate that they want.  It is not the case, as Lee argues, that there is little demand for by consumers for online legal services.  The 1,000,000 wills that LegalZoom claims it has created during the past five years or so, and the dozens (hundreds ?)  of other non-lawyer legal form sites is ample evidence that the legal profession has abandoned the online legal services market to non-lawyer providers.

2. A “client portal” concept is just another tool that enables a law firm to have an interactive presence on the Web which has certain productivity and client communication benefits. It is not a substitute for a law firm developing its own unique business model and market positioning approach which identifies a group of prospects and converts them into clients. Each law firm has to figure out how to integrate these tools into their own business model. For some law firms, this concept is not relevant to their type of practice. For others, it can be another basis for differentiation,  for choosing one law firm over another.  For many law firms, a virtual capability becomes an important adjunct to the regular office based practice, creating efficiencies that only can be created by using the web as a platform for delivery.

Here are a few examples of law firms that are experimenting with online marketing of legal services, offering "unbundled" legal services in a niche area for a fixed price:

For other examples, see the Law Firm Directory at MyLawyer.com.

3. If a law firm wants to market to web-based consumers, including members of what we now call the “connected generation” a law firm needs to have a virtual law firm platform in place, as one option for relating and working with clients.  The cost of adding this functionality is now trivial, so there is little excuse for not trying it. We know from our own experience that there are benefits to this approach, as a complement to a traditional office-based practice.

4. LegalZoom and other non-lawyer legal form sites can’t provide legal advice. I can give you many examples from my own virtual law practice where legal advice makes a major difference in legal outcome. Providing just legal forms alone, can sometimes solve a legal problem, but often they do not. The challenge for us lawyers,  is to figure out a way to provide an offering that is price competitive with LegalZoom, but which offers more value.

Moreover, as a profession we should not walk away from the legal problems of moderate income clients. We have skills that will result in better legal outcomes for moderate and middle income clients. As a profession we have an obligation to provide services at a lower price to individuals who can’t afford higher fees and we should figure highly productive methods of serving them. Are we only to serve the wealthy? If so perhaps the legal profession should be deregulated, as it is being done in the United Kingdom, and legal services regulated just like any another service business. This would provide opportunities for many different kinds of providers to provide legal advice and other services which the legal profession now monopolizes. This is the direction that we are heading.

5. Providing a low end, lower priced legal service can be a marketing strategy for providing higher end, higher fee services. A client of http://www.directlaw.com, that is a personal injury firm, is using a low end service to build relationships with prospects so that the prospects turn to the law firm when they have a high value PI case. Some of the DirectLaw law firms give away free legal forms as an inducement to enter into a relationship that results in the purchase of a broader array of legal services.

6. Some lawyers are able to attract a clientele that will be willing to pay $400.00 an hour for a divorce lawyer, but there are not enough of these clients to go around to satisfy all of the divorce lawyers in a state. The broad middle class is seeking less costly alternatives as this level of pricing, and pricing by the hour,  is more than they can afford. There is real demand for "unbundled legal services" at a fixed price. We can see this directly from the weekly increase in traffic at MyLawyer.com , since a Spring, 2010 launch, where virtual law firms offer their services at a fixed price. The success of RocketLawyer , operating in the same market space, is another example that there is real demand for this type of legal service.

7. For many law firms, a virtual offering becomes an important adjunct to the regular office based practice, creating efficiencies that only can be created by using the web as a platform for delivery. It is a component of an office-based practice that can be used to enhance the experience of existing clients with their lawyers.

8. Finally, the cost of adding these technologies to even a solo practice is becoming trivial. We tested a free version of DirectLaw this summer and experienced great demand, so we decided to end it on September 1, 2010, and offer in the future, what we call DirectLaw Basic for a subscription fee of only $49.00 a month for a solo practitioner.

$49.00 a month is not a significant cost for a solo practitioner to acquire a virtual law firm capability. It is low enough for a solo practitioner to experiment and test out the benefits. 

There will come a time, when thousands of solos and small law firms will add a “client portal” to their web sites to power and extend their marketing programs and to enhance the client experience for those clients that are looking for a way to work with their lawyers online. Lee Rosen is correct,  that simply adding a “virtual law firm” capability does not make a marketing strategy, but there are online marketing strategies that can’t be executed without a virtual law firm platform in place.

The delivery of online legal services will continue to expand, I predict, but it is not going to happen tomorrow. As a new generation of clients mature to the point where they have legal problems of their own,  the need of delivering legal services online will intensify.

New innovations take time to reach a tipping point. I remember, very clearly,  when lawyers would not think of using a paralegal, and I remember how long it took for the innovation to mainstream and reach a tipping point. These times are not dissimilar, as the platform for the delivery of legal services is changing, as Jordon Furlong observes.   In all things innovative, patience is a virtue.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

 

We the People Files for Chapter 11: Another Casualty of the Internet

Last Friday, We The People USA, , the legal document preparation company that operates through a network of franchisees,  voluntarily filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.  The company and its affiliate, We The People LLC, are subsidiaries of Dollar Financial Group, Inc.  While the companies apparently had $24 million in sales and 138 franchised locations in 2006 , there are only eight remaining franchises and the companies lost $2.4 million on only $1.4 million in revenue in 2009.  By the end of 2009, operating revenues were less than $15,000 per month. For more information click here.

Several years ago I took a closer look at the We the People model and wondered how long it would take to fail. We the People established a network of physical retail stores, some run directly by the company, but most were franchised locations. Customers would complete a paper questionnaire, submit it to the store owner with full or partial payment. The store owner would fax the questionnaire to a central processing center where a paralegal or non-lawyer would input the data from the questionnaire into a desk-top document assembly program which would create the document ready for return to the customer.

Because there is so much friction in this system, the price per document was very high, when compared with comparable documents available over the Internet from either legal form web sites, or paralegal document preparation sites such as LegalZoom. The combination of the cost of real estate,  franchises  fee, the cost of advertising a physical location, and the consistent trend towards reduced pricing for common legal documents was obviously too much for the franchisees of We the People to bear. Plus some franchisees were being harassed by state bar UPL Committees. Because each franchisee purchased a dedicated territory it was never possible for the parent company to create an Internet-based strategy which would enable customers, for example, to purchases documents directly off the Internet, and then pick up the document at a local store, or simply effectively use the Internet to drive traffic to the physical locations maintained by We the People network.

There is a parallel between Turbotax which is a pure play Internet-based tax preparation service and H&R Block which maintains a comparable network of physical locations. Just this week, H& R Block reduced its projections for 2010, attributing the decline to the fact that more people are turning to do-it-yourself services due to the weak economy. This is despite the fact that H&R Block has an online offering. On the other hand, Intuit which operates Turbotax - reports an increased by 11% in projected usage in 2010, and has raised outlook and guidance for 2010 fiscal results. Web-based document preparation services, like LegalZoom, seem to be thriving, while land-based independent paralegals, where they exist, are hurting for business.

High pricing, expensive office space, fixed office hours, commoditized product offerings, expensive advertising, little or no interaction with customers over the Internet, obsolete technology, and low productivity --- all conspired to kill We the People.

Does this business model seem familiar? It looks like the same business model used by many (but obviously not all) community-based solo law firms who wait patiently for clients to knock on their doors to buy their services.  There are lessons to be learned  for "retail law firms" that serve moderate to middle income clients from the We the People failure.

Is it too late for solos and small law firms to change?

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

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

Clients can:

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

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

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

LegalZoom Sued for UPL in Missouri

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Blue Ocean Strategy and Limited Legal Services

When we designed the DirectLaw web service we relied on theories developed by W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne in their best selling book Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make the Competition Irrelevant .

Our concept is that a technology platform that enables law firms to offer limited legal services over the Internet could tap into the "latent markets" for legal services.

We also used this analytical approach to develop our online non-lawyer document preparation service approach and our approach to offering automated legal forms over the Internet which are also designed to serve the "latent market for legal services". LegalZoom is demonstrating that there is a huge latent market that is satisfied with a "good enough" solution.

Nicole Garton-Jones, a lawyer based in Vancouver, Canada, and a user of our DirectLaw platform has posted a detailed analysis of how her law firm development strategy is an example of Blue Ocean Strategy in action. See her blog post on this subject. Its worth reading.
 

DirectLaw Announces New Program for Recent Law School Graduates and Solo "Start-Ups"

We have been observing the dip in employment of recent law school graduates and the number of lawyers being terminated from mid and large size law firms. We think this will result in a resurgence of start-ups of solo and small law practices, as traditional employment opportunities for lawyers dry up.

To help these lawyers get their law practices up and running with a virtual law firm component, DirectLaw, our company which offers a turnkey virtual law firm solution for solos and small law firms announced today a new discounted program for new lawyers during their first year of practice, and lawyers who are leaving their law firm employers to start up their own law firm. The program is described in detail here.

New DirectLaw Virtual Law Firm Features Released

It has been a very busy summer at DirectLaw. We are constantly adding features to our DirectLaw Virtual Law Firm Platform. Sometimes new features are suggested by our growing network of DirectLaw law firms; often one of our staff gets a good idea and we push it out to the Platform to see what kind of response we get from consumers and our client law firms. The nature of a SaaS (Software as a Service) offering, like DirectLaw, is that we can can modify and enhance the platform at any time and all law firms in the network benefit immediately. Our clients don't  have to wait until "the next quarterly software release."

Here are some of the recently features that have been added to the DirectLaw Virtual Law Firm Platform:

June 17, 2009 - New virtual law firm platform for consumer bankruptcy attorneys released. Click here for more information.

July 13, 2009 DirectLaw Workspace™. brings the benefits of web-enabled document automation for clients who are not online by enabling law firms to use our web-enabled document automation system for regular office-based clients.  

July 29, 2009 - A new "collaboration" function that enables law firms to communicate and collaborate securely with their clients over the Internet. Click here for screenshot.

August 5, 2009 - We installed a new "billing" function that enables law firms to bill clients online for traditional legal services and supports online bill payment by clients through their MyLegalAffairs page. Click here for screenshot.

August 20, 2009 - Today we released a new user friendly design for the Legal Services Page ,  which is now available to all law firms in the DirectLaw network of law firms. Each legal service offered by the law firm now appears on a separate tab, with detailed explanations of the scope of the legal service. Legal services offered by the law firm can be added or deleted and the fees charged increased or decreased at any time by the individual law firm using the Attorney Dashboard - the Administrative area that the law firm uses to manage their virtual law firm platform.

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.

First DirectLaw firm in Georgia

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

LEGALTECH NEW YORK 2009

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

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

Louisiana Virtual Law Firm

 Myrna Arroyo, a solo practitioner in located in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who specializes in estate planning, has launched a virtual law firm site that offers wills, living trusts, and other estate planning documents bundled with legal advice for a fixed price. The site is designed to provide an alernative to web sites like LegacyWriter, Do Your Own Will, LegalZoom, and Wills-Online, which offer legal forms without any legal advice. None of these legal form web sites offer documents that are specific to the State of Louisiana because of the particular nature of Louisiana law, which is based on the French Civil Code. Users are able to complete an on-line questionnaire which generates a completed legal document, ready for lawyer review, analysis, and further customization. Web enabled document automation enables saves time in document creation, enabling Ms. Arroyo to provide legal advice with the document for a fixed price. The site is powered by Epoq's, DirectLaw Web Service.