Ray Abyhanker, the entrepreneur lawyer behind the Trademarkia web site,  the highest traffic legal sites on the Web, opened a kind of Apple Store for legal stuff and other stuff (self-help law books, non-Apple tablets, tablet accessories, etc), right across from the Apple Store on University Avenue in Palo Alto. [See previous post on this company at: May the LegalForce Be With You! ]

Beautifully designed in a historic building the idea is to provide an  "third place" where lawyers can meet and mingle with potential clients, provide community law classes, and generally demystify the law by creating an accessible and friendly legal environment.

The ultimate goal is to create a branded network of law firms that promises a high value client experience for the broad range of consumers and small business that are also attracted to pure online ventures such as LegalZoom and RocketLawyer, but want something more.

LegalForce Store in Palo AltoThere is a lot to be said for a "click and mortar" strategy which involves lawyers working with clients in their offices, and interacting as well online,  but also meeting and interacting in a neutral physical space that is a retail environment. Sort of like having a  "Genius Bar" for legal problems where you can ask a question and get a quick legal answer or get assistance in knowing how to start out to solve a legal problem.

Where do I start? Do I need a legal form or a self-help law book? An "unbundled"  legal service, or full service representation? What’s the lowest cost solution to my legal problem?

The LegalForce lawyer store staff call themselves  "Concierges" and I believe that is an apt title. We need more legal concierges, on the web, and in the real world.

Legal services, particularly the more complex the legal service, depends on the presence of a skilled trusted adviser. Sometimes the lawyer presence can be virtual, but sometimes the legal problem requires a face to face meeting with a client so that a thorough exploration of the facts of the case can be fully understood.  For lawyers, the ideal strategy is one that combines an off-line practice with an online presence and a brand that expresses both dimensions of the practice.

 

The term "Click and Mortar" is attributed to David Pottruck, then CEO of Charles Schwab Corp, in a July, 1999 speech at a conference sponsored by the Industry Standard. Pottruck is quoted as saying:

 "Schwab’s vision has always been designed around customer needs and the company is engaged in constant reinvention to stay ahead of these powerful investors. Schwab believes that it is the combination of people and technology that investors want — a "high-tech and high-touch" approach. As such, Schwab is redefining the full-service business around the integration of "clicks and mortar."

Pottruck subsequently wrote a book about the strategy.  A brokerage firm is more like a law firm, than a law firm is to a ecommerce web site with no human touch. It might be fine to buy your shoes online from Zappos, but I am not so sure that in the fullness of time will clients want a purely virtual experience with their law firms. As someone who runs a company ( DirecttLaw) that provides a virtual law firm platform to law firms, and has operated my own virtual law firm since 2003,  I have experienced both the advantages and the  disadvantages of a pure legal service without any human meeting.

By linking together an online experience with an off-line, real work experience, Abyhanker may have come with a legal service concept that is unique. Trademarkia is being re-branded under the LegalForce brand and recruiting  law firms for the network, first in California and then nationwide has begun..To be clear this is not a franchise, but more of a marketing network with productivity benefits for its law firm members.

Disclosure: Our company created an interactive legal form portal under the LegalForce brand and a "legal form kiosk" for the store.

Unless you’ve been asleep for the last five years, you have probably heard of LegalZoom, the California-based, non-lawyer legal document preparation company that claims it has delivered over 1,000,000 wills to consumers, and that it is the largest incorporation company in the country.

LegalZoom is only one of hundreds of Internet-based legal form web sites that have emerged during the last 10 years and which are eating away at the market share of solos and small law firms. LegalZoom has been challenged by some state bars with the unauthorized practice of law, but hasn’t lost a case yet. They are serving thousands of customers who ordinarily would be served by solos and small law firms. They must be doing something that is in demand because they continue to grow at the expense of solos and small law firms.

LegalZoom, and non-lawyer legal form web sites like it, have a business model that consists of the following elements:

  • A legal service delivered purely over the Internet;
  • No physical offices, and thus no extensive rental costs to pass on to customers;
  • Limited services offered at a fixed price that can be easily compared with other providers including law firms;
  • The use of web-enabled document automation technology to reduce costs and increase productivity;
  • A secure customer portal where clients can execute legal tasks in their own personalized web space;
  • Access on their web site to thousands of pages of free legal information on hundreds of subjects;
  • Money-back guarantees to comfort consumers; and
  • Reliance on informed consumers to do part of the work, often called co-production, such as filing their own documents or executing their documents on their own based on provided instructions to keep costs down.

Consumers don’t seem to care that they are not dealing with a law firm. As lawyers, we know the service they are selling is risky for consumers, but for consumers it delivers a “good enough” result. LegalZoom would not be growing at this fast a rate if they weren’t offering something that consumers want and value.

How to Compete Against Legal Zoom and Other Non-Lawyer Providers

In the new, competitive environment that solos and small law firms face in the current economy, the keys to law firm survival are to expand the strategic options available by opening new client markets, reducing the cost of services, and delivering legal services in a way that distinguishes your firm from other firms in the pack. These strategic options should be mixed with more traditional approaches to differentiation such as specialization within a niche practice area.

It is time for solos and small law firms that offer personal legal services to the broad middle class to rethink their law firm business models. There are many opportunities for incorporating some of the elements of the LegalZoom business model into a more traditional law practice.

To name a few:

  • Consider offering "unbundled" limited legal services at a fixed price, both on-line and off-line;
  • Leverage a reputation in your local community and a physical office into an on-line brand that is both local to your community and extends throughout your state;
  • Add virtual law office functionality to your web site so that your clients can have the option of interacting with you on-line;
  • Figure out ways of using Internet-based technologies, such as web-enabled document automation to strip out costs from your overhead structure increasing profitability;
  • Figure out how to segment the market offering lower priced services for more routine matters in order to build trust so that when a client has amore complex problems they will turn to you for assistance;
  • Emphasize all of the advantages of using an attorney over a non-lawyer forms provider in your marketing materials and your elevator speech. Click here to see one such comparison.
  • Use web-based technologies to respond to both prospects and clients within hours rather than days.
  • Reduce the perceived risk that consumers have in retaining a lawyer by increasing transparency and structuring forms of performance guarantees.
  • Adopt project management technologies to better estimate costs and fees on more complex projects, translating that data into communications that clients understand.

The current depressed economy and its affect on the broad middle class is not going to change tomorrow. It is likely that solos and small law firms, will have to adjust to new pricing and market realities in the future as competition from non-lawyer providers of legal solutions continues to increase. Large law firms serving large corporations may be immune from these developments, at least for a few years any way, but the fact that Big Law is changing relatively slowly should not mask the rapid changes happening to solos and small law firm practitioners that serve consumers and small business.

I heard a report the other day that the volume of wills and estates practice in one state declined by 50% during the past year. I predict that this trend will continue and not reverse itself, despite any improvements in the economy.

Some commentators think that the monopoly will hold. History and the experience of other countries in deregulating the legal profession suggests otherwise.

Welcome to the "new normal."
 

Richard Susskind, in his new book, The End of Lawyers? Rethinking the Nature of Legal Services, devotes a chapter to disruptive legal technologies and identifies automated document assembly as a leading example. A related analysis can be found in a paper produced by Darryl Mountain, a Vancouver attorney, that is titled "Disrupting Conventional Law Firm Business Models Using Document Assembly" Both authors make the point that automating legal documents is one of the major ways that a lawyer can increase productivity, particularly for document intensive practices. Offering these documents over the web directly to clients through a secure client area, where the client completes an online questionnaire increases productivity even more. It is much more efficient than a process where a lawyer or paralegal types data into a desktop windows application manually.

Once the user answers a series of questions that appear in the web browser, a document is instantly created ready for the lawyer’s further review and analysis. If the client misses a question, the lawyer can easily communicate by email and request additional information or provide a clarification on how a question should be answered. But that is much more efficient that jotting down the client’s answers to the attorney’s questions on a yellow pad.

This is consistent with Susskind’s analysis that lawyers should automate what they can, leaving to human intelligence what it does best, which is providing legal advice and more customized and individualized drafting. Today automated document assembly solutions  are very robust and can automate very complex documents with multiple levels of "if-then" clauses to accommodate hundreds of different fact situations. Automation of more standardized legal documents should be a "no-brainer."  Using automated document assembly reduces greatly the amount of time the attorney has to spend on an individual document project enabling alternative billing systems that yield a higher margin for the law firm and also potentially lower pricing to the client.

We have seen these efficiencies in our own business activities. Through our affiliate company, Epoq, US, we sell thousands of standardized legal documents a month directly to consumers. Many of these documents are court documents, available for free from court sites, in Adobe .PDF format. Examples are non-contested divorce actions, name change actions, child support modification actions, incorporation documents, and other corporate filings.  By automating these documents and legal forms and adding extensive help screens we add value and make it easier for self-help ("pro se"  parties to complete online.

We know that our legal forms business is taking away market share from law firms, even though we do not provide legal advice and we are selling legal forms only. This is a classic case of "pure-play" disruption. Because the user is "doing"  the work by completing an online questionnaire, and the software does the rest, we have a very high profit margin on these forms, once they are automated. I call this, "making money while I am sleeping."

We also know the limitations of a "forms only" , self-help approach. Our DirectLaw, virtual law office platform, makes our legal forms and automated document assembly technology, available to law firms as a hosted service.  In the law firm configuration, the lawyer can bundle legal advice for legal forms offering a much valued-added offering at a price point which is significantly higher that the sale of automated legal forms only. The lawyer still provides a personal service element, but the document assembly technology enables the lawyer to spend more time with the client because creating the first draft of the document is instantaneous. Moreover, the client is doing part of the work as the lawyer doesn’t have to waste time gathering basic factual information which is captured online within a web page. This also can be a very profitable business model. I know from operating my own Maryland virtual law firm , from my home in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida,  just how profitable and satisfying this can be.

I have heard some critics of automated methods remark that lawyers were not trained to be "robots." This perspective misses the point by a mile. By figuring out what parts of a legal process can be efficiently automated, and which parts need to remain the domain of human intelligence, the productivity of the lawyer is greatly enhanced. In the future automated document assembly over the web will become the norm, as it offers the promise of greater value and lower fees or prices.  If not through law firms, then through non-lawyer legal form publishers who have migrated their legal form content to a dynamic and interactive format.

Solos and small law firms ignore these developments at their peril. While many solos practitioners ponder these developments, non-lawyer operated web sites like SmartLegalForms, Wills Online, the Name Change Law Center [ disclosure: We also operate these aforementioned legal form web sites ], Nolo, and LegalZoom, and other non-lawyer sites, will continue to eat away at the market share of the legal profession, particularly solos and small law firms.

It is time for the legal profession to catch up and not cede this piece of business to non-lawyer operators. At the end of the time day, it is the consumer who will suffer by not having access to the legal profession.

 

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EssentiaLegal, based in Atlanta, Georgia, and founded by Robert Arrington, Latif Oduolo-Owoo, & Michael Mason, three alumni from large law firm practices in Atlanta, is a new style law firm, part virtual and part physical that is designed to serve the broad middle class with unbundled legal services. The physical office is located in a shopping mall for easy access, but the virtual component is powered by our DirectLaw Service and enables the firm to serve clients throughout the state of Georgia. Clients can complete Questionnaires either on-line, or within the physical office, which results in the instant creation of the first draft of a document or form, ready for the lawyer’s review and further modification. Clients have the option of meeting with an attorney at their offices or relating to the firm on purely virtual basis through the MyLegalAffairs application created within the web site by our DirectLaw Web Service. I believe that this "click and mortar" strategy will be ultimately more effective than a purely virtual strategy because clients have the option of face to face contact with their attorney. "Click and mortar" refers to a business model that has both on-line and off-line components.

There has been some recent press about the concept of the virtual law firm.  Craig Johnson has started a web-based law firm called Virtual Law Partners, P.C. The idea is to eliminate the overhead of a physical office or offices and to increase client collaboration over the Internet. I think this is a positive trend and indicates that lawyers are beginning to think about new ways of delivering legal services over the Internet. We would not call this firm, however, an instance of eLawyering, in the absence of digital applications that substitute for the labor of a lawyer — such as web-enabled document automation. While these pioneering virtual law firms, may be saving the cost of a brick and mortar infrastructure resulting in lower fees to clients, their attorneys still work the same old way which is to bill for their time. Web-enabled digital applications on the other hand substitute for the time of an attorney and are truly disruptive as this time saving feature can result in more radical cost savings and translate into dramatically lower legal fees. We can envision that emerging virtual law firms will incorporate digital applications into their business models creating fixed price service packages for less complex legal services. At that time, these firms will morph into true providers of elawyering services.