access_to_justivceOne of the obstacles to the development of innovative software solutions that automate part of the legal service delivery process resulting in lower, more affordable legal fees is the absence of capital. Traditional methods of legal service delivery based on hourly billing rates out of reach for low and moderate income clients.  Capital investment is required to create innovative web-based software solutions that can enable low and moderate income clients to either solve legal problems on their own as pro-se litigants, or to enable law firms to offer legal solutions at a more affordable price point.

The major obstacle to making more capital available to law firms, is the prohibition on investment in law firms by non-lawyers enshrined in the ABA’s Model Rules of Professional Responsibility and replicated in the state rules of professional responsibility that regulate lawyers in their state. [ See Rule 5.4 – Professional Independence of a Lawyer ].

There has been little innovation within solo and smaller law firms to develop client-centered, web-based applications that provide a low cost solution to low and moderate income clients. Instead innovation is centered in the vendor community that provides tools to law firms, usually as a SaaS service for a monthly subscription fee. A good example is our own DirectLaw virtual law firm platform that provides a client-centered document automation application, and other tools that enables a law firm to unbundled legal services for a fixed fee to clients online. While the value of innovation outside of the law firm, within the vendor sector of the legal industry, is not to minimized, it is the lawyer within the law firm that has the most nuanced view about what their clients need and want. The lawyer within the law firm also has the primary interest in figuring out how to develop and manage the delivery of legal services so that for certain kinds of legal problems a scalable, volume-based business model can be implemented.

Innovation requires capital. It is capital intensive to develop software applications and new delivery systems for legal services. Solos and small law firms that serve individuals and families do not have access to capital. Whatever innovation is taking place in the delivery of legal services is happening outside of the legal profession in organizations like LegalZoom financed by venture capital, or the within legal aid programs funded in part by the Technology grant program within the Legal Services Program, or outside of the United States. [See also, blog post from Lexicata – How Law Firms Can be More Like LegalZoom ].

There has been much controversial discussion with the legal profession on modifying the ownership rules that apply to law firms, with little result. For example, the American Bar Association created last year a Commission on the Future of Legal Services to address the access to justice problem, under the under the leadership of then ABA-President William C. Hubbard.   The Commission convened a National Summit on Innovation in Legal Services, in May, 2015 where private investment in law firms as a prerequisite to innovation was on the agenda. But I have yet to see any progress on this issue within the American Bar Association. Unlike other countries, private investment in law firms as a way to develop new ways of serving a latent market for legal services is dead on arrival when it reaches the ABA’s House of Delegates, although 80% of the U.S. population can’t afford the cost of legal services and is unserved by the legal profession.

The evidence we have seen in the United Kingdom, where the legal profession has moved towards de-regulation, and where capital can flow freely into law firms, suggests that the United States will remain a laggard in innovation in the delivery of legal services until this problem can be fixed. In the UK, LegalZoom is taking advantage of this de-regulation by becoming an ABS [ Alternative Business Structure ].  As a private company, operating in the UK, LegalZoom can offer legal services directly to the public. LegalZoom plans to use this opportunity to develop and experiment with new end-to-end legal services for consumers with the idea that in the far distant future these innovations can be imported into the U.S. legal market.

The bottom line is that you can’t really innovate without access to capital – it is the fuel of innovation. For solo and small law firms that serve people, rather than large corporations, capital is not available for innovation unless the lawyer or law firm has generated capital from their practice and makes a conscious decision to invest in software automation and web-based solutions.

An example of a law firm that has accumulated capital because of litigation against the mortgage servicing companies and the banks in the robo-signing scandal during the U.S foreclosure crisis, is IceLegal, P.A., a small law firm based in Florida. IceLegal under the leadership of Thomas Ice,  is launching its own access to justice initiative at: http://www.legalyou.com.  The firm has also created its own LegalYou video channel for educating pro-se litigants.  This is a project of the law firm (not of a private company), and will  provide low cost legal solutions to Florida residents. If LegalYou is a success it will serve a new latent market ignored by most of Florida’s law firms. LegalYou is the exception rather than the rule.

One would think that Internet-savvy, recent law school graduates would be motivated to serve a latent market for legal services by developing innovative solutions, but handicapped by large student loans they are forced into career roles that provide sufficient cash flow to amortize those loans. Risk-taking is not an option for them.

A Proposal Safe Harbor for Law Firms Serving Low and Moderate Income Clients

To increase the flow of capital to law solos and small law firms who wish to serve just low and moderate income clients with automated legal solutions I propose that:

  • The American Bar Association amend Rule 5.4 to permit private investment in just those law firms that serve low and moderate income clients exclusively.
  • Personal injury and other contingent fee practices would be excluded from this exception as capital is self-generating for successful firms in these practice areas.
  • To comfort to those who are concerned that the independence of the lawyer is compromised by this proposal, the law firm must remain at least a 51% owner of the law firm. Private investors can be minority shareholders only.
  • It is relatively easy to create an income generation screen to capture just low and moderate income clients for the law firm, and exclude those of higher income. The data from this intake process can be archived and audited to comply with the exception to the rule.

Creating this exception opens up the opportunity for smaller law firms to take advantage of crowd-funding opportunities, the angel investor community, and the new SEC rules that permit crowd-funding investment. Further, the rich relatives and friends (if they exist) of a young lawyer could fund the new lawyer’s law firm, and get a return on investment, without the lawyer risking disbarment because of violation of the 5.4.

An argument can also be made that enabling law firms that serve primarily corporate entities can create capital on their own without additional incentives and should not be able to take advantage of this safe harbor. Most large law firms represent corporate entities (banks, insurance companies, health care organizations, drug companies,  manufacturers, financial organizations) whose legal positions are opposed to many consumer interests.  These firms should have to use their own capital to become more efficient so as not to tip the balances against the consumer even more than it is.

One would think that this modest proposal to enable innovation designed to increase access to the legal system for clients who can’t afford the high cost of legal fees would be an idea that that American Bar Association and state bar associations might entertain or even discuss.

However, given that the structure of regulation of the legal profession is controlled by the legal profession, this idea will probably be dead on arrival.

 

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?

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.)

——————————————————————————————————————————

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.

 

 

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

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

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

You could classify these companies into three categories:

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

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

Companies linking consumers to lawyers:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Startups that will offer legal solutions directly to consumers:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe it will be different this time around.

 INcreasing Profit Margins with Document Automation

The Center for Computer-Assisted Legal InstructionThe Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction (CALI) is offering a free online course on digital law practice, primarily for law students and law professors, but anyone can register.

 

I don’t doubt that most law faculty will find these topics to be irrelevant, but its connecting with law students, as over 500 law students have registered nationwide.

For lawyers interested in delivering legal services online, this course would be a good introduction to the subject.

The first session is February 10 at 2-3 EST. Stephanie Kimbro is doing a session on the virtual law office.

Later in the course, Marc Lauritsen is doing a session on document automation, and I am doing a session on “unbundling legal services”.

Here are some of the other sessions:

Week 5: Online Legal Forms in Legal Aid
Friday, Mar. 9, 2-3pm ET
Ronald W. Staudt, Professor of Law, Chicago-Kent College of Law

Week 6: Contract Standardization
Friday, Mar. 16, 2-3pm ET
Kingsley Martin, President, kiiac.com & contractstandards.com

Week 7: Free Legal Research Tools
Friday, Mar. 23, 2-3pm ET
Sarah Glassmeyer, Director of Content Development / Law Librarian, CALI

Week 8: Unauthorized Practice of Law in the 21st Century
Friday, Mar. 30, 2-3pm ET
William Hornsby, Staff Counsel at American Bar Association

Week 9: Social Media for Lawyers
Friday, Apr. 6, 2-3pm ET
Ernest Svenson, Attorney at Law

Here is the course description and the registration page:

http://www.cali.org/blog/2012/01/25/free-online-course-digital-law-practice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

Some questions to think about:

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

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

Document Automation as  DisruptuveTechnology

 

*iTunes is a trademark of Apple, Inc.

 

In a Fortune Magazine blog post by Roger Parloff just last week, entitled Can Software Practice Law?, writing about the class action suit against LegalZoom in Missouri for violating Missouri’s UPL statute, Parloff argues that LegalZoom is no more than a self-help legal software company, and therefore entitled to the same protections as a self-help legal software publisher. The question of whether legal software constitutes the practice of law is a controversial one. When the Texas Bar won a suit against Nolo Press on the grounds that its WillMaker program constituted the practice of law, the Texas Legislature amended the UPL statute and further defined the practice of law  as follows:

Texas Code, 81.101 (c) the "practice of law" does not include the design, creation, publication, distribution, display, or sale, including publication, distribution, display, or sale by means of an Internet Web site, of written materials, books, forms, computer software, or similar products if the products clearly and conspicuously state that the products are not a substitute for the advice of an attorney. This subsection does not authorize the use of the products or similar media in violation of Chapter 83 and does not affect the applicability or enforceability of that chapter.

No other state has passed such an exemption, but there is a well-established line of cases that supports the position that the publication of information about the law, as well as self-help legal books, divorce forms with instructions, and do-it-yourself kits is not the practice of law and protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and may be protected by state constitutions as well. See, e.g., New York County Lawyers’ Ass’n v. Dacey, 21 N.Y.2d 694, 234 N.E.2d 459 (N.Y. 1967), aff’ing on grounds in dissenting opinion, 283 N.Y.S.2d 984 (N.Y. App. 1967); Oregon State Bar v. Gilchrist, 538 P.2d 913 (Or. 1975); State Bar of Michigan v. Cramer, 249 N.W.2d 1 (Mich. 1976); The Florida Bar v. Brumbaugh, 355 So.2d 1186 (Fla. 1978); People v. Landlords Professional Services, 215 Cal. App.3d 1599, 264 Cal. Rptr. 548 (Cal. 1989). 

LegalZoom takes the position that it is no more than a self-help legal publisher and seeks to fall within this classification, as Roger Parloff argues in his blog post. This is also the position that Legal Zoom takes on its Web site and in its answer to the Missouri Complaint:

From the LegalZoom Web site:

"Is LegalZoom engaged in the practice of law?"

"No.  LegalZoom is the latest and natural evolution of the centuries-old legal self-help industry."

"No jurisdiction prohibits the sale of software that generates a legal document based on a customer’s unique input.  LegalZoom has never been prohibited from operating in any state."

"Should consumers be concerned about LegalZoom losing this case?"

"No.  If LegalZoom is found to be engaged in the unauthorized practice of law in Missouri, then every guide and legal formbook in libraries and bookstores in the state would also be engaging in the unauthorized practice of law.  These days, nearly all such books are packaged with computer software that works in a similar manner to LegalZoom.  Just like with a Nolo Press® book or a preprinted form, LegalZoom customers have the ability to review and consider their legal form before committing to their purchase."

It is not possible to know how LegalZoom’s document technology actually works without further evidence. However, one can state with certainty that it doesn’t work like a true Web-enabled document automation technology which generates a document instantly from data entered into an on-line questionnaire that is presented through the Web browser.

Vendors of true Web-enabled document automation solutions, such as HotDocs, Exari, DealBuilder, WhichDraft and Rapidocs (our company) have document automation technologies that generate a document instantly after the user clicks on the submit button. Because LegalZoom’s technology seems to require a separate step that is executed off-line, it does not in my opinion, fit into the category of a Web-enabled document automation technology. [ For a more extensive discussion of Web-Enabled Document Automation as a Disruptive Technology, click here to download our white paper on the subject. ]

Instead, in the LegalZoom  business model, as described by LegalZoom, a data file is created, reviewed by a legal technician, and then imported into their – document assembly application utilizing some form of import mechanism. It is not clear whether the document is fully-assembled until this second step takes place, and it’s a distinction that makes a difference.

If LegalZoom were just a legal software company, it is hard to understand why it needs over 400 employees to provide services to its customers, other than the fact that these employees are conducting professional reviews and providing real service support. For these services, LegalZoom receives a substantially higher price than if they were just selling a self-help legal form. See for example on the LegalZoom Web site, the 30-point review of wills conducted by LegalZoom’s "professional legal document assistants."

These more labor intensive, personal services makes LegalZoom a "service business" and not just a "legal software publisher" entitled to the First Amendment protections that are afforded to publishers.

Andrea Riccio, a Canadian lawyer who has commented about this subject, responds to some of the arguments that LegalZoom makes in its defense:

LegalZoom’s argument: "Typically, there is no interaction between the customer and the person reviewing the file."

Riccio’s response:

“The mere fact that the employee is granted access to the customer’s response is an interaction between the employee and customer.”

LegalZoom’s argument: "If there is an inconsistency, it is NOT corrected by the employee – instead, it is brought to the attention of the customer." 

Riccio’s response:

“Whether it is the customer or the LegalZooM employee that physically changes the document is irrelevant. What is important is that it is the LegalZoom employee that has identified the inconsistency. That, in my opinion, goes beyond "self-help" and is an act of legal draftsmanship.”

LegalZoom’s argument: "no employee revises or corrects any portion of the customer’s self-created document." 

Riccio’s response:

“Identifying inconsistencies or errors in another person’s document is in my opinion an act of revision and correction. Who physically makes the changes is irrelevant.”


It is for these reasons that LegalZoom was required to be licensed under California law as a registered and bonded legal document assistant (see footer
LegalZoom Web site).

What is a Legal Document Assistant?

A "Legal Document Assistant", as defined by the California Business & Professions Code (Section 6400 (c)) is:

"Any person who is otherwise not exempted and who provides, or assists in providing, or offers to provide, or offers to assist in providing, for compensation, any self-help service to a member of the public who is representing himself or herself in a legal matter, or who holds himself or herself out as someone who offers that service or has that authority, or a corporation, partnership, association, or other entity that employs or contracts with any person who is not otherwise exempted who, as part of his or her responsibilities, provides, or assists in providing, or offers to provide, or offers to assist in providing, for compensation, any self-help service to a member of the public who is representing himself or herself in a legal matter or holds himself or herself out as someone who offers that service or has that authority."

This California statutory scheme is based on the idea that a non-lawyer can perform clerical support functions without violating the unauthorized practice of law statute in California. Only a few states have carved out this exception by statute (e.g., California, Florida, Arizona).  Missouri is not one of them.

Could LegalZoom operate in California, where it is headquartered, without being registered with the state as a Legal Document Assistant?  I think not.  

This is the category that LegalZoom fits into, not “self-help” software.

Otherwise, I suppose Nolo, a California-based self-help legal software publisher, and other California-based legal software publishers that sell directly to the public, would have to be licensed in California as Legal Document Assistants!!!  (See generally – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Legal_document_assistant, for a more extensive discussion of what a Legal Document Assistant is, and is not.)

Just to be clear, I am personally in favor of both self-help legal software and paralegal-assisted document preparation services as a way of providing access to the legal system, and personally think there should be more choices for consumers.  But my personal opinions are not the issue.  The issue is: 

“What does the law in the different states now require, and what can we do to change it if we don’t like it?”

It is becoming clear that LegalZoom’s defense strategy in the Missouri case is to associate itself with “self-help software”.  I am sure that its well-financed publicity machine is already approaching bloggers and the business press to write stories about whether “legal software” should be prohibited or regulated, when the real issue is whether and under what conditions a legal document preparation service should be regulated, or immune from regulation.

Definitions of what is “legal self-help software”, and what is not, are critical for carving out safe harbors for innovation, particularly as legal software applications that are distributed over the Internet have potential for great impact and for providing access to the legal system for those who cannot afford full service legal representation.

For example, LawHelpInteractive, a non-profit pro bono support organization, with grants from the US Legal Service Corporation, has assisted in the creation of true Web-based document assembly Web sites in many states that provides free legal forms directly to consumers that can be assembled directly on-line. 

LawHelpInteractive has generated thousands of legal forms during the past few years that are instantly available and free to consumers throughout the United States. No one is arguing that these Web sites constitute the practice of law.

Because of the wider reach of the Internet, Web-enabled legal software applications are actually more of a threat to the legal profession, than desktop software, and the opportunity for over-regulation remains ever present. I would regret the day that courts prohibit the sale of self-help legal software because it is the unauthorized practice of law.

However, stronger arguments can be made for protecting from regulation the distribution of legal software applications, than there are for exempting from regulation a "service business", so I maintain that confusing one category with another is dangerous and takes us down a slippery slope.

Whether or not LegalZoom provides a valuable service; whether or not consumers have been harmed by LegalZoom; and whether or not the company provides some form of legal advice are questions of fact for the Missouri jury, and beyond the scope of this post.

The question for the U.S. District Court in Missouri is whether, as a matter of Missouri law, LegalZoom’s document preparation service business constitutes the practice of law in Missouri, under the terms of the Missouri UPL statute.

I think it does. What do you think?

 

For years some law firms, but not all, have used some form of document automation in their law offices. Ranging from an MS Word macro to long standing programs such as HotDocs, as well as automated forms distributed by legal publishers such as Willmaker by Nolo, some law offices have incorporated some form of document automation in their law practices. Document automation of legal documents that are generated in high quantity by a law firm is an indispensable process for increasing law firm productivity and maintaining profit margins in an era of intense competition.

Legal Document Creation the Old Way

The manual process of cutting and pasting clauses from a master MS Word document into a new document, is a productivity process which is fast becoming out dated. It reminds me of the time before there were automated litigation support programs, and legal assistants would duplicate a set of case documents three or four times. The next step was filling one file cabinet with a set of documents in alpha order, filling another filing cabinet with a set of documents in date order, and finally, filling another filing cabinet with a set of documents in issue or subject order to enable "fast"   retrievable of relevant paper documents. It took awhile, but almost all litigation lawyers now use automated litigation support methods.. This is not true of transactional lawyers, many of whom still use out-dated methods of creating legal documents, as if each legal document were a unique novel, poem, or other work of fiction.

Barriers to Change

An obstacle to wider use of automated document assembly methods, is typically the lawyer’s insistence on crafting the words in each clause to their own satisfaction. Because most lawyer’s do not have the requisite programming skill to automate their own documents, law firms by default will opt to use their own non-automated documents, rather than risk using the legal documents automated by an independent provider, because by definition the content of the documents is "not their own." As a result, many law firms do not even use desk-top document assembly solutions when the forms are published by an independent provider or publisher, remaining stuck using more time consuming and less productive manual methods.

Typically, when a law firm does use document assembly methods, a paralegal inputs answers from a paper intake/questionnaire into a document assembly program running on a personal computer. This results in the extra time-consuming step of inputting data from the intake questionnaire to the document assembly program, but it is still more efficient than manual methods.

Web-Enabled Document Automation

Now comes, "web-enabled legal document automation" methods."  Web-enabled document automation is a process whereby the intake questionnaire is presented on-line to the client through the web browser to be completed directly.

When the client clicks the "Submit" button the document is instantly assembled, ready for the attorneys further review, analysis, revision, and customization if necessary.  The result is a further leap in productivity because the client is actually doing part of the work at no cost to the lawyer, freeing the lawyer up to focus on analysis and further customization of the document.

This is what the work flow looks like when using web-enabled document automation methods:

Client Journey- Web-Enabled Document Automation Work Flow

Unfortunately, lawyers have been slow to adapt to this process as well,  because of their reluctance to use legal documents drafted or automated by someone else. However in order to automate their own documents they must either acquire the skill to do the job, or commit the capital to have a skilled professional automate their documents for them. For solos and small law firms these two constraints create formidable obstacles to using more efficient methods.

Since neither condition is common within smaller law firms (programming skill, investment capital), the result is that the law firm gets stuck using older less productive methods of document creation.

Vendors that provide web-enabled document platforms include, our own Rapidocs, and Exari, Brightleaf, HotDocs, DealBuilder, and Wizilegal, to name only a few, all claim that their authoring systems are easy to use, but I have yet to see lawyers without any kind of programming skill create their own automated legal documents in any quantity. Thus, law firms become stuck in a negative loop of their own creation which reduces productivity (and profitability) :

"My legal documents are better than yours; I can’t automate them for the web because I don’t know how; thus I will be less productive and be required to charge you more because of my own inefficiency."

Competition

In the consumer space, now comes the non-lawyer providers to take advantage of the solo and small law firm’s competitive disadvantage. Research by companies like Kiiac provide support the conclusion that 85% of the language in transactional documents is actually the same. In more commoditized areas, where legal forms have been standardized,  the legal form content is 100% the same in all documents. Taking advantage of this consistency of legal form content,  companies like LegalZoom, Nolo, CompleteCase, SmartLegalForms, and LegacyWriter , with their superior on-line marketing and branding machines, now sell legal forms by the thousands at low cost which provide a "good enough" legal solution for consumers who would do any thing to avoid paying the higher fees to an attorney.

Its true that the consumer doesn’t get the benefit of the attorney’s legal advice and counsel, and the accountability and protection that dealing with an attorney provides, but consumers don’t seem to care.

What can be done?

The "web-based legal document automation solution" , used by non-lawyer providers, is a disruptive technology  that is eating away at the core business base of the typical solo and small law firm practitioner. 

What can solos and small law firms do to compete in this challenging competitive environment?
The American Bar Association’s Legal Technology Resource Center reported last year in their Annual Technology Survey that only 52.2% of solo practitioner’s don’t have a web site.  Even if this number is underestimated, it is shockingly low compared with web site utilization by other industries.  If you don’t even have a web site, the idea of "web-enabled document automation" is still a "light year" away.

What can be done to encourage more wide-spread use of web-enabled document automation technology by law firms, particularly solos and small law firms? A follow-up post will explore some solutions, but I
am open to ideas from anyone.

Download our White Paper on Web-Enabled Document Automation

 

Nolo, the leading self-help legal publisher in the United States, launched a Law Firm Directory several years ago. I have listed my virtual law firm in this Directory for several years and found that it yielded pretty good results for the amount of money invested as the Nolo web site is a high traffic web site that attracts consumers looking for a lower cost way of getting their legal problems resolved. Since my law firm offers "unbundled legal services for a fixed price online" it is a perfect fit for the Nolo Lawyers Directory.

Nolo recently announced their concept of the Nolo Law Office which brings even more value to a law firm listing in the Nolo Law Firm Directory. This may sound like a commercial, but it isn’t. I just wanted to share the information about this high value concept that is a great complement to law firms using not only our DirectLaw Virtual Law Firm Platform, but other law firms delivering legal services online, as well as law firms that have a more traditional office-based practice.

If you sign up for the Nolo Law Firm Directory, you also get these goodies:
 

  • Your website is linked to Nolo’s website which can contribute toward enhancing your firm’s visibility on the Internet.
     
  • You get priority placement on Nolo’s partner lawyer directories which include: the Justia Lawyer Directory; the LLRX Lawyer’s Directory, Cornell University Lawyer Directory, and the Oyez’s Lawyer Directory.
     
  • Up to 15 Nolo articles are licensed free of charge which you can published to your web site. This is excellent content that, if selected carefully, can add to a law firm’s web site.
     
  • You can access over 300 fillable Adobe .pdf forms which can be used internally in your practice. These forms are not web-enabled in the sense that they can be completed by a client using an online questionnaire, but they are very useful as an adjunct to the range of document products you can offer. For example, a law firm using the DirectLaw platform can upload a fillable .PDF to the client’s secure MyLegalAffairs web space and the form can be sold bundled with legal advice through DirectLaw’s ecommerce functionality that supports non-Rapidocs forms and documents.
     
  • You can access 160 ebooks available for download at no additional charge. This effectively gives you an in-house law practice library for free. Almost the entire Nolo catalog is available for a free download.
     
  • You have unlimited use of Nolo’s OnlIne Will and Living Trust Applications that can also be used internally. These applications are not client facing, like the DirectLaw web-enabled automated document applications, but they can be used effectively internally. (Nolo does offer these applications directly to consumers).
     
  • Finally you have use of the web-based MYCASE Law Practice Management System. This gives you a law practice management system essentially for free, the same kind of system that other vendors charge $49.00 to $69.00 a month (for solos practitioners). This is a new company that has entered the SaaS law practice management industry and competes with the likes of CLIO and RocketMatter. I haven’t done a detailed comparison of MYCASE with other SaaS practice management solutions, but its certainly worth evaluating because it is free to subscribers of the Law Firm Directory.

The fees for listing in the Nolo Lawyer’s Directory vary by practice area and territory, so I would experiment to see what combination has the highest return on investment. Having access to the Nolo Law Office concept is a real bonus that gives the entire package real value for even the smallest law firm.

 

YouGov, a research firm based in Great Britain, in a survey of consumer preferences for legal services recently reported that 60% of respondents said they would buy legal advice from brands like Barclays, AA, Co-op and Virgin. The report states that  “Law firms build their business on their reputation not on their brands and, in a highly fragmented market, recognisable legal brands are few and far between. The large non-legal brands could follow the Co-op’s example and build a strong presence relatively quickly in a market where no strong brands currently exist." In the US there are no national legal brands that serve consumers directly, except for LegalZoom, which isn’t even a law firm. It would be interesting to see what would happen if nationally branded networks of law firms emerged to service consumers with a better value proposition than the typical local solo or small law firm practitioner.

The study also asked about online legal services: 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 counsel online becomes a preference.