Legal Referral websitesI have noticed recently the launch of many lead generation Web sites for lawyers.

In a previous blog post  , I noted that lead generation sites for lawyers as one category of legal start-ups were increasing and entering into an already crowded market space. By a "lead generation Web site" I mean a third party Web site whose primary purpose is to provide qualified leads to law firms. The site may be free to users, or sell legal advice to users for a fixed fee, but the purpose is still to generate leads for lawyers. A "lead generation web site" is typically what I call a multi-sided platform – one side involves users looking for a lawyer,  and other side are the providers who offer legal services. The lawyers who subscribe to the Web site typically pay a "marketing" or "advertising" fee to get access to the leads generated by the Web site.

More mature legal generation sites are expanding their features and depth of offerings TotalAttorneys recently received of infusion of $15 million in new venture capital from Bain Capital Ventures of Mitt Romney fame. A new CEO, Paul Ford, with expertise in developing lead generation Web sites is in place providing leadership.  TotalAttorneys now gives away their Web-based practice management system for a $1 a month, to attract attorneys to their more expensive legal generation services.  At $1.00 a month this is really good value for a web-based practice management application. However, for TotalAttorneys this web-based practice management solution that was originally developed by Stephanie Kimbro, now with Burton-Law,  and her husband and acquired by TotalAttorneys, is now just a marketing strategy for their lead generation services.  TotalAttorneys now claims that it is," the leading US company providing customer acquisition for lawyers"

I am not sure that ExpertHub, owned by InternetBrands, which acquired Nolo last year,  would agree with this assessment, with its broad network of practice specific legal sites now being reinvigorated with content from Nolo. [ See previous blog post on this acquisition ]. 

 

Virtual Law firm Success Factors

Continue Reading New Law Start-Up Lead Generation Sites: What Lawyers Need to Know

Just Answer is a question and answer platform that provides answers to users questions for a flat fee of approximately $30.00 per question. It turns out that one of the fastest growing categories within JustAnswer is the answering of legal questions by lawyers.  

Here are other the JustAnswer terms and conditions that apply to lawyers that participate in this service:

"Experts in the Legal categories must be attorneys licensed to practice law, and be
in good standing in at least one jurisdiction in the United States or foreign
country. Such Experts shall provide general information only, such as providing
descriptions of general principles of law, and shall not provide legal advice. In
responding to questions, Experts in the Legal Category shall not apply their legal knowledge or skills to resolve or advise on the Customer’s specific factual circumstances described in the question, such as by proposing a specific course of action (other than advising the User to seek the advice of an attorney licensed to practice in the relevant jurisdiction). Experts in the Legal Category shall not form an attorney-client relationship on the Site."

To be qualified to answer questions as a lawyer within the JustAnswer platform, the lawyer has to take a test in the practice area and meet other qualification standards.

Disclosure: I answer legal questions on the JustAnswer.com website in my capacity as an attorney and a member of the Maryland Bar.

The Website is very well executed. Users can select from a panel of lawyers that are online at the time that the question is asked. You can name your price – indicate what you are willing to pay for an answer. You can see the credentials of the lawyers and their track record in answering questions, communications are secure and confidential, and the user can indicate the urgency of the answer, and the level of detail required. Answers are 100% guaranteed. If you are not satisfied you get your money back. You can select the State that you are located in, so answers can be state specific. Most questions are answered within minutes.

I have yet to see a state bar association offer such a service with the same level of Website sophistication and quality control.

 

Continue Reading Does JustAnswer.com Provide Legal Advice Online? Is this Site Ethically Compliant?

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.comContract 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

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. 

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.

 

 

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.

 

AVVO, the controversial law firm Directory that provides ratings of  lawyers has received a new $10,000,000 round of venture financing led by DAG Ventures of Pal Alto, California. The AVVO Directory is reputed to be the largest and most trafficked legal directory and the largest free legal Q&A forum receiving tens of thousands of questions and answers each month from consumers. The Directory also provides ratings and profiles for 90% of licensed attorneys in the US.

This funding is an endorsement of AVVO’s concept that what consumers want in evaluating law firms is transparency and clarity with respect to the lawyer’s reputation, legal services offered and even the pricing of legal services. The AVVO ratings system continues to increase in credibility and I predict that AVVO will become a first stop for consumers in searching for an attorney.

The AVVO system is arguably superior to Internet-based lawyer matching services, where consumers are matched with an attorney on  the basis of a summary of a problem submitted over the web, as the consumer really doesn’t have a clue about the competence of the law firm to which they are being matched.

To cite other examples of opaque law firm directory sites, there are web sites that aggregate consumers through a specialized legal information web site, and then redirect those prospects  to a network of law firms that have purchased the exclusive right to receive leads in a particular territory. The lawyers in these networks may be very competent, but there is little information about their pricing or even links to these law firm’s web sites.Consumers seeking competent lawyers on the Internet will continue to gravitate towards more transparent sites law firm directories sites like AVVO.

 

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.

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

 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 !!