In a widely distributed press release to announce his coaching service in virtual lawyering, Attorney and co-founder of vLawyer Consulting, William McNeil makes this statement:

vLawyer defines a virtual law practice as a blending of a traditional brick-and-mortar law firm and legal services delivered entirely through the Internet and a secure client portal. The American Bar Association has responded by launching an e-lawyering task force, but to this point has only provided guidance for lawyers looking to open virtual law offices where clients never meet with the lawyer in person. This works for certain practice areas, but family law and criminal defense attorneys are left out of this definition. A virtual law practice, as defined by vLawyer, can apply to many different practice areas and gives attorneys the power to design their own lifestyle, while providing top-notch client service. 

This statement is "made-up" stuff.

The eLawyering Task Force of the Law Practice Division of the American Bar Association was not "just launched."  It was established in 2000 by William Paul, then President of the ABA. Nowhere in the statements that the eLawyering Task Force has published has been the representation that virtual lawyering should be limited to law firms that solely deliver legal services without seeing a client.   We have clarified in multiple statements and presentations that the idea of online delivery of legal services should be combined with an off-line face-to-face presence and each delivery mode should support and reinforce the other.

While it is possible to create a virtual law firm pure play where there is no face-to-face presence, it is difficult to make a success of a purely virtual law firm practice.  We expand on this idea in a White Paper, published by DirectLaw, the sponsor of this blog entitled: Virtual Law Practice:  Success Factors.   After working with over 300 law firms that use the DirectLaw virtual law firm platform, we have a good idea of what works and what doesn’t work. Download the White Paper here.

The eLawyering Task Force  minimum requirements for law firms delivering legal services online (October, 2009), provides a framework for further discussion and to define the essential requirements for enabling the delivery of ethically compliant online legal services.  The guidance was not designed to provide recommendations on how every type of law practice should execute on this concept.  

A more expansive discussion of these requirements is contained in an article which just appeared in Legalink Magazine, by Stephanie Kimbro and myself. Ms. Kimbro also served on the Task Force and wrote the book on Virtual Law Practice.  We conclude the article with this thought: 

The idea of A "Virtual Law Practice" will not be only something that early adopters utilize in their law practice – it will become an essential component of every law firm practice."

We welcome Attorney McNeil’s recent entrance into this field as solos and small law firms need all of the coaching and support they can get to adopt their practices to the requirements of 21st century practice.  The eLawyering Task Force is an open group that welcomes discussion of these concepts and their implications. Our next meeting will be during the American Bar Association Annual Meeting in Boston in August, 2014.  To learn more about what we are really doing  come join us. (McNeil that message is for you!).

 

 *Disclosure: Richard Granat is Co-Chair of the eLawyering Task Force, Law Practice Division, American Bar Association.

 

Reinvent Law silicon Valley 2013ReinventLawSiliconValley is happening next Friday, March 8 at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. The brain child of Professors Daniel Martin Katz and Renee Knake, co-founders and co-directors of the Reinvent Law Laboratory at Michigan State University Law School, the event promises to be quite a bash. The event is free, but attendance is limited to 400 participants and you have to register to get in. Over 40 innovators, founders, policymakers, venture capitalist and other change agents interested in reforming the legal services industry will be speaking in 6 – 10 minute presentations.

Think of this as a TED Talks event about innovation and change in the legal industry– a crash course about disruption in the legal profession.

Here is the full detailed schedule with the speakers and the titles of their presentations.

Some of the speakers I am especially looking forward to listening to are:

This is just a sampling of the range of talks at ReinventLawSiliconValley – 2013.

Private Investment in Law FirmsYours truly is giving a talk on Private Investment in US Legal Services: New Business Models.  I am interested in how to get private capital into law firms, given the restrictions of ABA Professional Rule 5.4 which prohibits non-lawyers from taking an equity interest in a law firm. Are there ways of getting around this rule? What kind of law firm structures can be created that enable private equity investment? Is it wise to enable private investment in law firms? Will it ever happen in the United States given the present position of the ABA and  state bar associations? What can small and medium size law firms do to access capital to make them more competitive? Are Clearspire and AxiomLaw ethically compliant models that can be replicated?

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.

——————————————————————————————————————————-

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.

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Cloud computing for Law firmsState bar associations are starting to address the issue of law firms storing confidential client information in the cloud and are rolling out ethics opinions to guide law firm conduct. You can find a list of these opinions here on the American Bar Association web site. The basic standard that is emerging is that the attorney must use "reasonable care" under the circumstances. This makes sense. It leaves to the attorney the responsibility of making a management judgment about the risks in choosing one cloud solution over another. This assumes that the law firm has sufficient technical knowledge to evaluate these new risks created by the development of new information technologies. [This is the  subject of a future blog post!].

The Massachusetts Bar Opinion Ethics Opinion on this subject is troubling because it  explicitly requires:

"Consistent with its prior opinions, the Committee further believes that the Lawyer remains bound to follow an express instruction from his client that the client’s confidential information not be stored or transmitted by means of the Internet, and that he should refrain from storing or transmitting particularly sensitive client information by means of the Internet without first seeking and obtaining the client’s express consent to do so"

The requirement that in every case the client’s express consent to store confidential information in the cloud is not realistic and not consistent with the way web technology is evolving. There are clearly situations where it would would be reasonable under the circumstances to secure a client’s consent for storing confidential information in the cloud, but the way this Opinion is framed law firms will interpret to this mean that in every case the client’s express consent needs to be explicitly secured. This adds unnecessary "friction" to creating the lawyer/client relationship.

This requirement actually puts Massachusetts lawyers, particularly solos and small law firms at a competitive disadvantage. Solos and small law firms now have to compete against software powered non-lawyer sites such as LegalZoom, LegacyWriter, MyLawyer.com, and RocketLawyer, to name only a few. None of these non-lawyer web sites require that their customers provide express consent to store their confidential data in the cloud, and if they do, the consent is buried so deep in the fine print that the average user is completely unaware of what they are consenting to.

The Opinion cites Google Docs as its leading example, which is a good example of how out of touch the Bar is with emerging technological trends. It won’t be long before a person will be able to create a Will using a mobile app on their cell phones.

Must the user then be required to give their express consent before storing their data?  What does that "express consent" mean in a mobile application context? The necessity of preserving the integrity of the lawyer/client relationship through the appropriate application of ethical rules is clearly appropriate. But adding unnecessary "friction" to accessing legal services for the average consumer is just going to result them turning to alternative non-lawyer providers who operate with less restrictions. Restrictions like this impede innovation in the delivery of legal services by the legal profession. No wonder the legal profession is lagging behind every other service industry in adapting to the mobile social web.

For a similar viewpoint see: Carolyn Elefant’s Blog Post: The Bar Associations Have Their Head in the clouds When it Comes to Cloud Computing.

For a thoughtful analysis of bar association ethical opinions on the use of cloud computing by lawyers see also:  Bob Ambrogi’s blog posts at Catalyst.
 

 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.

 Free White Paper- Virtual Law Practice: Success FActors

Get Free White Paper on
What Makes a Virtual Law Practice Work.

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.

A new international bar association was formed last year, based in Miami, Florida, called the Online Bar Association. It is an eclectic group of attorneys some based in the United States and many based internationally, who have come together around a common interest – the online delivery of legal services.

The first inaugural meeting is this weekend, April 29-May 1, 2011 at the Westin Colanade Hotel in Coral Gables, Florida.  Here is information about the meeting and the agenda.

We have been evaluating the experience of law firms that have subscribed to our DirectLaw Virtual Law Firm Platform to determine what are the factors that make for success. Subscribers to our service are mostly solo practitioners and small law firms who are experimenting with this new mode of delivering legal services online. We want to share their experiences as we learn from them about what works and what doesn’t work. When we have exemplary examples of success we will develop case studies from which we all can learn.

All kinds of lawyers have subscribed to our DirectLaw client portal which enables the online delivery of legal services:

  • recent law school graduates who can’t find a job and forced to hang out their own shingle;
     
  • lawyers who want to give up on a physical office for one reason or another and want to try working from anywhere, but still see clients face to face when necessary;
     
  • lawyers who think they can copy LegalZoom and get rich quick by simply putting a site up that sells legal forms and documents online;
     
  • lawyers who are in transition because they have been terminated by their law firm employer because of the impact of a constrained economy which is not growing;
     
  • retiring lawyers, with deep experience and expertise, and who want to transition into a part-time practice, rather than give up the law entirely;
     
  • “pure-play” virtual law firms, where the lawyer never sees a client face to face in an office setting or goes to court;
     
  • more traditional law firms, and the experienced lawyers that run them, that want to extend their brand online by adding what we refer to as a “virtual component” or a “virtual law firm platform.”
     
  • Less experienced lawyers who want to compete against older more experienced lawyers with an online service to distinguish themselves from more traditional law firms in their community.

Each of these lawyers see potential in the “virtual law firm” concept acquiring new clients and serving existing clients more effectively.

Almost all of our DirectLaw subscribers hope to acquire new clients by creating a dynamic, and interactive Internet presence that is more than a passive web site, which is no more than an online brochure.

Some law firms are struggling as "virtual law firms" and are not able to generate new clients and new sources of revenues. On the other hand, we know from our own direct experience in running a virtual law firm since 2003, that the concept can work, and our own success in selling automated legal forms directly to consumers through a network of more than 30 legal form websites, indicates that there is real demand for online legal solutions.

So what are the factors that contribute to success?

1. Your law firm web site needs to be findable on the web.

Our analysis indicates that a major cause of failure for law firms trying to market their services online is a poorly constructed front-end website that is not search engine optimized. DirectLaw’s client portal integrates with a law firm’s front end website and it is through the law firm’s web site that the client finds the law firm, and logs on to their own password protected and secure client space.

If the firm’s web site is not findable on the Internet, the site gets little traffic, which translates into no prospects and no new clients. Most lawyers no little about the art and science of inbound internet marketing and the techniques of how to make their web sites findable. Web design firms that create graphically intensive law firm web sites that look beautiful do a disservice to law firms unless the sites they develop are also search engine optimized and the web design firm stresses the importance of  creating new legal content that is practice specific as a magnet for web traffic.

See: Law Firm Web Site Design: Tips and Techniques

2. You need to have a good reputation as a competent attorney in your community with an existing client base if you are going to make it online. There are some exceptions to this rule, but not many.

A major factor that contributes to online success is having a good reputation in a particular area of legal practice. See Case Study

“Pure play” virtual law firms launched by lawyers who can’t quite make it in the real world won’t make it online.

The most successful use of online virtual law firm technology is demonstrated by law firms who already have a successful traditional practice and a base of clients to draw upon. Online law firm technology enhances the experience for existing clients and increases the productivity of the law firm in serving these clients. Word of mouth referral from existing client’s, sends new clients to the law firm’s web site. New online prospects convert to clients because of the credibility of the attorney in the real world, and the potential for a face to face meeting when necessary. The online technology component complements the offline practice, and vice versa. This doesn’t mean that a “pure play” virtual law firm can’t work; it just requires a special type of practice to make a "pure play" business model work. A "click and mortar" law firm model seems to work best, at least during this period of early development of the online legal services concept.

This is a complex subject  that requires more space than can be contained in a single blog post.

For further analysis and discussion of success factors see: Factors That Contribute to the Successful Delivery of Online Legal Services.

 

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.