AxiomLawSome colleagues asked me that other day if I knew whether Axiom is a law firm. I said I didn’t really know, so I decided to find out. There has been much buzz lately about AxiomLaw .  The company recently raised $28,000,000 in private equity funding, after an initial round of $5,000,000.  Axiom has recently launched a new Web site call ReThinkLaw  – a kind of forum Web site that is designed to "provoke thought and drive innovation in the business of law—leading to greater efficiency and positive change for the benefit of clients, firms and lawyers alike."

The AxiomLaw Web site and ReThinkLaw site makes it look like Axiom is a law firm.

For example:

AxiomLaw sounds like a law firm and has a domain name that makes it look like a law firm. When it describes itself it states that "it is not your father’s law firm" or it is  "a new model legal services firm."

But its not a law firm at all. The company’s real name is Axiom Global, Inc.,  It is organized as a "C" corporation, and incorporated in the State of Delaware, just like any other company. (This explains of course how it can have investors).

So if AxiomLaw is not a law firm – what does it actually do? It targets the General  Counsel’s office of large corporation’s and provides the following services:

  • It’s a high priced placement firm assigning lawyers to work for in-house General Counsel;
  • It’s an outsourcing firm working directly for General Counsel of major Fortune 500 corporations;
  • It does "projects" directly for General Counsel of major Fortune 500 corporations.

Should any one care whether AxiomLaw is a law firm or not?

  • Prospective attorney recruits might care whether they are being recruited by a law firm or something else;
     
  • Prospective customers should understand that only a company with an in-house counsel who is a member of the bar where the legal matter is being conducted can qualify for AxiomLaw’s services;
     
  • If you don’t have an in-house counsel, then you can’t use Axiom’s services. Not being a law firm. Axiom cannot provide services to the public (individuals or organizations) directly;
     
  • Prospective corporate customers should understand that the traditional lawyer-client confidentiality privilege does not apply. Any confidentiality must result from the relationship between the company’s general counsel and their outsourced lawyer workers by virtue of the agreement between Axiom and the corporation customer – but I wonder if that is sufficient.
     
  • Competing law firms might care that Axiom suggests that its services are "legal services" competitive with the services of other law firms, when in fact they are are just "services" by definition. Actually contracted support services by in-house counsel. Otherwise Axiom would be violating Unauthorized Practice of Law (UPL) regulations in every state. Since Axiom is not really a law firm it can make claims about its services, that are not subject to bar regulation. Some of the statements that Axiom makes about its services, a law firm is prohibited from making because it would be in violation of the advertising and disclosure rules which are operative in every state.
     
  • Law firms are prohibited from solicitation. AxiomLaw is not subject to the same constraints.
     
  • Maybe state bar association officials should be concerned that the location of the disclaimer on the AxiomLaw web site that states that Axiom is not a law firm and cannot give legal advice. It is difficult to find. . I finally found it here.  and here.

Is AxiomLaw a positive development for the legal profession? Who knows?

General Counsel of major companies seem to think so. AxiomLaw is demonstrating that certain kinds of services can be delivered at a much lower price, without compromising quality. By enabling corporate counsel to get done certain kinds of legal work that ordinarily would be provided by outside counsel at a much higher price, Axiom has opened up a major market be simply segmenting the kind of work that can be done more efficiently in-house with help from Axiom.

It seems to me, however, that an in-house counsel assumes the risk of malpractice when they contract with Axiom. Axiom is not a law firm so it can’t secure a law firm malpractice insurance policy. Moreover, the supervisor of the legal work is not Axiom, (technically it can’t be), but in-house counsel. When in-house counsel contracts with a company like Axiom they give up the assurance of quality legal services and accountability that they get from a traditional law firm. 

In checking directly with Axiom on this point, Axiom states that:

"The individual lawyers don’t carry their own malpractice, Axiom maintains a lawyer’s professional liability insurance policy that provides coverage for all Axiom attorneys, regardless of W-2 or independent contractor status. Almost all of our lawyers in the US are W-2 employees. Axiom does not, because we cannot, have access to or supervise the substantive work of our lawyers."

One likely impact of these developments is to destabilize the business model of the Big Law firms by sucking out the more routine work from big law firms which results in decreasing overall profitability.  As the Axiom’s of the world expand their services and their reach,  there will be less work for the large law firms resulting in a shrinkage of the market share of traditional law firms. (real law firms!). The firms that are left standing will offer the most high-end legal services but will probably raise their fees as they will be the only game in town as a supplier of complex legal services where law firm accountability is a necessity.

Do GC’s have any interest in a vibrant independent and expanding legal pr
ofession, or do they prefer a world where there will be less traditional law firms offering their services at higher fees?

Two final questions for consideration:

1. Should AxiomLaw be more transparent on its Web site about what kind of an organization it really is by making clear that it is not a law firm, and should it avoid comparisons with traditional law firms?

2. Maybe non-law firms like Axiom, with their access to capital and superior management and technological resources, should be able to offer legal services like a real law firm, but just make these new organization’s subject to the Rules of Professional Conduct like any other law firm.

Of course, private investment in a law firm is prohibited by Model Rule 5.4, but maybe it’s time that state bar associations recognize that there is a new kind of organization moving into the legal industry any way, so why not simply subject these new players to the same regulatory scheme as traditional law firms?

Would that level the playing field? Would that provide better consumer protection for both individual consumers and corporate purchasers of legal services?

LegalZoom, the leading online provider of legal services to consumers and small business, as predicted here previously, finally filed for an IPO last week. The company is seeking to raise $120 million to expand their services both in the US and internationally.

LegalZoom’s data in the S-1 filing is now available for everyone to analyze:

  • In 2011, 490,000 orders were placed through their web site;
  • 20% of all limited liability companies in California were done by LegalZoom;
  • During the past ten years, LegalZoom has served over 2,000,000 customers.
  • Revenue in 2011 was $156 million.

These are impressive statistics and provide support for the proposition that consumers and small business prefer a very limited legal solution that is just good enough to get the job done, rather than pay the high legal fees charged by the typical attorney.

This is LegalZoom’s analysis of the legal market for consumers and small business, buried on p. 62 of the S-1 filing: 

"Making the right choices with respect to legal matters can be difficult, especially for those with limited time and resources. The U.S. legal system consists of overlapping jurisdictions at the city, county, state and federal levels, each of which has its own evolving laws and regulations. Businesses may be subject to additional laws, regulations and legal issues applying specifically to the industries in which they operate. In addition, the policies and procedures associated with the creation, filing and certification of legal documents are often arcane and confusing."

        "When in need of legal help, small businesses and consumers lack an efficient and reliable way to find high quality, trustworthy attorneys with the appropriate experience to navigate this complex legal system and handle their specific needs. Small businesses and consumers often do not understand their legal needs or know where to start looking for an attorney. Some are wary of attorneys in general, and others may have heard from friends or family about negative experiences with attorneys or the legal system."

        "The high and unpredictable cost of traditional legal services also presents challenges for many small businesses and consumers. In 2011, the average billing rate for small and midsize law firms was $318 per hour, according to ALM’s 2012 Survey of Billing and Practices for Small and Midsize Law Firms. Attorneys are frequently unable to predict the time required to address a client’s legal matter, sometimes billing thousands of dollars to research a legal issue they have not previously encountered. This can be particularly true of generalist attorneys that offer many disparate legal services to members of their local communities. Unlike attorneys at large global law firms or specialty boutiques who handle high volumes of similar matters and develop expertise in specific domains, generalists can find it difficult to efficiently address a client’s particular legal issue due to their lack of specialized expertise. Due to the high and unpredictable costs of traditional legal services, many small businesses and consumers limit their use of attorneys and instead often attempt to resolve legal issues without assistance."

       "As a result of these factors, many small businesses and consumers often are unsure of or dissatisfied with the legal services available to them, and many either elect not to seek help or take no action to address their important legal needs."

Many lawyers are in denial about the desire of consumers and small business to purchase their services. They will assert that consumers and small business are exposing themselves to liability by using LegalZoom’s limited services which will bring regret later. But consumer’s don’t seem to care. What they get from LegalZoom is "good enough." The numbers tell the story.

Solos and small law firms will find that it will be very difficult to compete against LegalZoom with its superior capital resources. The organized bar (State and ABA) has given up on trying to put LegalZoom out of business on they theory that the company is violating UPL (‘unauthorized practice of law") rules. Any organized bar attacks will be resisted by LegalZoom which will now have the capital to fight any challenges to its business model. The American Bar Association has created a Solo and Small Law Firm Resource Center, but it is too little and too late.

LegalZoom is here to stay and will expand its market share as the major provider of the delivery of legal solutions to consumers and small business.

LegalZoom will, inevitably, put many solos and small law firms out of business as it grows and expands its suite of services.  For a related analysis on my theory about the venture capital industry and disruption in the legal industry see video at: Legal Startups – An Overview at PointOneLaw ].

To survive in this fast changing environment, solos and small law firms need to figure out strategies that extend their brand online, without detracting in any way from their role as a trusted adviser in the communities where they live and work.  I see too many solos and small law firms that think they can emulate LegalZoom’s success but don’t have either the capital or the skills to compete in an online environment.

The competitive response for solos and small law firms should be to create a "click and mortal" strategy that combines what can be learned from LegalZoom with the best management practices of a law firm that has the capacity to deliver "limited" or "unbundled" legal services at a competitive price point, both in the office and online.

Here is a previous blog post which lists steps that solos and small law firms can take to become more competitive in this rapidly changing environment. The cost of adapting to this new competitive environment is not the cost of software, which is relatively inexpensive. The cost is the investment in time that the lawyer has to make to learn new online skills, create more efficient production procedures, and adopt marketing approaches that amplify a lawyer’s experti
se both online and offline.

It will be interesting to see what the legal landscape for solos and small law firms looks like five years from now. 

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

An editorial appeared in today’s (08/22/2011) Wall St. Journal , titled "Time to Deregulate the Practice of Law", by Clifford Winston and Robert W. Crandell, both Fellows at the Brookings Institution. [ Ungated version here ]. The editorial argues that it is time for the legal profession to be deregulated, as other industries have been, in order to create price competition for legal services, spur innovation in the delivery of legal services, and reduce the premium that lawyers get for pricing their services as a result of strict occupational licensing. The editorial is a summary of the conclusions of a book soon to be published by the authors, and Vikram Maheshri, titled, "First Thing We Do, Let’s Deregulate All the Lawyers" (2011, Brookings Press). This book is the opening salvo it what is sure to be an expanded debate about who should be allowed to provide legal services to the general public.

New Methods of Legal Service Delivery

With online companies such as LegalZoom, RocketLawyer, JustAnswer, LawBidding, Law Pivot and our own MyLawyer.com, pushing the boundaries of new ways to delivery of legal services,  there is renewed pressure on the organized bar to respond to consumer demand for affordable, transparent, competent, and reliable legal services. Law firms are exploring ways to delivery legal services online to compete with non-lawyer providers, but are often constrained by bar regulations.

Free White Paper: Virtual Law Practice; Success FactorsEssentially, the authors argue that lowering the barriers to entry into the legal profession would force lawyers to compete more intensely with each other, and  face competition from non-lawyers and firms not owned and managed by lawyers. The authors argue that legal fees are higher  because of occupational licensing and can be reduced by deregulation without sacrificing the quality of legal services.

Since heading the Philadelphia Institute for Paralegal Training, the nation’s first paralegal school and the institution that pioneered the paralegal profession in the United States,  I have argued that you don’t need a fully-trained and credentialed attorney to provide services to consumers for simpler, more routine legal problems, any more than you would need a brain surgeon to treat a headache, when a pharmacist will do. I am well aware of arguments that some lawyers make that there are no simple legal problems, but the reality is that many consumers will settle  for a "good enough" result, rather than spend thousands of dollars in legal fees.

On the other hand I am not comfortable with the idea that we should abandon all occupational licensing for legal professionals, lawyers and legal assistants, essentially converting the United States in a completely unregulated free market.

 

Arguments for a Regulated Legal Profession

1. The analogy between the legal profession to other deregulated industries, such as the airline industry, that the authors cite, is simply not relevant. There is fundamental differences between the manufacturing, mining, communication, transportation, and financial industries and the human service professions where the delivery of the service is expected to be of sufficient competence to accomplish the task at hand. If you follow the author’s logic, we should also deregulate the dentists, the teachers, the nurses, the social workers, and the doctors because it results in lower pricing and therefore would increase the availability of those services. e.g., Instead of going to a "Dentist" to get your root canal work, you would have the option of going to the "Tooth Fairy."

2. The authors assume that the quality of legal services would not deteriorate any more than when the planes didn’t stop flying when the airline industry was deregulated. Unfortunately the authors have no facts to back up this assertion. It is just wishful thinking.

3. When you look at the facts, however,  a more thoughtful response to reforming the delivery system for legal services is required.

On the anecdotal level, I can testify to the literally hundreds of botched legal matters that I have reviewed generated by "Immigration Specialists", Legal Technicians" and other non-lawyers operating in the grey area of offering document preparation services. In some instances, I have seen immigrants actually deported because of improperly prepared papers by "Immigration Specialists." I have reviewed "failure to discharge notices"  issued by U.S. Bankruptcy Court because of improperly prepared bankruptcy petitions. I have reviewed dozens of divorce petitions filed by "pro-se" parties, assisted by online document preparation companies that were rejected by the courts. I have seen enough of these cases to know that in many of these situations  incompetence and lack of knowledge and skill is evident. In some cases there is outright fraud and misrepresentation.

4. There have been almost no empirical studies that I know of that support the argument of the authors that the quality of legal services would not deteriorate in a completely deregulated marketplace – save one- and that study does not support the author’s conclusions.

Legal Services Consumer Panel Study

Very recently the Legal Services Consumer Panel of the Legal Services Board in the United Kingdom, the agency in charge of deregulating the legal profession in the United Kingdom, conducted an empirical study of the quality of wills prepared by both solicitors and non-lawyers.

 

The Panel concluded that on the issue of quality:

 "one in four wills in the shadow shops were failed with more than one in three of all assessments scoring either poor or very poor. The same proportion of wills prepared by solicitors and will-writing companies were failed. Wills were almost just as likely to fail when the client had simple or complex circumstances. Key problems where the will was not legally valid or did not meet the client’s stated requirements, were: inadequate treatment of the client’s needs; the client’s requests not being met; potentially illegal actions; inconsistent or contradictory language; insufficient detail; and poor presentation. Key problems relating to poor advice include: cutting and pasting of precedents; unnecessary complexity; and use of outdated terminology."

The United Kingdom has a legal market which is not only more deregulated that the US market, but will become even more deregulated in the future. Despite this more open environment, the Panel concluded that:

&q
uot;Inherent features of will-writing services place consumers at risk of detriment. Consumers lack the knowledge to identify technical problems or assess whether the additional services offered are necessary or represent good value for money. The reliance on extracting good information about the consumer‟s circumstances and preferences, combined with the range of possible ways to deal with these in the will, means there is potentially wide scope to give bad advice."

and

"However, there is a need to make consumers better aware of the suitability of online services as these received the highest proportion of fail marks in the shadow shopping, but wills sold over the internet are difficult to regulate."

Thus, the Panel proposes that:

"will-writing services should be made a reserved legal activity. Any business – not just a solicitors firm – satisfying an approved regulator‟s entry standards could provide will-writing services."

The UK approach is not to restrict will-writing just to lawyers, but to open up the system to any providers that can satisfy the educational, regulatory, and accountability standards within the reserved activity. This is a vastly different approach than eliminating standards all together, as the authors seem to suggest.

The compete UK Report on Regulating Will Writing can be downloaded here. See also our Resource Page on Regulation of the Legal Profession.  The Report is worth reading by any policy maker who is thinking about doing away with all regulation of the providers of legal services to the general public.

Some final thoughts:

The authors claims of the benefits of deregulation in general are not supported by current evidence.

Consider:

  • Deregulation of the mortgage baking industry brought the American economy to its knees;
  • Deregulation of the US banking industry has wreaked havoc on the world’s economy;
  • Lack of strong regulation of the proprietary higher education industry has resulted in thousands of graduates without an adequate education, low employment rates, and high default rates. (Of course, as the author’s point out, you could say the same about law schools and law school graduates, but then again the accreditation of law schools by the American Bar Association, it can be argued is another example of an "unregulated activity" without substantive standards that are meaningful).

The list can go on.

Perhaps I am premature in my judgment as the book has not been released, and I have just reviewed the salient conclusions. I can’t wait to give it a full read and review.

 http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?lt1=_blank&bc1=000000&IS2=1&bg1=FFFFFF&fc1=000000&lc1=0000FF&t=lawpracticetechn&o=1&p=8&l=as4&m=amazon&f=ifr&ref=ss_til&asins=0815721900

There has been much discussion recently in various venues about whether 5.4 of the US Rules of Professional Responsibility should be amended or revised to permit investment in law firms by non-lawyer, or non-lawyer entities, or even ownership of US law firms by non-lawyer entities. The ABA’s Ethics 20/20 Commission is circulating a paper on the subject and is soliciting comments.

Known in the United Kingdom as Alternative Business Structures (ABS), this new form of law firm organization, authorized by the UK Legal Services Act of 2007,  will be permitted after October 6, 2011. Alternative Business Structures are already permitted in Australia, where several law firms have already gone public.

Other than the State of North Carolina where there is bill pending to permit non-lawyer ownership of up to 40% of a law firm, there has been little movement in the US to make change Rule 5.4 Some hybrid models are beginning to emerge in the US,  but they are a workaround the existing rules.

There is no clear path for non-lawyer ownership or investment in a law firm in the United States, and as a result it is arguable that the legal services delivery system lacks the capital necessary to innovate and create the efficient systems that are necessary to serve not only the "latent market for legal services", but existing legal markets more effectively.

Now comes Jacoby & Meyers, a law firm that has pioneered in changing the way legal services are delivered, filing multiple law suits in the Federal District courts of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut against the presiding state justices in those states responsible for implementing and enforcing Rule 5.4, requesting that the Rule by overturned. The Complaint makes clear that Jacoby & Meyers "seeks to free itself of the shackles that currently encumber its ability to raise outside financing and to ensure that American law firms are able to compete on the global stage"

Click here for a complete version of the Complaint.

Andrew Finkelstein, the Managing Partner of Jacoby & Meyers, and also the Managing Partner of Finkelstein & Partners, said that "No legitimate rationale exists to prevent non-lawyers from owning equity in a law firm. The time has come to permit non-lawyers to invest in law firms in the United States,"

Now the fun begins!

Disclosure: Finkelstein and Partners is a subscriber to our  DirectLaw Virtual Law Firm Service.

 

 

 

 

After 40 years of leading the self-help law movement, Nolo, is being acquired by Internet Brands an advertising driven Internet company. Nolo was created by two frustrated legal aid lawyers, Charles (Ed) Sherman and Ralph (Jake) Warner, who wanted to figure out a way to help the thousands of consumers with their legal problems who could not afford an attorney and were turned away by legal aid because their incomes were too high.

Based in Berkeley, California, the center of the counter cultural revolution of the 1960’s, Nolo assembled a group of radical lawyers, editors, and writers who were determined to do something about a broken legal system where 90% of the US middle class were priced out of the legal system. Championing legal reforms that would make the U.S. justice system accessible to everyone, the company has seen these reforms become mainstream in the US.

Courts now offer their own automated self-help legal forms, legal aid agencies publish state-wide legal information web sites and also distribute automated legal forms, legal form web sites give away legal forms for free as a way to generate traffic, small claims court limits have been raised in many states, and lawyers are delivering "unbundled legal services" and creating virtual law firms,  figuring out ways to deliver legal services online for a fixed and affordable fee.

Its ironic that Nolo is being acquired by  Internet Brands, for an amount rumored to be in the range of $20,970,000, by an advertising company that is focused primarily on generating leads for law firms through their directories and advertising properties. How does self-help law fit into this business model?

The amount being paid is little more than one times revenue — not exactly a premium.  Although, Nolo  publishes Willmaker and several other excellent web-based legal software programs, it is still primarily a book publisher. In its hey day, before the Internet penetrated almost every household in America, Nolo self-help law books were the primary source for accurate do it yourself legal information and forms.

As the web expanded hundreds of legal information and legal form web sites also emerged, plus national brands such as LegalZoom. These web-based alternatives also provided  legal solutions without the need to use a lawyer — the same need that Nolo was meeting. Except that instead of reading a 200-300 page book in order to get to a legal solution —  web-based applications delivered a legal solution more efficiently, faster, and at less cost.

Nolo has migrated many of its legal forms online, too little and too late, and except for a few major products, non-automated forms. Here is another example of a print publisher whose business, despite the excellence of its product, has been eroded by the Internet.

It is well known that Nolo’s book business actually declined during this recession and growth has been flat. The fastest growing area of Nolo’s business is their Lawyer Directory. This is ironic for a company that prided itself in developing self-help legal solutions that don’t require the assistance of an attorney.

The challenge for Internet Brands will be to figure out how to unlock the assets buried within Nolo’s vast collection of self-help law books and turn these assets into web-based applications that can be distributed over the Internet. It remains to be seen whether the quality of Nolo’s self-help legal content will deteriorate under the management of an advertising-driven company that measures results in page views and unique visitors.

Internet Brands, previously a public company, was recently taken private private when it was acquired by Hellman & Friedman, a private equity firm, based in San Francisco,  in December, 2010. Internet Brands has acquired over 70 vertical web sites in areas ranging from travel to cars to real estate. Internet Brands derives more than 70% of its revenues from advertising on its portfolio of web sites.

In December, 2010 Internet Brands also acquired ALLLAW.com , a consumer legal information portal and AttorneyLocate – an Attorney Directory Service. Both of these web sites are relatively weak properties. Compete.com shows that in March, 2011 Nolo had 498,769 unique visitors ( an 8% decline for the year), ALLLAW.com  had 190,069 unique visitors, (for the of March, 2011); AttorneyLocate.com was especially weak with only 18,277 unique visitors (for the month of March, 2011). Internet Brands also owns ExpertHub, which in turn manages web sites in verticals markets such as dentists, plastic surgery, accountants, tummy tuck, and of course lawyers. The ExpertHub site for lawyers only generates 96,289 unique visitors a month (March, 2011), so I wonder if that level of traffic is high enough to support their advertising rates.

There is irony in the fact that LegalZoom, a company that prides itself on offering  legal solutions from a non-law firm generates more traffic than any of the sites mentioned above at 889,762 unique visitors in March, 2011, trailing only Findlaw and Lawyers.com, (both of which offer similar services as the Internet Brands properties).  With the traffic that LegalZoom gets, maybe LegalZoom should consider creating their own lawyers directory for consumers who need just a bit of legal advice to go with their forms to keep them on the right track? I wonder what solos and small law firms would think if LegalZoom moved in that direction?.

It will be interesting to see how Internet Brands integrates these legal properties to leverage the assets in each acquisition as its tries to compete with the likes of Findlaw and Lawyers.com . It will also be interesting to see whether the quality of Nolo’s self help legal content deteriorates under the management of an advertising company that measures results in impressions, clicks, and unique visitors. If Jake Warner, the present CEO stays involved, I am sure the quality of Nolo’s products will remain "top of class."

It’s an odd mix, –the best in class self-help legal book publisher with an excellent reputation, with some less than best in class lawyer directories and a legal information web site. Only time will tell whether this combination will work. (Although Internet Brands may intend to run each of these properties as separate brands, which would help Nolo maintain the quality of it self help legal content).

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.

Apparently LegalZoom is in the early stages of planning an IPO, (going public),  according to an unnamed source at VentureBeat. Employing more that 500 employees, and having raised over $45 million in venture capital over the last few years, LegalZoom is clearly the leading non-lawyer legal document preparation web site. This is a good example of a disruptive innovation in the delivery of legal solutions by a non-lawyer provider that continues to eat away at the market share of solo practitioners and small law firms.

Focusing on a market that is not served well by the legal profession, in the same way that Southwest Airlines first targeted people who traveled by bus, rather than by air because air travel was too expensive, LegalZoom is will undoubtedly figure out a way to move up the value chain, capturing even more complex business from law firms, without actually giving legal advice.

In the United States, because the definition of what constitutes the "unauthorized practice of law" is so vague. (perhaps unconstitutionally vague),  it would seem that even though LegalZoom does not actually provide legal advice, it would be prohibited from assembling legal documents, even when the document assembly is purely software-driven. 

The reality is that bar associations have a tough case to make against a non-lawyer provider when no actual legal advice is given. UPL statutes haven’t been truly tested on the issue of whether a non-lawyer can assemble legal documents without actually giving legal advice. In Florida, when the issue came up, there was a compromise between the bar and non-lawyer providers and non-lawyers can help a consumer complete court forms as long as no legal advice is provided. It gets murky when you move beyond courts forms, to more complex transactional documents such as a will,  a living trust, or a marital separation agreement, even if the user is making the selection through a software driven questionnaire. Some UPL advocates, have argued that the selection of alternative clauses is still UPL, because a person had to "program" the clauses. There is some precedent for this position, but the State of Texas on the other hand, specifically excludes software driven document assembly from the "unauthorized practice of law., provided there there are disclaimers which state "clearly and conspicuously that the products are not the substitute for the advice of an attorney."

I think the risk portion of the prospectus will make for fascinating reading, particularly since in many states UPL is a felony. I can just visualize this language: "Investors should be aware that the company may be violating unauthorized practice of law statutes in many states, and as a result, if convicted, one or more executive officers may be required to serve time in the pokey."

In the interest of full disclosure,  Epoq US,  of which I am President, and which is the parent company of DirectLaw, also provides legal document preparation services over the web directly to consumers through a network of legal web sites    So perhaps I should be worried as well.

Private capital is beginning to flow into companies that are operating at the intersection of the delivery of legal services and the Internet.

Total Attorneys, a Chicago-based company,  just announced that they received a multimillion dollar investment from BIA Digital Partners, a Virginia-based venture capital firm. Total Attorneys is most known for the marketing services that it provides to law firms and the recent ethical controversy in some states surrounding the use of pay-per-click advertising on behalf of law firms. (Apparently this controversy has been resolved in favor of Total Attorneys in every state where it was considered by bar ethics committees.)

The company plans to extend its technology assisted services to law firms by expanding its virtual law firm Software as a Service offerings (SaaS).   Total Attorneys mission is to become a leading provider of elawyering Services to solos and small law firms by providing a comprehensive suite of outsourced technology services, from marketing to web-based practice management tools to a robust client portal.

The company licenses virtual law office technology to solos and small law firms as a subscription service, that now consists primarily of a robust suite of "back-office" practice management tools. The pan is to expand the service into a more comprehensive "front-office" client portal, providing a total solution to solos and small law firms.

This expansion would entitle the company to claim that it is a leading provider in the eLawyering space  and it would compete more directly with our own DirectLaw virtual law firm platform service and other web-based companies moving in the same direction.  [ See:  Legal Vendors Cloud Computing Association ] .

The concept of "technology-assisted service" is an interesting category for  the legal industry for it describes a form of outsourcing which combines both a digitally-based service combined with human service. Thus Total Attorneys also provides "virtual receptionist services", and at one point virtual support services to bankruptcy law firms. One management solution for solos and small law firms it to out source to independent specialized companies functions which can be done more effectively and at less cost than the law firm can do itself using internal resources.

It is good to see competition heating up in the eLawyering space, which has been moribund for a long period of time.  The eLawyering Task Force of the Law Practice Management Section of the ABA was created in 2000, more than a decade ago. For many  years there was not much to report in terms of the innovative delivery of on-line legal services by law firms. The last 2 years has witnessed an explosion in elawyering industry developments as lawyers adapt to change — caused by a severe recession, widespread unemployment of recent law school graduates, and the challenges created by consumers who are seeking lower-cost and "good enough" alternatives to lawyers, [such as LegalZoom.]

Competition among a variety of vendors provides choices to law firms.  Competition focuses attention on the fact that delivering legal applications as a SaaS is emerging as a new paradigm for enabling solos and small law firms to access complex Internet technologies at a fraction of the capital cost of developing these applications internally.  Private capital moving into the legal industry will create more choices for law firms, and as a consequence more choices for consumers.

Creative legal outsourcing will enable solos and small law firms to become more productive and survive in an increasingly competitive environment.

It seems like LegalZoom’s practices are finally catching up with it. The company is being sued in Missouri on the grounds of unauthorized practice of law and the plaintiff’s are requesting class certification. To give an example of how popular LegalZoom’s services have become, LegalZoom in its petition for removal to Federal court claims that it has served over 14,000 Missouri residents in a five year period, generating over $5,000.000 in sales. Missouri is a relatively small state, so you can get some idea of what kind of business LegalZoom is doing nationwide. No wonder the legal profession is getting nervous and starting to pay attention to this disruptive player in the legal industry.

A good discussion of the case can be found on the IPWatchdog Blog in an article by the Blog’s Founder Gene Quinn.

Click here for a copy of the Missouri Complaint,  LegalZoom’s petition for removal to Federal court, and a copy of a letter from the North Carolina Bar requesting that LegalZoom Cease and Desist from operating within North Carolina because it is violating North Carolina’s UPL statute when it prepares incorporation papers.

In its defense, LegalZoom in its removal petition,  claims that it is:

" a company whose principal business consists of providing an
online platform for customers to prepare their own legal documents. Customers choose a
product or service suitable to their needs and input data into a questionnaire. Where applicable,
the LegalZoom platform then generates a document using the product and data provided by the
customer."

It this were the case, LegalZoom would be functioning only as a "scrivener" transcribing the client’s information into a form. It is well established in some states, including California, where LegalZoom is based, and also Florida for example, that non-lawyers, often called "legal technicians" can help consumers prepare legal documents, as long as they don’t give legal advice.

The question of whether LegalZoom’s  staff do more than they say, and actually provide legal advice, even if it is limited legal advice, is a question of fact to be determined. It  would be interesting to see what the discovery process turns up and what the  LegalZoom, "platform" actually does and how it works.

For comparison, We the People, a retail chain of 35  "Legal Document Preparation stores  operating in six states, operates under the same principles. Customers complete paper questionnaires which are faxed to a central processing center where a technician simply inserts the client’s data into a desktop document assembly program which generates a form. (This is  the same process that many lawyer’s use, except lawyers provide legal advice and analysis).  This document preparation process is essentially the same as LegalZoom’s except that it takes place off the Internet through a network of retail stores. We the People has been attacked by the Bar in several states for UPL, but the company has worked hard to assure bar authorities that its staff and franchisees don’t provide  legal advice.

In theory, We the People, stores are able to reach a market of customers that do not have Internet access and prefer to deal with a human being directly. This market base is likely to have even lower incomes, and ignored by  both attorneys as a target market, and have too much income to qualify for legal aid.  Ironically, however, the We the People pricing is even higher than the LegalZoom pricing, probably because of the cost of maintaining a  retail location. Yet the remaining We the People stores, ( down from a high of 140 stores), seem to be sustainable, if not thriving.

Both companies provide a needed service in the sense that they provide an alternative to consumers who are willing to invest their own time and resources to make sure that the forms offered are the correct forms for their particular situation. Neither company can advise a consumer about what form they should use for their situation, as that would be a form of legal advice. Consumers may be taking a risk when they buy from a self-help document preparation forms company, but it seems this is a risk that consumers are willing to take to avoid what are perceived by many as high legal fees for the same  transaction. For these consumers, what they get is a "good enough" result at a price they can afford.

The other reality is that it is deceptive for LegalZoom and We the People , to claim that using their services will save hundreds or thousands of dollars in legal fees, when two very different category of services are being compared: 
 

  • one a legal information service;
  • and the other a true legal service from a licensed attorney.

    The content of the services are fundamentally different and to compare the services to each other is like comparing "apples’ and " oranges". 

    Sometimes you get the same legal result when you use a document preparation service, but often you don’t.  Apart from UPL issues, it seems to me that this is a misrepresentation in advertising and these claims should receive closer scrutiny from state consumer protection agencies. (Although I am sure that many of LegalZoom’s satisfied customers would say that they don’t need any protection).

Both companies demonstrate the principle that you can solve certain legal problems by having access to "legal information." Legal information by itself is a problem solver for many consumers, and the access to legal information and legal forms on the Internet, has simply accelerated this trend at a much faster rate in the last five years than the self-help law book industry has been able to accomplish in 30-35 years of its existence. This means that lawyers will have to do more to demonstrate their value to the consumer, particularly solos and smaller law firms that serve the broad middle class.

A better solution for consumers, as we have advocated in these pages, is for attorneys to offer legal forms bundled with legal advice at an affordable price, perhaps slightly higher than LegalZoom, but offering much greater value, over the Internet. This is often called. "unbundled legal services," enabling a consumer to purchase just the legal services they need, and no more.

Using virtual law firm technology, like DirectLaw’s virtual law firm platform, lawyers can be even more efficient that the LegalZoom or We the People models, because the entire document assembly process is software driven creating a legal document instantly from the user’s input, ready for the lawyers further review, drafting, and advice-giving. The increased productivity that results from a web-enabled document automation process enables the lawyer to offer a very price competitive service that in fact offers more value. The value of each sale is lower, from the attorney’s point of view, but volume can be much higher if effectively marketed. (Neither LegalZoom nor We the People have such a technology in place. No wonder there prices are so high for what you get!).

As long as the legal document preparers don’t give legal advice, they should be able to coexist with the legal profession, for certain kinds of common legal transactions, but not all.

But lawyers will have to work harder to provide their value and start offering true legal services online over the Internet. Driving non-lawyer legal document preparers out of business on UPL grounds is not an answer. At the end of the day prosecution efforts, will seem to the consuming public as just another attempt by the legal profession to maintain high legal fees for common transactions, while avoiding the cost of innovation.