A Recurring Revenue Business Model

LegalZoom® which started as a legal document web site based on individual transactions is gradually shifting towards a new business model based upon recurring revenue. Under the guidance of Premira, a private equity fund and now the majority shareholder of LegalZoom®, the company has launched a legal plan that adds legal advice to the purchase of its documents. Premira, is a specialist in helping companies create recurring revenue streams, it’s most recent success being Ancestry.com.

The Legal Service Plan business model is the future for LegalZoom®. A network of lawyers in every state has been created with capability of providing legal advice both for personal documents and business documents.

See for example the services now offered in the estate planning area:
http://www.legalzoom.com/personal/estate-planning/last-will-and-testament-pricing.htm

or in the small business area:
http://www.legalzoom.com/business/business-formation/llc-pricing.html

Here is the message by LegalZoom® about what you get when you purchase a Wills package bundled with legal advice:

“Membership includes: 30-minute phone consults with independent attorneys on an unlimited number of new legal matters. Attorney review of any completed LegalZoom documents. FREE revisions for as long as you maintain your membership. 10% OFF future LegalZoom purchases.

The price for the LegalZoom® estate planning package is $149.00, which includes a Will, Power of Attorney, and Living Will. This is a good value proposition for the consumer, if the client’s estate requires no complicated tax planning or has special circumstances that need to be incorporated into the documents. For a large percentage of U.S. consumers this set of estate planning documents will satisfy their needs.

I hear from lawyers occasionally that they make a business of cleaning up documents purchased from LegalZoom®. I don’t believe it. I think it is just defensive talk by lawyers who convince themselves that they offer a superior service, but at a much higher fee. Maybe this comment refers to documents purchased without legal advice and review, but I doubt it will apply to the enhanced service that now includes legal advice. Solos and small law firms will find it hard to compete against this value proposition unless they learn some lessons from LegalZoom®.

Lawyers can Learn from LegalZoom®

Solos and small law firms can learn from LegalZoom®. Ignoring Legalzoom’s approach to the marketplace will cause a continued decline in solo and small law firm income. [See Clio’s Legal Trends Report for support of this assertion ].

[See my old post at: What Lawyers Can Learn from LegalZoom®   I stand by these recommendations first made in 2010, but would add that adding the benefit of in-person personalization is a feature that LegalZoom can’t offer.]

Is the LegalZoom® Business Model Ethically Compliant?

A final note on the ethical compliance of the LegalZoom’s offering. It is well-established that a profit-making company can create and administer a network of attorneys, commonly known as a Legal Access Plan. See for example: CLC Legal Access Plans  and Legal Access Plans . These plans traditional provides legal advice services as part of Employer Assistance Programs and sometimes offer their plans directly to the public.

What is different about LegalZoom’s® advertising is the statement you can purchase “Best Value + Attorney Advice” which implies that you can purchase your legal documents with legal advice. This is an ethical violation as organizations that are not law firms, may never advertise legal services as part of the services they offer. Accounting firms can’t advertise legal services. Financial advisory firms can’t  bundle  legal services with their services. Banks can’t advertise legal services, or bundle legal services with their other services. So, on what theory can LegalZoom® advertise legal services in a bundle with their other legal services?

A network of law firms is prohibited from making claims that a law firm cannot make directly. Bar disciplinary bodies can’t censure LegalZoom® for this infraction, but they can go after the lawyers participating in their plan who expose themselves to disciplinary action by participating in a “branded” network not ethically compliant.

If I am wrong about this, LegalZoom® is invited to submit a comment explaining their theory of how this messaging complies with ethical rules that deal with advertising and representations about legal services.

Note: LegalZoom® is a trademark of LegalZoom, Inc.

Greedy LawyersUnder the guise of consumer protection, North Carolina has passed new legislation, at the direction of the North Carolina Bar, that imposes restrictions on distributing self-help legal software over the Web.  Rather than protecting consumers, this legislation is a frightened response by the North Carolina Bar to protect their incomes from the impact of advances in Internet technology that provide new ways for people to solve their legal problems at low cost.

The restrictions are so severe that the result is to deprive North Carolina’s citizens of low cost solutions to solving many legal problems, inhibits innovation in developing legal solutions by an emerging self-help legal software industry, stifles competition to attorneys from self-help legal software publishers in the State of North Carolina, and will eliminate any possibility of private investment in self-help legal software development.

The new legislation can be found here: http://www.ncleg.net/Sessions/2015/Bills/House/PDF/H436v5.pdf

Also see also previous blog post on efforts by the North Carolina Bar to stifle competition..

Continue Reading North Carolina Restricts the Distribution of Legal Self-Help Software to Consumers

Legal Documents On-LineThe American Bar Association’s eLawyering Task Force has compiled a draft set of best practice guidelines for legal document providers, which can be downloaded here*.  

An increasingly popular – and controversial – category of service providers are those that supply customer-specific documents over the Internet, using interactive software and/or human resources, without purporting to be engaged in the practice of law. There are literally hundreds of these legal documents Web sites. More of these legal document Web sites launch every month, of not every week on the Internet.

 

These Web sites include for example:

The Task Force believes that there are common principles that ought to guide these legal document sites, and practices that consumers should be able to expect.  The  eLawyering Task Force  also recognizes that consumers have different levels of knowledge in meeting their documentation needs.  Some believe, for instance, that it is simply a matter of getting “the” right form, and pay little attention to careful drafting and appropriate execution.  Others have a more sophisticated understanding of options and implications. Nevertheless there should be baseline expectations that meets the needs of all kinds of users. The goal is not to issue a "seal off approval" of these legal document Web sites. The objective is to encourage these Web sites to use acknowledged "best practices" in the development and delivery of their services.

These guidelines do not take a position on whether certain document services may constitute the unauthorized practice of law in certain jurisdictions if not performed by a licensed attorney, other than to urge providers to know and observe applicable law on that thorny subject.

The primary purpose is to aid consumers in making informed decisions about what they are buying.

Comments on these Guidelines are invited. They can be submitted on the eLawyering Task Force ListServ which any lawyer can join, Click here.

 

Hyatt Regency Incline Village Lake Taho, CaliforniaThe eLawyering Task Force is having a Quarterly Meeting at he Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe Resort, Spa and Casino on Friday, October 19, 2012 between 9:00 – 11:00 A,M,

This is an open meeting and individuals who want to submit comments on these Guidelines are invited to attend and participate.

Additional Conference details can be found here.

 

 

*(Disclosure: I am Co-Chair of the eLawyering Task Force. The Co-Chair of the Task Force is Marc Lauitsen, of Capstone Practice Systems, who is providing leadership to this project.)

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

 

 

For those of you following the LegalZoom IPO, which was scheduled for Friday, August 2, 2012, it was postponed for the usual stated reason that market conditions were not suitable. This really means that the offering could not get off at the $10-$12 price per share that the selling shareholders wanted. Instead the maximum price institutional buyers were willing to pay was reportedly $7-$8 a share, which would have reduced the valuation of the company by one-third. The reasons that were given for this lower valuation were comparisons with other transactional-based companies like www,ancestry.com which is selling at a price to earnings ratio of 21.73, compared to a projected price to earnings ratio for LegalZoom of over 40x.

Perhaps the research analysts on the buy side perceived a more fundamental flaw in LegalZoom’s business model.

The LegalZoom product offering at its core is still the provision of legal forms offered up to recently, without the option of the legal advice from an attorney. The pricing for these legal forms are comparable to the pricing of paralegal prepared  legal forms offered for example by the many legal technicians in the State of California who work with consumers off line in face-to-face meetings, like lawyers.  

Thus for example LegalZoom charges $299  for no-fault divorce forms, and $139 for name change forms. Many virtual law firms now offer comparable legal form services but bundled with legal advice. See for example www.morrisfamilylaw.com  where a no-fault divorce is offered with the full accountability and the backing of an attorney for a fee of $275. For another example see FlashDivorce a virtual law firm service that offers  no-fault divorce in four states for $199.

Law firms are going virtual and are finally figuring out ways to compete against LegalZoom on its own playing field. To be sure, these small law firms don’t have the capital and marketing budgets of a LegalZoom, but as thousands of these law firms eventually migrate to delivering online legal services they will not only offer a better value to consumers, but they will constrain LegalZoom’s growth and dominance.

The problem with the LegalZoom pricing model is that automated legal forms are digital goods whose marginal cost is zero. Eventually a pure digital good has a marginal cost of zero and will be made available a price which is either free or close to free. It is for this reason that a song, for example, on iTunes cost only .99. [I wrote about this idea previously at Legal Forms for the Price of a Song on iTunes? which identifies other legal start-ups moving into the free legal forms market space.]

LegalZoom itself has aggressively argued that it services are essentially software-powered and its document assembly processes are publications entitled to the same First Amendment protections as other kinds of commercial speech. Its products are therefore, it argues, immune from organized bar claims that their services constitute the unauthorized practice of law. By its own admission, the professional review of legal documents by LegalZoom is very limited and does not constitute legal advice.

If this is the case, once consumers figure out that the product that they get from LegalZoom is essentially the same digital form that can be purchased from many automated legal form websites at a price which is 10% of LegalZoom’s existing selling prices,  -LZ’s revenue should implode, in theory. I say, "in theory", because LegalZoom has done an excellent job in persuading consumers that what they have to offer is a better service than what they get from the typical lawyer.

Because of the overwhelming advertising that LegalZoom pushes into multiple channels the LegalZoom brand  is likely to remain intact, because the truth about the nature of LegalZoom’s product offering is obscured by their aggressive advertising messaging.

For many consumers,  if a service does not appear on page one of a Google search, they will look no further, and the opportunity to avoid using a lawyer in solving a legal problem is often the controlling decision factor.

For example, many consumers are still unaware of the fact that the US Legal Services Corporation has subsidized the creation of free automated legal forms available to people of all income levels that are available for  free from a network of state-based legal information and legal document web sites. These free legal form services have no budget for marketing, certainly nothing like the $40 million a year that LegalZoom’s spends on marketing and advertising.

These legal forms are  fully automated, web-enabled, automated,easy to use, and often employ a visual graphical interface to help users navigate through online questions and courthouse procedures. The program is not limited to low- income people.

Even without a marketing budget, last year more than 500,000 legal forms were downloaded by users in 34 states using this program. This transactional volume already exceeds LegalZoom’s annual volume and it is increasing as more legal forms are automated and the number of states participating in this program increases.

State courts have also jumped into the free legal forms market in response to the demands of pro se filers looking for free legal help. See for example Online Court Assistance in Utah and Maryland Family Law Forms.

Even the US Bankruptcy courts are prototyping a free online set of Chapter 7 bankruptcy forms to be used by self-filers. This service will eventually be rolled out nationwide to every US Bankruptcy Court Website.

I can think of other ways that the development and distribution of free automated legal forms can be monetized, without the need to charge a transactional fee to the consumer. (This is the subject of a future blog post).

Free legal f
orms are here and the supply is expanding. Lawyer’s won’t like the fact, any more than LegalZoom, that this development will disrupt their business models. The reality is that both kinds of suppliers of legal solutions will have to accept the challenge of the accelerated pace of technological change.

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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 MyLawyer.com, a smart legal forms Website, and Founder/CEO of DirectLaw, a virtual law firm platform provider. The opinions expressed here are my own. I did not receive any compensation from any source for writing this post. DirectLaw sponsors this blog by paying for the costs of hosting.

LegalZoom is a trademark of LegalZoom, Inc.

 Raj AbhyankerHere is a tale of an exceptional entrepreneur/solo lawyer who has built a thriving Internet-based law practice of large scale in less than seven years. Raj Abhyanker, 37,  started his law practice in Palo Alto in a small office above a rug store in 2005 (sounds like many Palo Alto start-ups like Apple and Google!). The law firm’s focus is patent and trademark law which is Mr. Abhyanker’s specialty.  

In September, 2009, Mr Abhyanker launched a web site called Trademarkia which is designed to help small business secure a trademark for an affordable fee. Trademarkia contains an easy to search data base of all of the trademarks of the USPTO office. The site has been written up in the New York Times.

Little more than two year after launch,  Trademarkia has become the leading trademark site on the Web generating more than as 1,000,000 visitors a month, more than either LegalZoom or RocketLawyer.  The law firm now employs more than 60 lawyers, including a team of lawyers in India trained in U.S. trademark law.

This is an example of how a single lawyer with a deep knowledge of the power of the Internet, together with a background in knowledge process management and outsourcing, can create a world-class enterprise from nothing in a relatively short period of time.

Quality Solicitors in the United KingdomMr. Abhyanker is now moving his concept to a new level by creating LegalForce,  a new national legal services retail brand, similar to the Quality Solicitors concept in the UK.

Quality Solicitors
is a national network of retail offices serving consumers and small business by linking together a network of small law firms that share a common brand, advertising and marketing budgets, and an online presence. Mr Abhyanker’s goal is to create a Quality Solicitors type network in the United States.

Legal force Law CenterLegalForce is creating, in a historically-preserved building, a retail law center in downtown Palo Alto in the heart of Silicon Valley, (right across the street from the new Apple store on University Ave.)  The LegalForce center is set to open in the Fall of 2012.

Mr. Abhyanker’s idea is to create a physical space, that is as much about education as it is about "retail", like an Apple Store. In this innovative legal space clients can meet with their lawyers in a comfortable and non-formal setting. Like Starbuck’s "Third Place"  consumers and small business entrepreneurs will be able to meet their lawyer’s in a casual friendly environment. Part coffee bar, self-help book store, legal education and  legal research center, the idea is that a LegalForce center will be a nexus where people can connect and get to meet their lawyers in an accessible environment. Legal services won’t actually be delivered from the store – instead the store will be designed as a gateway to legal and other related services and the visible manifestation of a national retail legal services brand.

There have been other attempts to create a physical retail space where clients can meet with their lawyers in a comfortable and accessible environment. LegalGrind, based in Santa Monica, Los Angeles, advertises coffee with your counsel, but has never been able to expand beyond a few locations. Chicago has their LegalCafe, which is a similar concept, but remains a limited operation. 

My opinion is that the failure of these two operations to scale is the absence of an online strategy which offers legal services over the Internet as well as in a physical setting.

Unlike these smaller operations, Mr. Abhyanker plans to create a national branded legal service that links together lawyers working in the real world with a powerful online legal service strategy.

Unlike a typical law firm, Mr Abhyanker employs a team of software engineers capable of creating an innovative Internet legal services delivery platform that can create referrals for law firms that are members of the LegalForce network.

LegalForce  has the promise of creating a true national retail legal services brand that will offer a range of legal services – from limited legal services online to full service legal representation.

I have often thought that what serves consumers best is a business model that combines a strong online presence with lawyers who provide a full range of services within their own communities.

Online legal form web sites, like LegalZoom, CompleteCase,  RocketLawyer, and our own SmartLegalForms, are limited in scope.These are alternatives that consumers choose because (1) there is no existing national trusted legal service brand; and (2) consumers don’t understand what they are not getting when they purchase just a form from a non-law firm.

The LegalForce idea is designed to be a counter-force to these online insurgents which are capturing market share from the legal profession.

It will be interesting to see how this LegalForce idea develops and whether Mr. Abhyanker will be successful in this venture. LegalForce is one to watch.

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LegalZoomLegalZoomRozman Legal Group, P.C., a law firm that was formerly a member of the LegalZoom network of attorneys,  recently filed a law suit against LegalZoom in U.S. District Court, for breach of the Panel Agreement that it entered into to become a member of the network.

LegalZoom maintains a Panel of Attorneys as part of a Legal Plan that provides its customers with the option of seeking legal advice in relationship to the their legal documents.

There are many claims in the complaint including breach of contract, breach of a non-disclosure agreement, and copyright infringement. The entire Complaint can be downloaded here, It makes for an interesting read.

For this observer, the most interesting claim is the alleged interference with the lawyer/client relationship.

Rozman alleges in the complaint, that LegalZoom interfered with the independence of the lawyer/client relationship, to wit:

  • the Rozman Legal Group  was discouraged "from entering into limited representation or general retainer agreements with Plan Members";
     
  • the Rozman Group was instructed to " answer Plan member questions generally and rhetorically so as to specifically not create liability for Rozman Legal Group or LegalZoom.
     
  • Rozman was told by a member of LegalZoom’s management "that the purpose of the Plan was to provide good customer service and that legal advice was ancillary."
     
  • Rozman also alleges that LegalZoom "sold family law leads usually for $75 and mesothelioma leads for as much as $1000 despite the LegalZoom policy that customer information was not sold to third parties"

It is hard to know what the real facts are of course, and I assume that discovery will shed some light on what really happened between the parties.

But the potential that there was interference with the independence of the lawyer/client relationship is ominous.

Reform of the British Legal ProfessionI have sometimes advocated that the American Bar should adopt some of the English reforms that enable non-law firms (companies) to own law firms, known as Alternative Business Structures. In theory, such an organization would have better access to capital markets which could finance true legal services innovation. In the United Kingdom processes and procedures are being put in place that are designed to insure the independence of the attorney. 

When I read the complaint in the Rozman case, the idea of private company ownership of law firms, or non-lawyer equity ownership of law firms, doesn’t seem like such a good idea after all. 

US attorneys participate in network arrangements with private companies, but there is no mechanism to monitor whether management practices are in ethical compliance. While these arrangements may look ethical on paper, it is the management practices that may tell a different story.

So the question is:  When you have a large, well-capitalized company that provides major cash flows to a group of law firms engaged in its delivery system, what guarantees can be put in place which protect the independence of the lawyer and the client;s interest?

It is easy to envision that  LegalZoom which will soon be a public company –driven by  Wall Street’s demand for increasing earnings every quarter —  would manage its lawyer network in a way to maximize its commercial objectives.

There are solutions for this new breed of hybrid company that would give the public confidence that the ethical rules that apply to the lawyer/client relationship are being respect.   [ RocketLawyer, JustAnswer, and Law Pivot are other hybrid company that work with a network of lawyers that provide legal services, just to name a few ].

One solution that would give the public confidence that these companies are in ethical compliance would be for the company to create a truly Independent Review Board of attorneys with backgrounds in legal ethics charged with monitoring management practices to make sure that they don’t  undermine the lawyer’s obligations to their clients.  

Another idea could be a Legal Ethics Ombudsman, who is independent of management and the company’s  office of General Counsel.  Lawyers participating in the network would be required to consult or report violations to the ombudsman before resorting to litigation.

There is precedent for this in other industries.. e.g., peer review in medical institutions the New York Times has an ombudsman charged with monitoring ethical journalistic practice, and large commercial banks have independent risk officers (in theory!).

Creating this kind of impartial Board or Office to monitor the management behavior of the company and the lawyers it engages would be an important step towards assuring the public that their interests are protected. It could also minimize or avoid litigation like the Rozman law suit, which at the end of the day, will not likely be a satisfying experience for either party. 

The ABA Standing Committee on Client Protection just released a survey it conducted on unlicensed practice of law programs ( UPL) in United States jurisdictions in 2011-12.

Only 29 jurisdictions responded to the survey.  Twenty-three of the 29 actively enforce UPL regulations, although some jurisdictions indicate that insufficient funding or resources make enforcement challenging. Nine jurisdictions stated that enforcement is inactive or non-existent.

Of the jurisdictions reporting, 21 states permit some form of limited practice by non-lawyers. Here is the summary from the report:

Twenty-one jurisdictions authorize nonlawyers to perform some legal services in limited areas. Sixteen permit legal assistants, legal technicians or paralegals to perform some legal services under the supervision of a lawyer; six jurisdictions permit nonlawyers to draft legal documents. Other allowable nonlawyer activities include: real estate agents/brokers may draft documents for property transactions or attend real estate closings; nonlawyers may attend (and in some states participate in) administrative proceedings; and participate in alternative dispute resolution proceedings. Many of these jurisdictions do not classify these activities as the practice of law.

There are only six jurisdictions in the US that permit nonlawyers to prepare legal documents,
(without providing legal advice). These jurisdictions are California, Arizona, the District of Columbia, Florida, Maine, and Missouri. In these jurisdictions the "nonlawyers"  are referred to as –  "Legal Document Preparers" or "Legal Technicians".

[ Download Entire Report Here ].

Only one jurisdiction that we know of, the State of  Texas, makes an exception to the definition of the practice of law, and explicitly permits the sale and distribution of self-help legal software, software-powered legal web sites, self-help law books, and other technologically-based alternatives to the delivery of legal services.

It’s no wonder that LegalZoom is required to state in its S-1 filing to go public – that violation of UPL statutes in many states is a major risk factor for its business:

"Our business model includes the provision of services that represent an alternative to traditional legal services, which subjects us to allegations of UPL. UPL generally refers to an entity or person giving legal advice who is not licensed to practice law. However, laws and regulations defining UPL, and the governing bodies that enforce UPL rules, differ among the various jurisdictions in which we operate. We are unable to acquire a license to practice law in the United States, or employ, or employ licensed attorneys to provide legal advice to our customers, because we do not meet the regulatory environment of being exclusively owned by licensed attorneys. We are also subject to laws and regulations that govern business transactions between attorneys and non-attorneys, including those related to the ethics of attorney fee-splitting and the corporate practice of law."

Some Observations

  • Some entity, such as the US Legal Services Corporation whose goal is to expand access to justice for all,  or an independent or university-based research organization, should undertake empirical research which analyzes whether non-lawyer practices actually cause harm to consumers within the states that permit nonlawyer document preparation.  Research should also be done on the impact that nonlawyer legal form web sites have on the consumer in terms of benefits and potential harm. Empirical research in England by the Legal Services Consumer Board on the issue of whether will writing by non-lawyers causes harm, concluded that it did. This resulted in making will drafting and will writing a reserved area under the new UK legal profession deregulation scheme.
     
  • We need more empirical research like the UK Study to inform public policy making in this area.  Perhaps if LegalZoom is successful with its public underwriting it could subsidize or contribute to such a study, as it would certainly be in their interest to do so!
     
  • Research should be conducted in those states that permit nonlawyer document preparers to evaluate whether more consumers have access to the legal system and at a lower cost by using nonlawyer document preparers, rather than attorneys. This data would inform public policy with facts, instead of generalized theories that it is necessary to limit legal document preparation services to licensed attorneys in the interest of  "protecting" the public from harm.
     
  • Legal document preparation software is getting smarter — more intelligent– Web-enabled document automation applications can now generate documents that really do reflect a person’s individual circumstances. These applications are getting smarter and the intelligent templates easier to build. Other than in Texas, there is an issue as to whether legal software, standing alone, constitutes the unauthorized practice of law, despite disclaimers to the contrary.

    State Bar UPL Committees should consider adopting the Texas UPL exception to avoid charges of monopolistic behavior, to gain the confidence of the public that the organized Bar is really interested in expanding access to the legal system through the use of technology, and to encourage innovation in the delivery of legal services. [DisclosureWe operate an intelligent legal forms software company ].
     

 It would be interesting to see whether legal fees are also lower in jurisdictions which have competition from nonlawyer document preparers as these authors claim.

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LegalZoom, the leading online provider of legal services to consumers and small business, as predicted here previously, finally filed for an IPO last week. The company is seeking to raise $120 million to expand their services both in the US and internationally.

LegalZoom’s data in the S-1 filing is now available for everyone to analyze:

  • In 2011, 490,000 orders were placed through their web site;
  • 20% of all limited liability companies in California were done by LegalZoom;
  • During the past ten years, LegalZoom has served over 2,000,000 customers.
  • Revenue in 2011 was $156 million.

These are impressive statistics and provide support for the proposition that consumers and small business prefer a very limited legal solution that is just good enough to get the job done, rather than pay the high legal fees charged by the typical attorney.

This is LegalZoom’s analysis of the legal market for consumers and small business, buried on p. 62 of the S-1 filing: 

"Making the right choices with respect to legal matters can be difficult, especially for those with limited time and resources. The U.S. legal system consists of overlapping jurisdictions at the city, county, state and federal levels, each of which has its own evolving laws and regulations. Businesses may be subject to additional laws, regulations and legal issues applying specifically to the industries in which they operate. In addition, the policies and procedures associated with the creation, filing and certification of legal documents are often arcane and confusing."

        "When in need of legal help, small businesses and consumers lack an efficient and reliable way to find high quality, trustworthy attorneys with the appropriate experience to navigate this complex legal system and handle their specific needs. Small businesses and consumers often do not understand their legal needs or know where to start looking for an attorney. Some are wary of attorneys in general, and others may have heard from friends or family about negative experiences with attorneys or the legal system."

        "The high and unpredictable cost of traditional legal services also presents challenges for many small businesses and consumers. In 2011, the average billing rate for small and midsize law firms was $318 per hour, according to ALM’s 2012 Survey of Billing and Practices for Small and Midsize Law Firms. Attorneys are frequently unable to predict the time required to address a client’s legal matter, sometimes billing thousands of dollars to research a legal issue they have not previously encountered. This can be particularly true of generalist attorneys that offer many disparate legal services to members of their local communities. Unlike attorneys at large global law firms or specialty boutiques who handle high volumes of similar matters and develop expertise in specific domains, generalists can find it difficult to efficiently address a client’s particular legal issue due to their lack of specialized expertise. Due to the high and unpredictable costs of traditional legal services, many small businesses and consumers limit their use of attorneys and instead often attempt to resolve legal issues without assistance."

       "As a result of these factors, many small businesses and consumers often are unsure of or dissatisfied with the legal services available to them, and many either elect not to seek help or take no action to address their important legal needs."

Many lawyers are in denial about the desire of consumers and small business to purchase their services. They will assert that consumers and small business are exposing themselves to liability by using LegalZoom’s limited services which will bring regret later. But consumer’s don’t seem to care. What they get from LegalZoom is "good enough." The numbers tell the story.

Solos and small law firms will find that it will be very difficult to compete against LegalZoom with its superior capital resources. The organized bar (State and ABA) has given up on trying to put LegalZoom out of business on they theory that the company is violating UPL (‘unauthorized practice of law") rules. Any organized bar attacks will be resisted by LegalZoom which will now have the capital to fight any challenges to its business model. The American Bar Association has created a Solo and Small Law Firm Resource Center, but it is too little and too late.

LegalZoom is here to stay and will expand its market share as the major provider of the delivery of legal solutions to consumers and small business.

LegalZoom will, inevitably, put many solos and small law firms out of business as it grows and expands its suite of services.  For a related analysis on my theory about the venture capital industry and disruption in the legal industry see video at: Legal Startups – An Overview at PointOneLaw ].

To survive in this fast changing environment, solos and small law firms need to figure out strategies that extend their brand online, without detracting in any way from their role as a trusted adviser in the communities where they live and work.  I see too many solos and small law firms that think they can emulate LegalZoom’s success but don’t have either the capital or the skills to compete in an online environment.

The competitive response for solos and small law firms should be to create a "click and mortal" strategy that combines what can be learned from LegalZoom with the best management practices of a law firm that has the capacity to deliver "limited" or "unbundled" legal services at a competitive price point, both in the office and online.

Here is a previous blog post which lists steps that solos and small law firms can take to become more competitive in this rapidly changing environment. The cost of adapting to this new competitive environment is not the cost of software, which is relatively inexpensive. The cost is the investment in time that the lawyer has to make to learn new online skills, create more efficient production procedures, and adopt marketing approaches that amplify a lawyer’s experti
se both online and offline.

It will be interesting to see what the legal landscape for solos and small law firms looks like five years from now. 

Limited Scope Legal Services: Unbundling and the Self Hep ClientStephanie Kimbro, a virtual solo practitioner based in North Carolina and a member of the ABA’s eLawyering Task Force,  has authored a new book on Limited Scope Legal Services- Unbundling and the Self-Help Client, published by the Law Practice Management Section of the American Bar Association.

The book is "must reading" for solo practitioners and lawyers in small firms who want to expand the reach of their legal services to serve an expanding latent market for legal services plus provide innovative and responsive legal services to existing clients.

The original book on this subject, also published by ABA/LPM, was written by Forest "Woody" Mosten, who is considered the "Father of Unbundling" in 2000. That was 12 years ago, before the ascendency of the Internet. A lot has happened in 12 years. Kimbro’s book up-dates the original concept and explains clearly how these ideas can be used ito create new on-line business models for law firms.

When you combine the power of the Internet as a delivery platform,  with the idea of limited scope representation, new "unbundled legal services"  can be created that can be sold to clients in volume over a wide geographical area. The Internet takes the idea of "unbundling" to an entire new level. An example is the packaging of highly specialized legal forms with legal advice for a fixed legal fee that are sold through out a state. Long Tail marketing concepts apply when selling specialized legal services to a niche market and are compatible with the idea of limited scope legal representation.

Like Kimbro’s earlier work on Virtual Law Practice,  this new book is a manual filled with relevant case studies, explanations, and other resources that help a lawyer figure out out how limited scope representation could be applied to an individual practice. It should be on the book shelf of every lawyer who is thinking about ways to compete with non-lawyer companies like LegalZoom – which in effect has taken the idea of "unbundling" to an extreme by simply "unbundling" the lawyer completely out of the legal document creation process. [ LegalZoom is not a law firm, in case you haven’t heard.]

The book comes with useful check lists, discussions of best practices, a discussion of the pros and cons of "unbundling" , a discussion of ethical rules that apply, a chapter devoted to marketing unbundled legal services, sample limited retainer agreements, and a sampling of state by state ethics rules that apply to limited scope representation with citations back to the relevant state statutes. This is only the tip of the iceberg. With this single book, a practitioner has enough information to develop a viable business plan for offering limited scope legal services.

If Woody Mosten is been considered the"Father of Unbundling" than Stephanie Kimbro has earned the title of "Mother of Unbundling." 

Buy this book!.

Jay Fleischman in a blog post entitled: “Is the Virtual Law Firm Model Coming up Short?”  states:

"The ABA elawyering Task Force tells us that, “[t]o be successful in the coming era, lawyers will need to know how to practice over the Web, manage client relationships in cyberspace, and ethically offer “unbundled” services.”

Bull—t.

Jay also states:

"Email doesn’t substitute for a phone call.  A phone call isn’t the replacement for a handshake."

"Those who offer the virtual law firm are selling something most people don’t want.  People want to be able to make a personal connection with other people, to build trust in a lawyer’s expertise.  They don’t want to be met with a password-encrypted firewall and triple-redundant backup systems.".

Unfortunately, like some commentators of a well known news network that make up facts and then offers opinions based on those false assumptions, Jay makes up facts to support his point of view.

Jay is entitled to opinion, but not to his own set of facts.

Here are some of the facts:

1. The ABA/LPM’s eLawyering Task Force

The eLawyering Task Force , of which I am co-chair (with Marc Lauritsen), through it’s web site, publications, and statements has never made the claim that delivering legal services online was the only way that law firms should  connect with clients. The value of an online platform depends on the kind of law practice and the kind of clients served. Clients obviously have preferences that lawyers who serve those clients must respect.

Many firms will have a "virtual component" incorporated into a traditional practice. As Marc Lauritsen puts it,  there will be:

" a shared online environment that is persistent across the life of a matter. For instance, providing interactive questionnaires on their web sites to gather information from prospects and clients, or supplying do-it-yourself document generators, checklists, or calculators.Or opening up a shared space for collaborative deliberation about a particular decision, using interactive visualizations like I ‘ve been promoting under by ‘choiceboxing" idea."

In fact, the firms that are getting the most successful results from the addition of a client portal are those that have a traditional practice and who add an interactive online component. 

We know this from the analysis that we have done from observing over 200 law firms that have subscribed to our DirectLaw virtual law firm service during the past two years. We have also learned why some law firms fail to successfully implement an online strategy. We also know that some lawyers have an unrealistic expectation of what it takes to be successful as a "pure play" virtual law firm.

To read the results of our analysis download our White Paper on Virtual Law Firms: Success Factors.

Also see these blog posts on this topic: Online Legal Services: Is it Hype or a New Way of Delivering Legal Services?;  Framing the Discussion About Virtual Law Firm Practice; and Defining the Virtual Law Firm .

2.    Affordable Legal Service and Access to the Legal System

The work of the eLawyering Task Force has always focused on identifying ways in which lawyers can become more productive and efficient by using the Internet as platform for the delivery of legal services and ways in which clients can benefit from the use of Internet technologies in terms of the fees they pay for legal services.

President Bill Paul of the American Bar Association, who created the Task Force, had the idea that through the use of Internet technologies it would be possible to lower the cost of legal fees to make the legal system more accessible to those who cannot afford typical attorney fees.

Instead, rather than the legal profession responding to this challenge, we see the emergence of companies like LegalZoom, SmartLegalForms, CompleteCase, LegacyWriter, Nolo, and the dozens of other non-lawyer internet-based legal solution providers who are responding to the need of consumers  for a ":good enough" legal result at the lowest possible cost. For millions of moderate and middle class consumers the purchasing of traditional high cost legal services delivered on a one to one basis is no longer an option. Their choice is to do the best they can with a legal solution provided by a non-lawyer provider, (which now may be a court or an online legal aid provider).

Jay seems to imply that if a client can’t afford the profession’s legal fees, then so be it.  Who cares?

Bring me The MoneyMy opinion is that it will be harder to justify the profession’s monopoly on the delivering of legal services when it only serves a tiny portion of the US population.

The reality is that many of us didn’t become lawyers just for the money. We want to serve people and help them with resolve their legal problems. Now there are technologies that can help us do that in a cost effective way and expand the market for legal services.  We shouldn’t ignore these technologies, just because we are not practicing law like the last generation of lawyers.

3.  The "Secure Client Portal" Concept":

Examples of Internet based applications range from web enabled document automation, to paying legal bills online, to the provision of written legal advice online, to simply storing the clients legal documents online so they can be referenced later. All of these functions require that the client have access to a secure client portal within which these functions can take place.

It is indisputable that a secure client portal is necessary for secure and confidential activities and tasks between to take place between lawyer and client. This doesn’t mean that a lawyer should not use email to provide confidential legal advice which I am sure happens all of the time, at whatever the risks.

On the other hand, it is not possible to pay your legal fee by credit card using email, and I have yet to see a web enabled document assembly solution being delivered through email. For legal work to be done securely online requires a secure client portal.

It us for this reason that the eLawyering Task Force included, as part of the definition of  what constitutes a virtual law practice, that the firm make available to its clients a secure client portal. This seems very obvious to us. Communicating with clients using a mobile phone and by email, i
s not the same thing as using legal applications online that do legal tasks.

Most people use some form of a secure portal everyday. We do our banking online, our stock brokerage online, buy insurance online, book travel online. It’s not rocket science. Except that right now the legal profession is lagging behind every other service industry in the economy in its use of interactive web technology. According to Jay, we should stay where we are and eschew these web technologies. In my opinion, we do so at our peril.

4. Web-Enabled Document Automaton.

Jay seems to think that the use of a web enabled document automation application is not in a clients interest and has little value, or that client’s don’ t want "just forms."  (It is hard to really know what he believes because of the confused logic that is used to support his argument). 

I think he is wrong about this. He can read our White Paper on Web-Enabled Document Automation as A Disruptive Technology and these blog posts: Document Automaton as a Disruptive Technology  and What Every Lawyer Should Know About Document Assembly.

5  The Legal Profession is Losing Market Share.

Solos and small law firms, with existing methods of delivering legal services, are pricing themselves out of the middle class marketplace. This is the real reason that LegalZoom is rumored to be generating more than 100 million in revenues this year.  LegalZoom and other non-lawyer providers continue to increase their market share at the expense of solos and small law firms.  The assertion that lawyers don’t need the people as clients that purchase forms from non-lawyer providers is a misrepresentation of what is really happening in the solo and small law firm marketplace. The clients that are turning away from law firms are clients that law firms need and who they previously served in an earlier, pre-Internet era.

6.     eLawyering Applications are Not Just Tools.

It is not accurate to see state that eLawyering applications are just "tools". In fact they are can be disruptive of the typical law firm business model.  If a consumer can get the result that they want by using a Internet-based legal solution, or "digital legal application" at a fraction of the cost of using an attorney, many will opt for that "good enough" solution. What is important to the consumer, is the legal result, not the fact that they have to go to an attorney to get it.

7.    A  New Generation of Clients is Coming Who Don’t Like to Talk on the Phone or Shake Hands With Their Lawyers.

It’s is true that many clients are not interested in working with their lawyers online, but we think that as a connected generation comes of age and they have legal problems that they will prefer to deal with their lawyers online and prefer to text rather than even talk on the telephone, much less meet with their attorney face-to-face, unless it is unavoidable.  For facts to support this assertion, see books like New Rules of Engagement: Understanding on How to Connect With Generation Y. and the work of Christine Hassler.

In a study conducted last year by YouGov, a UK-based research and opinion firm,  on consumer preferences for legal services, one of the conclusions was that:

"34% of respondents said they would be more likely to choose a law firm that offered the convenience of online access to legal documents over one that had no online capability; 22% disagreed and 37% neither agreed nor disagreed."

 Younger males were the most likely to choose a law firm with online services and access: 44% of 25-to-39 year-old males (and 40% of such women), along with 40% of 16-to-24 year-old males, would choose a law firm offering online access to documents over another law firm."

There is obviously a generational shift happening.  As a younger generation matures to the age where they have legal problems, their desire to deal with lawyers online becomes a requirement, not a preference.

Summary

These are serious issues for the legal profession. The American Bar Association Legal Technology Resource Center reported last year in one of its technology surveys of the legal profession that only 52% of solo practitioners have a web site. That means that almost half of solo practitioners don’t even have a web site. Is it that these practitioners are making so much money that they don’t have to even have a presence on the web? Or are we as a profession so out of touch with contemporary trends, that we will have to race even faster to catch up?

Neaderthal Man = Legal ProfessionSo where are we on this spectrum of evolution? Are we still stuck in Web 1.0 with brochure web sites, or are we evolving to interactive web sites that connect with clients who will want to work with their lawyers online or are we still stuck in Internet circa 2002?

Let’s expand this discussion, so that lawyers, particularly solos and small law firms, can figure out how to utilize these new technologies to expand and sustain their law practices in an environment that will become increasing competitive. 

Disruptive web legal services such as AttorneyFee.com, Law Pivot,  LegalZoom, are not going away. They will expand and proliferate. The "new normal" is here.