Future of Legal Education

Last week I was privileged to attend a Conference on the Future of Education, sponsored by New York Law School and Harvard Law School. This conference was the third in a series on this subject. The purpose of this conference is to initiate a conversation among and between law schools on how to make legal education better, cheaper, and faster, as Dean of New York Law School, Richard Matasar frames the issue. Personally, I think that Matasar's presentation on the problems and prospects for legal education was the best that I have ever heard.

The format for the conference was a series of presentations of very inventive proposals presented by teams of legal educators and other legal specialists, mostly academics, 12 teams in all.

As participants, we each had $1,000,000 to spend as if we were venture capitalist's listening to start-up pitches.

The team that I was part of actually won the competition, by receiving the most "venture capital" dollars. Credit goes to  Ron Staudt from Chicago-Kent Law School and Marc Lauritsen from Capstone Practice who did the heavy lifting on developing the proposal. The proposed project called for law students in clinical programs to be engaged in the development of "Apps for Justice" that could be used by legal service programs to provide tools for access to justice. The title of the project is "Learning Law by Creating Software"  Click here for a copy of the proposal.

Marc and Ron receiving their $10,700,000 check.

Ron Staudt and MArc Lauritsen

 

DAvid Johnson receiving his venture capital investment

David Johnson from New York Law School won second place for a proposal to create "legal apps" that are games that would be used to teach and learn. The "State of Play" Academy.

Click here for a link to many of the other proposals.

 

Online Legal Services: Is It Hype or a New Way of Delivering Legal Services?

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.

 

ABA Teleconference on the Virtual Law Firm

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

The program is a Live Audio Webcast with PowerPoint support.

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

 

Pfau and Associates Opens Virtual Law Practice in Nevada

 

We are pleased to announce the launch of the law firm of Pfau and Associates that will provide online Estate Planning services to Nevada residents. This is the first DirectLaw law firm in the State of Nevada.

Pfau and Associates concentrates solely on the areas of estate planning and probate to ensure the highest quality of legal representation. The firm offers both online digital estate planning solutions and in-office services to provide for the client’s estate planning needs. Among the online offerings are simple living wills and trusts, durable powers of attorney, and advance healthcare directives.

Matt Pfau says that his philosophy is, “We make sure that we are always available to our clients for any type of support that they need. Since the choices that you will make are deeply personal, we will provide you with individualized, one-on-one attention"

Matthew Pfau has an undergraduate degree from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and his law degree from Wittier Law School. Matthew is admitted to practice before all courts in the State of California and Nevada.  He is also admitted to practice before the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.  For more information visit his website.

 

Best Practices for Virtual Law Firms

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

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

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

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

 

eLawyering Task Force Conference Call

For those of you who are members of the eLawyering Task Force of the Law Practice Management Section of the ABA, this is reminder that there is a Task Force Conference call on January 9, 2009 at 10:00 A.M.

Our agenda includes a discussion on standards and best practices for elawyering and delivering legal services online.

Members of the American Bar Association, who wish to become members of the Task Force should contact Marc Lauritsen, Co-Chair of the Task Force at marc@capstonepractice.com directly. In order to be eligible for membership you also have to be a member of the Law Practice Management Section of the ABA. 

 

The End of Lawyers? Rethinking the Nature of Legal Services

 Richard Susskind's new book, The End of Lawyers?: Rethinking the Nature of Legal Services was just published by Oxford University Press, in the United Kingdom. I received a copy from my associates in London today, and US distribution should begin within 10 days.  For law firms thinking about the future of the legal profession, this book should be mandatory reading.

Susskind sees the legal market as “broken.” Access to justice is available only to citizens who are very poor or very rich. The cost of dispute resolution in the courts often exceeds the amount at issue. Small businesses invariably claim that mainstream legal services are beyond their budgets. And even the world's largest companies and financial institutions are seeking radically new ways of meeting their legal needs.

Susskind argues that, in this time of grave economic uncertainty, the market will no longer tolerate traditional, expensive lawyers who handcraft tasks that can be better discharged with the support of modern systems and techniques. He claims that the legal profession will be driven by two forces in the coming decade: by a market pull towards the commoditization of legal services, and by the increase of disruptive, Internet-based technologies. The threat here for lawyers is clear - their jobs may well be eroded or even displaced.

Susskind challenges the legal profession to ask what elements of their current workload could be undertaken more quickly, more cheaply, more efficiently, or to a higher quality using different and new methods of working. Susskind argues that if automation can streamline certain legal tasks and that the market will forces lawyers to adapt to the "digitization"  or they won't survive.

I am still working my way through this important book, so will have more to say in future blog posts when I finish it.

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