client-centricThe American Bar Association Standing Committee on the Delivery of Legal Services, with the ABA Legal Access Job Corps Task Force and the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System (IAALS) is convening a national conference in Denver, Colorado on August 14-15, 2015  titled: Client-Centric Legal Services: Getting From Here to There.  The conference will have special value to practitioners who provide personal and small business legal services, bar leaders, judges and court administrators, legal educators, Access to Justice Commission members and staff, and incubator directors and law school clinicians. The focus of the conference is to explore new law firm business models that can enhancement engagement, re-define lawyer value, and pivot practitioners into 21st Century problem-solvers.

So what are client-centric legal services? 

The concept of client-centric legal services is part of a consumer revolution that puts the purchaser at the center of a commercial transaction shifting power from supplier to consumer. Power in the legal profession has always been on the supply side, but the legal profession is not immune from the consumer revolution and the demand by consumers for more transparency, information,  and control over the lawyer-client relationship. Consumers want fixed fee pricing so they can control their legal expenses and when possible be a co-producer of legal services to keep legal fees reasonable and manageable. This translates into “unbundled legal services” or “limited legal services”, powered by online delivery systems.

Internet based applications that either enhance the client’s understanding of their legal rights, or enable them to represent themselves with the assistance of an attorney, are examples of client-centric legal services.

A short list would include:

A law firm web site that consists of information only about a lawyer’s practice and biographies of the law firm’s lawyers is not client centric because it is solely focused on the supplier and provides no tools that empower the client as consumer.

Here are good examples of client-centric law firm web sites: The Rosen Law Firm in North Carolina – a family law firm; and The Baker Law Firm – an estate planning firm also in North Carolina.

Large law firms and their corporate clients are not immune from these developments as Big Law seeks to provide tools that enable corporate legal departments to service their internal clients more effectively.

For example Seyfarth and the Littler, Mendelson law firm  are developing expert systems applications on the NeotaLogic platform that can be used by their clients to more efficiently access legal advice at low cost. See Human Resources Compliance Application.

Prof. Stephanie Kimbro, author of The Consumer Revolution: The Lawyer’s Guide to the On-Line Legal Marketplace   predicts that:

“The client-centric law firms that are transparent in their business practices and provide communication and delivery methods that clients expect from professionals in any industry will be the firms that survive in our quickly changing legal marketplace.”

To learn more about creating client-centric law firms, register for the Denver conference, here.

FTC Disclosures:
I am a speaker at the ABA Denver Conference and I am also a liaison member of the ABA Standing Committee on the Delivery of Legal Services, and the company I am CEO of- DirectLaw – provides a virtual law firm platform for solo and small law firms that enables these firms to deliver legal services online.

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?

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.

Burton-LawBurton-Law, a virtual law firm based in Ohio and North Carolina has been selected by Law Technology News for the most Innovative Use of Technology in a Small Law Firm. This small law firm is a good case study on how a law firm can leverage virtual law firm technology to serve a diverse group of clients over a wider geographical area.

We are proud that the Burton-Law has selected DirectLaw as their client portal with embedded document automation capabilities. Burton-Law also uses CLIO as their web-based practice management solution which integrates seamlessly with DirectLaw through the use of an API.

Stephanie Kimbro,  formerly co-founder of Virtual Law Office Technology which was acquired by TotalAttorneys several years ago, helped make the decision to adopt DirectLaw as Burton-Law’s virtual law firm platform. Stephanie is no longer with TotalAttorneys.  Stephanie joined Burton-Law last March to expand their operations in North Carolina. Stephanie is a pioneer in the development of the virtual lawyering concept, having written the book  on the topic.

Consmer Law RevolutionStephanie has also just released a new ebook on the Consumer Law Revolution which is the best description and analysis of online marketing platforms that I have seen. You can download it here.

Stephanie also blogs at Virtual Law Practice, and you can follow her on Twitter @StephKimbro.

Just Answer is a question and answer platform that provides answers to users questions for a flat fee of approximately $30.00 per question. It turns out that one of the fastest growing categories within JustAnswer is the answering of legal questions by lawyers.  

Here are other the JustAnswer terms and conditions that apply to lawyers that participate in this service:

"Experts in the Legal categories must be attorneys licensed to practice law, and be
in good standing in at least one jurisdiction in the United States or foreign
country. Such Experts shall provide general information only, such as providing
descriptions of general principles of law, and shall not provide legal advice. In
responding to questions, Experts in the Legal Category shall not apply their legal knowledge or skills to resolve or advise on the Customer’s specific factual circumstances described in the question, such as by proposing a specific course of action (other than advising the User to seek the advice of an attorney licensed to practice in the relevant jurisdiction). Experts in the Legal Category shall not form an attorney-client relationship on the Site."

To be qualified to answer questions as a lawyer within the JustAnswer platform, the lawyer has to take a test in the practice area and meet other qualification standards.

Disclosure: I answer legal questions on the JustAnswer.com website in my capacity as an attorney and a member of the Maryland Bar.

The Website is very well executed. Users can select from a panel of lawyers that are online at the time that the question is asked. You can name your price – indicate what you are willing to pay for an answer. You can see the credentials of the lawyers and their track record in answering questions, communications are secure and confidential, and the user can indicate the urgency of the answer, and the level of detail required. Answers are 100% guaranteed. If you are not satisfied you get your money back. You can select the State that you are located in, so answers can be state specific. Most questions are answered within minutes.

I have yet to see a state bar association offer such a service with the same level of Website sophistication and quality control.

 

Continue Reading Does JustAnswer.com Provide Legal Advice Online? Is this Site Ethically Compliant?

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

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.

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

 

Legal Cloud ComputingA  proposed Ethics Opinion of the North Carolina Bar  that provides guidelines for attorneys using cloud computing services, commonly known as SaaS (Software as a Service),  contains language that is troubling because of its potential impact on solos and small law firm practitioners who are creating virtual law practices. The Bar is soliciting comments prior to making the Opinion final. Here are some comments for consideration.

The Opinion states that to comply with the attorney’s duty to keep client data confidential there should be:

"a separate agreement that states that the employees at the vendor’s data center are agents of the law firm and have a fiduciary responsibility to protect confidential client information and client property."

 

DirectLaw is a SaaS vendor that hosts law firm data at a Tier IV Data Center that implements the security controls that a bank or major financial institution uses.  The idea that our data center would enter into an agreement that would make its employees agents of a law firm is not realistic. There is not sufficient consideration to expose the Data Center to this kind of liability, and there is no way that they would modify their terms and conditions to meet the needs of a single SaaS vendor. I doubt that counsel for the Data Center would ever approve such language. The Data Center would just tell us to take our business elsewhere. Amending the contract terms just for SaaS vendors that service the legal industry is not likely to happen.

There are other approaches to providing assurance to law firms that client confidential data is secure and less burdensome.

I think a better guideline would be to suggest or require that SaaS vendors host their data at a data center that is a Tier IV Data Center.  A Tier 4  Data Center is one which has the most stringent level requirements and one which is designed to host mission critical computer systems, with fully redundant subsystems and compartmentalized security zones controlled by biometric access controls methods. The Data Center should also be SAS 70 certified. The Data Center should also have PCI DSS certification if credit card data is stored within the Data Center. With these safeguards in place,  a law firm should be  considered to have undertaken reasonable due diligence to satisfy the obligation to insure that client data will remain confidential.

There are other problems with the North Carolina opinion. Another guideline:

"requires the attorney to undertake a financial investigation of the SaaS vendor: to determine its financial stability."

What does that mean? I am not about to divulge our private financial statements to just any lawyer who inquires. How is it relevant? If there are provisions for data capture and downloading data that is stored in the cloud, and the law firm has access to that data, what difference does it make if the SaaS actually goes out of business?

It would make more sense to simply require that a SaaS vendor carry Internet liability insurance for the benefit of its law firm clients. Law firms will have problems securing Internet Liability Insurance to cover data loss. Data loss as a result of a Data Center outage is not normally covered under a law firm’s malpractice policy. For solos and small law firm’s securing this kind of coverage would be a burden and cost prohibitive. It makes more sense to require the SaaS vendor to secure such coverage and make its law firm subscribers a beneficiary of the coverage.

Another guideline states that:

"The law firm, or a security professional, has reviewed copies of the SaaS vendor’s security audits and found them satisfactory."

How much does such an audit cost? Can solo practitioners afford such an audit? Who qualifies as a security professional? I think this requirement will act as deterrent to solos and small law firms who are seeking cloud-based solutions that they can use in their practice. I think that a less costly and more effective solution would be for an independent organization to issue a Certificate of Compliance to the SaaS vendor indicating that the SaaS vendors has satisfied or complied with well recognized standards. Like the Truste Certificate in the privacy area, this would give solos and small law firms this would provide stamp of approval that minimum standards have been satisfied. This would move the cost burden of undertaking due diligence to the SaaS vendor, rather than to the solo or small law firm practitioner.

Another guideline states:

"Clients with access to shared documents are aware of the confidentiality risks of showing the information to others. See 2008 FEO 5."

This guideline should be clarified because it is not clear what "shared documents" means. This kind of statement is likely to scare clients into thinking that a law firm that stores client data on the the Internet is putting the client’s data at more risk than storing the data in a file cabinet in the lawyer’s office.

As the American Bar American,  through its Ethics 20/20 Commission, and state bar associations adapt ethical rules to deal with the delivery of legal services over the Internet, it is important to consider that the burden of compliance may have a different impact on solos and small law firms, than on large law firms. The rules should not act as a barrier to solos and small law firms exploring new ways of delivering legal services online which are cost effective for both the law firms and their clients.

For a similar point of view see Stephanie Kimbro’s blog post on the same topic.

Disclosure: DirectLaw is a SaaS vendor that provides a virtual law firm platform to solos and small law firms.