New Center For Law Practice Technology

Center for Law Practice TechnologyThere has been much discussion lately on whether law schools are training lawyers for 21st century law practice. At the ABA Annual Meeting this week in San Francisco a Presidential Task Force on the Future of Legal Education is scheduled to report out its recommendations.. In my last blog post, I identified 13 law schools that were making a commitment to training law students in legal technology and law practice management. At one point in my career,  I taught these subjects at several law schools under the guidance of Gary Munneke., -- whose untimely death last November has created a vacuum that will be hard to replace.

My own bias is that in this digital age, to be a competent lawyer requires an understanding of legal practice technology. The ABA supports this view as at last year's mid-year meeting the ABA House of Delegates  acting on the recommendations of the ABA 20/20 Commission, voted to amend the Model Rules of Professional Conduct to make clear that lawyers have a duty to be competent in technology. Specifically, the ABA voted to amend the comment to Model Rule 1.1, governing lawyer competence, to say that, in addition to keeping abreast of changes in the law and its practice, a lawyer should keep abreast of “the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology.”

Center for Law Practice TchnologyI have been looking for an opportunity to getting back into teaching law practice technology and now have the opportunity with Stephanie Kimbro to create a new Center for Law Practice Technology with the backing of Florida Coastal School of Law in Jacksonville, Florida.

Stephanie and I will become Co-Directors of this new Center. and the plan is to develop a series of online courses for law students nationwide  that will lead to a Certificate of Law Practice Technology and Management. The first courses will be offered in January, 2014.

The Center will also be a laboratory for developing and testing new forms of online legal services.  Students will have the opportunity to experience virtual law firm technologies and other emerging technology tools such as legal expert systems, document automation technology, and legal applications that are designed to increase access to the legal system. You can read more about this new Center here.

LegalForce Store Offers Walk-in Lawyer Access in Palo Alto

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-Law Selected by LTN for Innovative Use of Technology in a Small Law Firm

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.

Law Startups in La La Land

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.com - Contract 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

What Every Lawyer Should Know About Document Automation

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

 

How safe and secure is your law practice environment?

A new nonprofit organization has emerged to help lawyers assess the safety and security of their law practice environment. The organization is the International Legal Technology Standards Organization and it recently released a set of standards that law firms can used to evaluate:

  1. the law firm's internal security standards; and
  2. help law firm's make informed decisions about "cloud computing" vendors and other hosting arrangements where confidential data is stored outside of the physical office of the law firm

The Standards are much more detailed and comprehensive than the ABA/LPM's eLawyering Task Force publication of Cloud Computing Guidelines for Law Firms.

Disclosure: I am on the Advisory Board of ILTSO and provided some guidance to the development of the standards.

The standards are being circulated for comment before final publication.

The standards offer a sensible definition of "reasonable under the circumstances" by recognizing that different types of law firms have different security needs, although all lawyers are bound to prevent the disclosure of client data. Law firms are categorized into three types of situations:

  • "Bronze - this standard is appropriate in every law practice, including solo practices."
  • "Silver - this standard is typically appropriate for firms of more than one attorney, or where circumstances or resources dictate."
     
  • "Gold - this standard is typically appropriate for larger firms or those with additional IT resources, or where circumstances or resources dictate."

The idea of categorizing law practice environments into these three categories is a new idea, as some of the standards only apply to the Gold and Silver category. The intent is to recognize that law firms have different IT capabilities and the size of the law firm usually determines how the law firm will approach the problem of securing client and other firm data.

At this point of development, the law firm is responsible for undertaking their own self-assessment. Law firms can apply to the standards to their own law practice environment and if in compliance display the ILTSO seal.

ILTSO Seal of ComplianceAt some point, I can see where ILTSO might undertake an independent assessment of a law firm's security arrangements and if it compliance with the standards, award a certificate like the Truste certification which assesses an organization's privacy policies. A small fee could be charged for this assessment and it would vary depending on whether the type of law firm practice environment is  Bronze, Silver, or Gold. This would give assurance to clients that all reasonable efforts have been taken to secure the confidentiality of their data.

It will be interesting to see how the organized bar responds to these standards, as their are entities both at the state level, and the American Bar Association that are analyzing these same subjects.

The ABA Ethics 20/20 Commission, for example, has been holding hearings on cloud computing and security of data and has released a working paper on this subject.

Just last week, the Commission released its recommendations on outsourcing, which is a process that has an impact on the confidentiality of client data. The recommendations have not yet been posted on the Commission's web site, but the ABA Journal reports that:

"The commission proposes revisions to the Model Rules recognizing that electronically stored information, including metadata, is material subject to confidentiality rules. It also proposed revisions directing lawyers to make reasonable efforts to prevent inadvertent disclosure of information relating to representation of a client."

ILTSO's new standards would give concrete meaning to the definition of "reasonable efforts" and provide a detailed framework that could guide attorney assessment of particular outsourcing and cloud computing arrangements.

A positive impact of having this evaluation framework in place might be the accelerated adoption of technologies, such as cloud computing. Compliance with the guidelines would support a law firm's assertion that the firm has taken all reasonable steps to secure client data to reduce its liability in case of a security breach over which the firm had no control.

An unanticipated consequence might be a slow down in adoption, as the lack of clarity in this area might give many lawyers a reason not to become "early adopters." Many lawyers might choose to wait until standards like ILTSO's are accepted by a broad base of legal organizations and law firms.

Of course, by then, the "real" early adopters will have acquired a first mover advantage over law firms that are still thinking about the subject, to the those firms competitive disadvantage.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what are the factors that contribute to success?

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

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

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

See: Law Firm Web Site Design: Tips and Techniques

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Applications for the James Keane Award for Excellence in eLawyering Are Still Open.

The eLawyering Task Force of the Law Practice Management Section of the ABA is seeking recommendations and applications for the James Keane Award for Excellence in eLawyering which is awarded annually at ABA Tech Show in Chicago ( April 11-13, 2011). This will be the fourth year that the Award has been made. Previous award winners include Stephanie Kimbro for her work in creating the virtual law firm of KimbroLaw and Lee Rosen of the The Rosen Law Firm (both coincidentally located in North Carolina).

The purpose of this Award is to give recognition to law offices that have developed legal service innovations that are delivered over the Internet. The focus of the Award is on the innovative delivery of personal legal services, with special attention given to firms and entities that serve both moderate income individuals and the broad middle class. 

The Award is technology-focused, in the sense that the Award Committee is seeking innovations that demonstrate the concept of eLawyering - which can be  further defined as the delivery of online legal services. Examples of elawyering include the development of online web advisors, expert systems, innovative uses of web-enabled document automation, on-line client collaboration systems, and on-line dispute settlement systems, to name a few examples.

Nominees may be any individual lawyer, law firm or other deliverer of legal services to individuals within the United States.

The nominee can be a large or small law firm, public or private, or a legal services agency. More than one entry may be submitted, and the Task Force encourages self-nomination. The Application deadline has been extended to March 15, 2011.

For further information and an application form see: http://tinyurl.com/48xvcfq

 

What Lawyers Can Learn From LegalZoom

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."
 

Framing the Discussion About Virtual Law Firm Practice

There is a thoughtful discussion going on about the value of adding the capability of offering legal services online to a law firm's business model that was started by Lee Rosen's blog post titled, "What the Virtual Office Advocates Aren't Telling You."  Responses, so far,  include a post by Carolyn Elefant, an astute observer of solo practice, a post from Susan Carter Liebel, the  Founder of Solo Practice University, and a comment by Stephanie Kimbro, the founder of Virtual Law Office Technology, now owned by TotalAttorneys and the author of the recently published book, Delivering Legal Services Online. Lee Rosen is the winner of the ABA/LPM James Keane Memorial Award for Excellence in eLawyering in 2010, and Stephanie Kimbro won the same Award in 2009 for her work in creating her virtual law firm at KimbroLaw. Donna Seyle, a member of the ABA/LPM eLawyering Task Force and a consultant to solo law firms on law practice strategy, also commented on Lee Rosen's blog arguing that there is a great demand for "unbundled" legal services by the middle class.

Lee's argues that in his opinion there isn't much demand by clients for virtual services and that many clients if they want a virtual service are perfectly happy with LegalZoom. He says he has seen, "a survey indicating that many clients prefer a paralegal-provided service to an attorney-provided service, even when both are offered at the same price." Moreover it will be very hard to turn around consumer preferences now that LegalZoom has established a nationwide legal brand.
He also argues that it is very difficult, or not impossible, for a lawyer to generate a stream of income from a purely virtual practice and that a low-end practice doesn't generate the kind of clients that a law firm needs to be successful. Carolyn Elefant makes a similar argument that it is very difficult to generate significant profits from a low end practice unless you have volume which is difficult for the average solo practitioner to create without some capital and the skills to market their legal services on the Internet. I would agree with these points, but whether a solo or small law firm should consider adding a virtual law firm presence to their web site and modifying their business model is really a more complex discussion than can be easily done within the context of a blog post. There is much wisdom in Lee's observations, but the story is more complicated than he makes out.

I would make the following additional points:

1. A virtual law firm as we define it, is one that has a “client portal” where clients can interact with their attorneys online, view copies of their documents, pay their bills online, communicate with their lawyer in a secure space where their attorneys responses are archived and available, assemble documents through an online questionnaire, and access other digital applications. In my opinion, the benefit of using a virtual law firm platform is to increase law firm productivity, law firm transparency, client retention, and client acquisition. These are all positive values that studies of consumers indicate that they want.  It is not the case, as Lee argues, that there is little demand for by consumers for online legal services.  The 1,000,000 wills that LegalZoom claims it has created during the past five years or so, and the dozens (hundreds ?)  of other non-lawyer legal form sites is ample evidence that the legal profession has abandoned the online legal services market to non-lawyer providers.

2. A “client portal” concept is just another tool that enables a law firm to have an interactive presence on the Web which has certain productivity and client communication benefits. It is not a substitute for a law firm developing its own unique business model and market positioning approach which identifies a group of prospects and converts them into clients. Each law firm has to figure out how to integrate these tools into their own business model. For some law firms, this concept is not relevant to their type of practice. For others, it can be another basis for differentiation,  for choosing one law firm over another.  For many law firms, a virtual capability becomes an important adjunct to the regular office based practice, creating efficiencies that only can be created by using the web as a platform for delivery.

Here are a few examples of law firms that are experimenting with online marketing of legal services, offering "unbundled" legal services in a niche area for a fixed price:

For other examples, see the Law Firm Directory at MyLawyer.com.

3. If a law firm wants to market to web-based consumers, including members of what we now call the “connected generation” a law firm needs to have a virtual law firm platform in place, as one option for relating and working with clients.  The cost of adding this functionality is now trivial, so there is little excuse for not trying it. We know from our own experience that there are benefits to this approach, as a complement to a traditional office-based practice.

4. LegalZoom and other non-lawyer legal form sites can’t provide legal advice. I can give you many examples from my own virtual law practice where legal advice makes a major difference in legal outcome. Providing just legal forms alone, can sometimes solve a legal problem, but often they do not. The challenge for us lawyers,  is to figure out a way to provide an offering that is price competitive with LegalZoom, but which offers more value.

Moreover, as a profession we should not walk away from the legal problems of moderate income clients. We have skills that will result in better legal outcomes for moderate and middle income clients. As a profession we have an obligation to provide services at a lower price to individuals who can’t afford higher fees and we should figure highly productive methods of serving them. Are we only to serve the wealthy? If so perhaps the legal profession should be deregulated, as it is being done in the United Kingdom, and legal services regulated just like any another service business. This would provide opportunities for many different kinds of providers to provide legal advice and other services which the legal profession now monopolizes. This is the direction that we are heading.

5. Providing a low end, lower priced legal service can be a marketing strategy for providing higher end, higher fee services. A client of http://www.directlaw.com, that is a personal injury firm, is using a low end service to build relationships with prospects so that the prospects turn to the law firm when they have a high value PI case. Some of the DirectLaw law firms give away free legal forms as an inducement to enter into a relationship that results in the purchase of a broader array of legal services.

6. Some lawyers are able to attract a clientele that will be willing to pay $400.00 an hour for a divorce lawyer, but there are not enough of these clients to go around to satisfy all of the divorce lawyers in a state. The broad middle class is seeking less costly alternatives as this level of pricing, and pricing by the hour,  is more than they can afford. There is real demand for "unbundled legal services" at a fixed price. We can see this directly from the weekly increase in traffic at MyLawyer.com , since a Spring, 2010 launch, where virtual law firms offer their services at a fixed price. The success of RocketLawyer , operating in the same market space, is another example that there is real demand for this type of legal service.

7. For many law firms, a virtual offering becomes an important adjunct to the regular office based practice, creating efficiencies that only can be created by using the web as a platform for delivery. It is a component of an office-based practice that can be used to enhance the experience of existing clients with their lawyers.

8. Finally, the cost of adding these technologies to even a solo practice is becoming trivial. We tested a free version of DirectLaw this summer and experienced great demand, so we decided to end it on September 1, 2010, and offer in the future, what we call DirectLaw Basic for a subscription fee of only $49.00 a month for a solo practitioner.

$49.00 a month is not a significant cost for a solo practitioner to acquire a virtual law firm capability. It is low enough for a solo practitioner to experiment and test out the benefits. 

There will come a time, when thousands of solos and small law firms will add a “client portal” to their web sites to power and extend their marketing programs and to enhance the client experience for those clients that are looking for a way to work with their lawyers online. Lee Rosen is correct,  that simply adding a “virtual law firm” capability does not make a marketing strategy, but there are online marketing strategies that can’t be executed without a virtual law firm platform in place.

The delivery of online legal services will continue to expand, I predict, but it is not going to happen tomorrow. As a new generation of clients mature to the point where they have legal problems of their own,  the need of delivering legal services online will intensify.

New innovations take time to reach a tipping point. I remember, very clearly,  when lawyers would not think of using a paralegal, and I remember how long it took for the innovation to mainstream and reach a tipping point. These times are not dissimilar, as the platform for the delivery of legal services is changing, as Jordon Furlong observes.   In all things innovative, patience is a virtue.

 

Free Version of DirectLaw Offer Expires 08/31/2010

During the summer we experimented with promoting a free Version of the DirectLaw virtual law firm platform, that includes all of the communications, collaboration, and ecommerce functions, but which excludes the document automation functions.

The DirectLaw Free Version is not quite free, because we charge a $99.00 set-up fee to cover our costs for setting up the account and the ecommerce component which enables law firms to bill their clients on-line.

We wanted to see how much demand we would experience for essentially a free virtual law firm platform, without doing much advertising or marketing. We want to see how ready solos and small law firms are to embrace the virtual law firm concept by adding this functionality to their web sites at almost no cost.

To our surprise, demand was much stronger that we had expected and we met our sign-up goals very quickly. Thus we are ending this Free Version Offer, effective August 31. 2010, and replacing it with what we call: DirectLaw Basic.

DirectLaw Basic, which includes all of the same functions as the original Free Version, but excludes the document automation functions and automated legal form libraries.

The monthly subscription fee will be $49.00 a month for a solo practitioner, plus $50.00 a month for each additional lawyer in the firm, if the firm is larger than a solo, up to four practitioners. There is no charge for access by support personnel and no-set-up fee. A free listing in MyLawyer.com, our consumer legal information portal,  is included in the subscription fee. This program is designed for solos and small law firms. Law firms with over 5 attorneys should contact us for a quotation. For additional details see: DirectLaw Virtual Law Firm Free Version.

2010 ABA Legal Technology Survey Report on E-Lawyering: Questionable Data

Volume IV of the recently released 2010 ABA Legal Technology Survey Report is devoted to Web and Communication Technology. A section on E-Lawyering reports that 14% of Respondents over all, and 19% of solo practitioners, report that they have a virtual law office or virtual law practice. This question in the survey that deals with with the question of whether a law firm has a 
"virtual law practice" was framed in terms of whether the attorney primarily interacts with clients using Internet-based software and other electronic communications software.

In my opinion, these self-reported responses from attorneys are not meaningful and are much too high to be accurate. The reported numbers are not useful in understanding where the legal profession is in terms of adopting the concept of a "virtual law practice." The reality is that the adoption rate is much lower.

The ABA Law Practice Management Section's eLawyering Task Force (disclosure: I am Co-Chair of the eLawyering Task Force),  defines a "virtual law practice" as one that offers to its clients a secure client portal, as part of the law firm's web site, where the client can log in with a user name and password, and interact with their attorney, as well as consume other online legal services. A virtual law practice is more than simply communicating with clients by email and never meeting with clients face-to-face. In order to have a "virtual law practice" by our definition,  you have to have a web site and a portion of that web site has to be dedicated as a secure portal for clients. Without this distinction, many law firms can claim that they are "virtual law firms" simply because they use email extensively, as the ABA Study seems to imply, giving the impression that integration of Internet technologies as part of their legal service delivery system is much higher than it actually is.

For example, in another question, the survey participants were asked whether the firm has a web site. The solo practitioner group responded that only 52.1% had a web site, but this is the same group that responded that 19% has a "virtual law practice."  By our definition, if you don't have a web site you don't have a "virtual law practice." The only explanation for the discrepancy in these numbers is that the question of " Do you have a virtual law practice?" was phrased so broadly that more law firms where included in the category than should be.

Another question that was asked to determine what kinds of online legal services were offered by the firm was: "Does your law firm offer online document preparation?" 11.4% of solo firms reported that they did. Again this number doesn't make any sense. There were 149 respondents in the Solo category. Only 52.1% actually had a web site, or 77 firms had a web site from which online document preparation could be offered. 11.4% would suggest that only approximately 8 law firms could offer this service. Not only is this number too small to make any meaningful projections in terms of the total number of solo practitioners in the US (more than 400,000), but it is also likely to be misleading. Here's why:

The technological options for offering online document assembly for solo practitioners are very limited. One option is to provide fillable Adobe . pdf forms. But you can't easily use a fillable Adobe .pdf to create a text document such as a Will or a Shareholder's Agreement. The major document assembly vendors such as HotDocs, DealBuilder, and Exari have systems that support online document assembly but the price for licensing these systems is much too expensive for the average solo practitioner. Wizilegal, a new entrant to the field, provides a new low cost web-enabled document assembly solution, but our market information suggest that they have only a small number of users. (Disclosure: DIrectLaw, which sponsors this blog, is one of the few web-enabled document assembly solutions that is offered at a price that a solo practitioner can afford.)

In short, the question about the use of online document assembly should have been phrased much more narrowly, with a field in the questionnaire that would require that the law firm indicate what platform is being used to support online document assembly, and whether it is a third party vendor, or whether the programming was done in-house. My sense is that if the question were asked properly, the number of law firms offering online document assembly would be much lower than actually reported.

Finally, 3% of respondents report that their firms offer expert system on their web sites (compared with 1% in the 2009 survey), including 7% of the large firm respondents. Based on our surveys of law firms from solos to large law firms, this percentage seems very high to me. It is very rare that I come across a law firm web site that actually offers an "expert system" for use by its clients, and I review or check out literally thousands of law firm web sites a year.  Most lawyers don't even know what an "expert system" is! I would like to see a more precise question, where the respondent is required to name the kind of "expert system" they are offering and the url of the web site where it is offered, so that a reviewer could more closely examine what the law firm represents they are doing is in fact the case.

I think that it is commendable that the ABA Legal Technology Resource Center now has a separate section of its annual report just on web and communication technology. The platform for the delivery of legal services is gradually shifting from traditional face-to-face office practice to the Web, but my sense is that the the pace of adaptation is much slower than is being officially reported. This is understandable in a profession that views its core identity as one where clients are dealt with primarily face-to-face. 

On the other hand, our own research on consumer preferences suggests that more than half of consumers would like their law firm to have an online virtual component. Thus, the legal profession continues to lag behind what other service industries offer to their clients and customers online.

 

 

Example of a Niche Practice: Estate Planning for Single Parents

Jason Goita, who operates a Florida state-wide virtual law firm, using our DirectLaw technology,  from his base in Tampa, Florida, has just spun off a second virtual law firm web site that is focused on Estate Planning for Single Parents. This is a good example of how to develop a niche focus within a general area of law. In a crowded market, like the legal profession,  the best way to get noticed is to develop a narrow area of expertise and to focus like a rifle shot on a particular group of clients. When you target a market segment precisely you have an opportunity to gain a client's trust and build a relationship, paving the way for selling other legal services. The site is also very well designed as it doesn't over load the visitor with too much information, guiding the user through a dialogue that leads to purchase of legal services.

A great discussion on the benefits of developing a niche practice as the corner stone of a law firm marketing strategy appears in David V. Lorenzo's Rainmaker Lawyer marketing blog at Law Firm Marketing and the Benefits of a Narrow Practice Niche.  Lorenzo states that there are at least four good reasons to develop a narrow practice niche: (1) perception of expertise; (2) client confidence; (3) experience; and (4) competitive advantage. Lorenzo says:

Focusing your law firm marketing in a narrow niche will help you attract more clients, gain their confidence and respect quicker and it gives you a competitive advantage.  Start thinking of a way you can narrow your marketing focus and you will notice the difference in the clients you attract.

 

In addition to  these four reasons, I would add that if you want to get noticed by Google and the other search engines, the best way to accomplish this objective is to have a narrow focus with targeted key words both on the pages of the website and in the meta-tags on each page of the site.
 

Increasing the firm's visibility in organic search can result in a significant reduction in the cost of pay-per-click advertising. Pay-per-click advertising (e.g. Google AdWords) is, in my opinion, still critical for getting visitors to your site, but a narrowly focused site goes along way towards getting noticed on the web. Moreover, a narrowly focused site is less confusing to visitors because of the singular focus. The mind can only absorb so much text before attention begins to fade. Focus helps keep the Internet-based client focused on the task at hand and streamlines the purchase process.

AVVO Secures $10 million in New Funding

AVVO, the controversial law firm Directory that provides ratings of  lawyers has received a new $10,000,000 round of venture financing led by DAG Ventures of Pal Alto, California. The AVVO Directory is reputed to be the largest and most trafficked legal directory and the largest free legal Q&A forum receiving tens of thousands of questions and answers each month from consumers. The Directory also provides ratings and profiles for 90% of licensed attorneys in the US.

This funding is an endorsement of AVVO's concept that what consumers want in evaluating law firms is transparency and clarity with respect to the lawyer's reputation, legal services offered and even the pricing of legal services. The AVVO ratings system continues to increase in credibility and I predict that AVVO will become a first stop for consumers in searching for an attorney.

The AVVO system is arguably superior to Internet-based lawyer matching services, where consumers are matched with an attorney on  the basis of a summary of a problem submitted over the web, as the consumer really doesn't have a clue about the competence of the law firm to which they are being matched.

To cite other examples of opaque law firm directory sites, there are web sites that aggregate consumers through a specialized legal information web site, and then redirect those prospects  to a network of law firms that have purchased the exclusive right to receive leads in a particular territory. The lawyers in these networks may be very competent, but there is little information about their pricing or even links to these law firm's web sites.Consumers seeking competent lawyers on the Internet will continue to gravitate towards more transparent sites law firm directories sites like AVVO.

 

Ethics 20/20 Commission

The ABA Ethics 20/20 Commission had public hearings at the ABA mid-year meeting in Orlando. Florida this week-end. A focus of the Commission's work is the impact of Internet technology on the delivery of legal services, both globally and within the United States. The Commission has a 3 year period to undertake research, conduct hearings, and report its findings and recommendations.  Three years from now Internet technology will be further transformed, and by 2020 who knows what technologies will be available. By then, I am sure, legal business (negotiations, dispute settlement) could well be conducted by our avatars in virtual legal environments on an international and cross jurisdictional basis. Licensing of lawyers by states may prove to be increasingly anachronistic by 2020, although it is unlikely that state bars will go away without fight.

I was honored to be able to testify before the Commission and submit a written statement which can be found here. Stephanie Kimbro now a member of the ABA's eLawyering Task Force, also made a presentation on the virtual law office concept which I thought was very well received.  My impression was that the Commission members were very interested in our statements and explanations of how Internet technology enables the more effective delivery of legal services.

Minimum Requirements for Virtual Law Firms

The eLawyering Task Force,  which is part of the Law Practice Management Section of the American Bar Association has been developing a recommended set of minimum requirements for law firms delivering legal services online.  The draft that has been published is a working draft and we are soliciting comments as we move towards a final document. The draft document can be downloaded here.

The ABA does not have a comment facility on their web site, but comments can be contributed on this blog, well as a discussion group  that has been set up on LinkedIn called Virtual Lawyering.

Any comments that are submitted will be circulated among members of the Task Force.

Disclosure: I am Co-Chair of the eLawyering Task Force

DirectLaw Launches SlatterLaw - Its' Third Virtual Law Firm in Georgia

 DirectLaw is pleased to announce the launching of SlatterLaw its third virtual law firm in the State of Georgia. SlatterLaw will provide online legal services to small businesses and individuals throughout Georgia.

Kerry Slatter founded the law firm with the goal of providing convenient and cost-effective legal services to small business owners and individuals across the state of Georgia. In addition to small business legal services, the Slatter Law Firm also provides counsel in various other areas, including estate planning, corporate law, and employment law.

From the web site:

 "Slatter Law provides the following core values for its clients:

  • Customer Service – Provide value and legal solutions to exceed client’s expectations.
  • Cost Efficiency – Provide cost efficiencies to enable clients to obtain more value from their legal budgets.
  • Responsiveness – Limit attorney workload and the number of clients. The motivation to build long term relationships with clients drives this goal.
  • Convenience – Utilize excellent customer services and technology to provide legal services in a convenient manner for the client (via secure online website client space, by email or by phone as needed).
  • Innovation – Promote innovation for all aspects of client legal services, including the use of cutting edge technology, resources, and fixed fee arrangements."

Mr. Slatter has an undergraduate degree from Morehouse College and a law degree from State University of New York at Buffalo School of Law and is licensed to practice in Georgia.

 

Pfau and Associates Opens Virtual Law Practice in Nevada

 

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

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

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

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

 

A Report from Darryl Mountain, Guest Blogger, on the Pacific Legal Technology Conference


On Friday, October 2nd, I presented at Vancouver’s Pacific Legal Technology Conference on the topic of Virtual Law Practice with Simon Chester of Heenan Blaikie and Nicole Garton-Jones of Heritage Law.

 

We discussed the two heads of the definition of virtual law practice:  practising law over the Internet through a secure online portal and practising law under one brand through satellite offices (which are often home offices).

 

Nicole is an early adopter who described her experience in managing Heritage Law, a paperless office where most staff work from home.  Some staff are located in places such as Victoria and the Sunshine Coast that are remote from Heritage Law’s central office in West Vancouver.  Heritage Law soon will be implementing DirectLaw through a separate business model called Heritage Law Online, subject to regulatory approval.

 

I analyzed Web-enabled virtual law practice using the Eliminate-Reduce-Raise-Create grid, which sets out a framework for contrasting innovative value propositions with conventional value propositions.  It comes from a book called Blue Ocean Strategy.  Among other things, Web-enabled virtual law practice eliminates the visit to the lawyer’s office, reduces cost and waste, raises a lawyer’s reach beyond his or her immediate geographical area, and creates a packaged solution.  I also discussed Chrissy Burns’ PhD thesis, entitled “Online Legal Services—A Revolution that Failed?.”  It is found at http://tinyurl.com/kvtden.

 

Simon discussed the regulatory issues involved in setting up a virtual law practice in Canada.   Canadian regulators have not addressed virtual law practice specifically but there are issues with regard to limited scope representation, preservation of data, and the client identification and verification rules.

 

Our PowerPoint slides from the presentation are located here:

 

http://www.pacificlegaltech.com/download/SSF2.pdf

 Reported by Darryl Mountain, President, Ontago, Inc.

New DirectLaw Virtual Law Firm Features Released

It has been a very busy summer at DirectLaw. We are constantly adding features to our DirectLaw Virtual Law Firm Platform. Sometimes new features are suggested by our growing network of DirectLaw law firms; often one of our staff gets a good idea and we push it out to the Platform to see what kind of response we get from consumers and our client law firms. The nature of a SaaS (Software as a Service) offering, like DirectLaw, is that we can can modify and enhance the platform at any time and all law firms in the network benefit immediately. Our clients don't  have to wait until "the next quarterly software release."

Here are some of the recently features that have been added to the DirectLaw Virtual Law Firm Platform:

June 17, 2009 - New virtual law firm platform for consumer bankruptcy attorneys released. Click here for more information.

July 13, 2009 DirectLaw Workspace™. brings the benefits of web-enabled document automation for clients who are not online by enabling law firms to use our web-enabled document automation system for regular office-based clients.  

July 29, 2009 - A new "collaboration" function that enables law firms to communicate and collaborate securely with their clients over the Internet. Click here for screenshot.

August 5, 2009 - We installed a new "billing" function that enables law firms to bill clients online for traditional legal services and supports online bill payment by clients through their MyLegalAffairs page. Click here for screenshot.

August 20, 2009 - Today we released a new user friendly design for the Legal Services Page ,  which is now available to all law firms in the DirectLaw network of law firms. Each legal service offered by the law firm now appears on a separate tab, with detailed explanations of the scope of the legal service. Legal services offered by the law firm can be added or deleted and the fees charged increased or decreased at any time by the individual law firm using the Attorney Dashboard - the Administrative area that the law firm uses to manage their virtual law firm platform.

Total Attorneys Responds to Zenas Zelotes Attack

Total Attorneys has responded to Attorney Zenas Zelotes filing of ethics complaints in 47 different jurisdictions.

The Total Attorneys response can be found here.

Total Attorneys summarizes its response as follows:

"In a nutshell, Mr. Zelotes’s 303-page complaint (including exhibits) alleges that Total Bankruptcy (and various other Total Attorneys companies) is a for-profit referral service, that the business model of the Total Attorneys marketing sites amounts to impermissible fee splitting, that our advertising is impermissible solicitation and that our advertising is misleading. The complaint is a hodge-podge of hearsay, factually inaccurate statements, and carefully selected lines from a myriad of state advisory opinions taken wholly out of context, all crafted together to paint a picture of our program that could not be ignored by state regulatory counsel."

This is a complicated issue that needs further analysis, as there are two sides to this story. Supporting documents in the Total Attorneys response which require further examination include:

Zelotes Complaint with Exhibits

Total Attorneys Response filed in Illinois

Zelotes Reply

South Carolina Ethics Opinion

Kentucky Ethics Opinion

Total Attorneys Being Sued for Violation of Legal Referral Rules

 TotalAttorneys, a so-called marketing association of attorneys that operates legal referral web sites,  such as TotalDivorce and TotalBankruptcy , is being sued in multiple jurisdictions by Attorney Zenas Zelotes, a consumer bankruptcy attorney, based in Hartford, Connecticut and Nevada, for violation of bar referral rules that exist in every state. The Connecticut Law Tribune just released a headline story about the pending Zelotes v. Chern et al .ethics investigations (wherein more than 500 bankruptcy practitioners face possible professional discipline for certain business transactions with Illinois Attorney Kevin W. Chern d/b/a Total Attorneys et al.).  The story in Monday's Connecticut Law Tribune summarizes recent findings of probable cause in Connecticut that certain attorneys doing (or having done) business with Chern committed professional misconduct.  The story (which is available on line now and which will be released in print edition on Monday) can be found by clicking on the following link: http://www.ctlawtribune.com/default.aspx .

One problem with web-based legal referral directories like the TotalAttorney directories is that the user doesn't see the qualifications of the law firm on the web site, Instead, the prospect submits information about their case which is then sent to a selected number of law firms who pay  high referral fees for the leads. The consumer is really unaware of the identity of the law firm to which they are being referred. Placement in the directory is based on the law firm's ability to pay the "marketing fee" .

Other law firm directories are more transparent and let the consumer view the attorneys profile on line which enables the prospect to make their own judgment about which law firm they want to explore a potential relationship or engagement. These more transparent directories include FindlawLawyers.comNolo.com, and AVVO. The more transparent and information robust an attorney directory is, the more consumer friendly it is.  When a consumer provides information to an on line questionnaire when the identity of the law firm is masked by the web site, the consumer is assuming more risk that the attorney really meets their needs. Caveat Emptor !!

 

Kimbrolaw wins James Keane Award in Excellence in eLawyering

Stephanie Kimbro, a solo practitioner who operates Kimbrolaw.com, a virtual law firm in North Carolina, has been selected as this year's winner of the James Keane Memorial Award for Excellence in eLawyering. This award is given annually by the eLawyering Task Force of the Law Practice Management Section of the American Bar Association, a group which was founded by Jim Keane an active and long-standing member of the ABA/LPM section who died tragically from lung cancer several years ago. I am the present Co-Chair with Marc Lauritsen.

Ms. Kimbro's law firm is a completely virtual law firm that serves individuals and small business over the Web. Our group concluded that Kimbrolaw.com  met the criteria for the Award perfectly as it demonstrates an innovative online model for delivering services to the broad middle class. Clients access their own individual web space where they can consult with their attorney, have their documents reviewed, and conduct other legal tasks -- all online.

The Award will be formally given to Ms. Kimbro at the American Bar Association's TECHSHOW on April 2, 2009, immediately before the key note speech by Richard Susskind, who will discuss his new book: The End of Lawyers: The Rethinking the Nature of Legal Services.

UPL Issue in On-Line Document Assembly

Recently a prospect for our DirectLaw Web Service asked me whether it was the unauthorized practice of law for a law firm to use a legal document that is generated by our web-enabled document automation system (Rapidocs), because the legal form did not originate within the law firm itself. In this model, a client completes an on-line questionnaire which generates a legal form or legal document instantly ready for attorney review and further modification. I asked my colleague Will Hornsby, who is Counsel to the Standing Committee on the Delivery of Legal Services, American Bar Association, and a leading expert on ethical issues that arise from delivering legal services over the Internet.

Hornsby says that a lawyer commits the unauthorized practice of law when the lawyer assists a non-lawyer, whether that is a person or a corporation, to undertake the practice of law. This leads to the question of whether online document automation that creates a legal form or document from data provided by the client is the practice law. The definition of “the practice of law” varies from state-to-state but frequently includes the drafting of legal documents and the use of legal knowledge or skill. (For specific state definitions of what is the practice of law, or the unauthorized practice of law, click here.

 

However, the question here revolves around whether the lawyer is “assisting” the software vendor in practicing law when the document preparation is provided as a legal service of the law firm. This is analogous to services provided by paralegals and other outsourced services. In most states, for example, paralegals have no independent authority to provide legal services. If they independently provide document preparation or use their legal skills in serving clients, they may be deemed in violation of their state’s UPL laws, as are any lawyers who assist them in providing those services. [This is the LegalZoom model ]. However, if paralegals provide those same services under the direction of a lawyer and the lawyer assumes supervisory obligations, the paralegal is not practicing law and is not violating UPL laws, nor is the lawyer who provides the supervision “assisting” in the unauthorized practice of law.

 

ABA Formal Opinion 08-451 (Aug. 5, 2008) clarifies that a lawyer may outsource legal services, subject to several considerations. The opinion directly addresses independent contractors, such as temporary lawyers, but also mentions sources of tasks such as a photocopy shop, a document management company and a third-party vendor for the firm’s computer services. In its discussion of Model Rule 5.5 and the unauthorized practice of law, the Opinion states, “Ordinarily, an individual who is not admitted to practice law in a particular jurisdiction may work for a lawyer who is so admitted, provided that the lawyer remains responsible for the work being performed and that the individual is not held out as being a duly admitted lawyer.”

 

Therefore, according to Hornsby, and I agree, even if a document automation application would be deemed the unauthorized practice of law if its services were provided independently of a lawyer’s services, once those service or the documents produced by the software application are provided under the lawyer’s direction and supervision, within the scope of the lawyer’s services, the lawyer can no longer be assisting the document preparation in the practice of law and no longer has a risk of assisting in the unauthorized practice of law.

 

 

First DirectLaw firm in Georgia

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.