Project Management for Lawyers at ABA TECH SHOW

legal Project anagementLegal Project ManagementHere comes Lean for Lawyers! Legal project management in large law firms is becoming a mandatory discipline, rather than a way to differentiate one firm from another. Larger law firms are now marketing their skills in legal project management - the ability to complete a legal assignment on time and within a budget The Law Practice Division of the ABA recently published a book titled: "Legal Project Management for Lawyers in One Hour. " One large law firm, SeyfarthShaw has created an affiliated unit, SeyfarthLean , to apply legal project management technologies plus other lean technologies such as Lean Six Sigma, process management techniques, knowledge management technologies to reduce the price of legal services from 15% to 50%.

Smaller law firms can use off the shelf products like Basecamp, inexpensive and easy to use,  to incorporate legal project management technology into their practices. But these off the shelf products have to be adapted to the law practice environment.

At this last week's ABA TECHSHOW,  there was one excellent presentation on visual work flow applications by Aaron Brooks  . There were also new developments by vendors on the exhibit floor where project management tools that solos and small law firms can use that embedded into other applications:

mycase,com, a web-based  practice management application has a feature that enables a solo or small law firm practitioner to create task templates and work flows.

LawPal has re-launched its web site as a Trello/Basecamp for lawyers to manage transactions online and securely with their clients. It includes project management, document review, markup, storage and signing as part of version 1. They will be adding guided workflow in the next version to allow firms to further automate their transactions. (Disclosure: Author is an advisor to LawPal).

RocketLawyer has now fully integrated the LawPivot Q&A platform into Rocketlawyer and announced at ABA TECH SHOW a new management tool for its on call network of lawyers which has a Lawyer Dash Board that organizes and manages work flow around the provision of legal advice.

RocketMatter, not to be confused with RocketLawyer, has a feature that enables task tracking. You can drag-and -drop tasks to prioritize them and tag them to assemble a "Gettings Things Done" checklist.

I predict that we will see more legal project management tools built into law practice management applications designed for solos and small law firms. If your company is building legal project management tools for lawyers we would like to know about it. Just let us know in the comment section.

I also think that there will be demand for full-time project managers within larger law firms, or lawyers who have project management skills. To this end, we are a launching this summer an on-line course in Legal Project Management through the Center for Law Practice Technology, Florida Coastal School of Law that initially will be open only to law students. The course is being taught by Mark Lassiter, a consultant to law firms on how to implement project management technologies within a law firm. 

Lean Lawyering is the next big thing.

Two ABA presidents to weigh in on future of legal education

Legal EducationTwo ABA presidents to weigh in on future of legal education at South Carolina Law Review symposium Feb. 27 - 28.Legal Education

For more information and to register online, go to the South Carolina Law Review website.

Will non-lawyers soon be allowed to provide certain legal services? They might if one of the key conclusions from a recent report by the ABA Task Force on the Future of Legal Education is implemented. (See my blog post on this topic at: Limited Licensing of Legal Technicians: A Good Idea? 

I am participating in this program so I will get another opportunity to air my somewhat contrarian views on whether there should be another licensed class of professionals serving the public directly who are not lawyers. A complicated subject that needs more debate.

The report, released in January, will be the focus of the South Carolina Law Review Symposium Feb. 27 – 28 at the University of South Carolina School of Law. The symposium will explore why law schools and the legal profession must make changes – and what those changes should be – to keep up with the evolving marketplace for legal education and legal services delivery. 

Titled “On Task?: Expanding the Boundaries of Legal Education,” the symposium will take place in the law school’s auditorium. 

The symposium will begin at 4 p.m. Thursday with a panel discussion in response to the Task Force’s report and a keynote address by Jim Silkenat, president of the American Bar Association and partner at Sullivan & Worcester LLP in New York. Silkenat will discuss the legal profession and future of legal education and its impact on law schools, corporate counsel and private attorneys. USC board of trustee, alumnus and ABA president-elect William Hubbard will introduce Silkenat and offer his views on the future of legal education. 

Friday’s sessions, which take place 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. will focus on proposals outlined in the Task Force’s recent report and law schools’ responses to changing markets within—and outside of—the law curriculum. Panels also will address the changing expectations of law firms and clients, new platforms in the delivery of legal services, the growing demand for information management by corporate clients, and the promises and challenges of limited licensing. 

Participants include, among others: 

  •  Elizabeth Chambliss, USC professor of law and director of the Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough Center on Professionalism;
  • Steve Crossland, chairman of the Washington Supreme Court Limited License Legal Technician Board;                                          
  •  Barry Currier, managing director of accreditation and legal education, ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar;  
  • Neil Hamilton, professor of law and director of the University of St. Thomas School of Law’s Holloran Center for Ethical Leadership in the Professions; 
  • Renee Knake, professor of law and co-director of Michigan State University College of Law’s Kelly Institute of Ethics and the Legal Profession;  
  • Paula Littlewood, executive director of the Washington State Bar Association;
  •  Hon. Barbara Madsen, chief justice of the Washington Supreme Court;
  • Lisa Rohrer, executive director of executive education and the Case Development Initiative at Harvard Law School; and
  • Ronald Staudt, professor of law and director of Chicago-Kent College of Law’s Center for Access to Justice and Technology.

I am participating on a Panel with my colleague and friend, Ron Staudt, focusing on teaching legal technology in the J.D. curriculum,  a current project of mine through the new Center for Law Practice Technology at Florida Coastal School of Law..

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Free Online Course on Digital Law Practice

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

 


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

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

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

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

Here are some of the other sessions:

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

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

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

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

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

Here is the course description and the registration page:

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

James Keane Award for Excellence in eLawyering

The James Keane Memorial Award for Excellence in eLawyering is awarded every year at the ABA TECHSHOW (March 29-31, 2012, Chicago, Illinois). James Keane was the founding Chair of the ABA/LPM eLawyering Task Force., which grants the Award.

Last year the Award was given to the Legal Aid Society of Orange County for their Legal Genie Project.  Another recipient was Stephanie Kimbro for her pioneering work in developing the virtual law firm concept at KimbroLaw.

The purpose of the award is to recognize law firms, private or public, that demonstrate innovative ways of using Internet technology to deliver legal services. Nominees may be any individual lawyer, law firm, or other deliver of legal services to individuals within the United States. The nominees can be a large or small law firm, public or private, or a legal services agency.  Self nomination by the Task Force is encouraged.

Here is a summary of the Award criteria:

  • Absence of precedent - Never been done or done quite this way before.
  • Evidence of action - The innovative idea was transformed into action and not merely reflective of best intentions. The nominee should be prepared to provide evaluation data that documents the effectiveness of the legal service in terms of client satisfaction, revenue enhancement, and/or law productivity. The nomination must provide an analysis of the measures used to define success.
  • Effectiveness of innovation - There is some measurable outcome that would indicate that the innovation is accomplishing what it was intended to do.
  • The project must demonstrate the use of the Internet to deliver legal services.
  • Action must have taken place no more than three years prior to this entry, and the legal service must be operating for at least one year prior to submission of the Application.
  • Additional consideration will be given to projects that focus on the delivery of legal services to individuals of moderate means.
  • The nomination should describe how the service was developed, how it is managed, and how it has been evaluated.
  • The nomination should describe how the service can be replicated by other law firms in terms of development costs, required technology, people requirements, and ongoing maintenance costs.

Click here to go to the ABA Application Page to apply.

The application deadline is February 15, 2012.

North Carolina Bar Regulates Legal Cloud Computing

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another guideline states that:

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

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

Another guideline states:

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

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

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

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

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

Keane Memorial Award for Excellence in eLawyering Goes to Orange County Legal Aid

The James I. Keane Memorial Award for Excellence in eLawyering for 2011 is going to the Legal Aid Society of Orange County for their Legal Genie Project, reports the eLawyering Task Force of the Law Practice Management Section of the ABA, the group that makes the Award.

James Keane was the first appointed Chair of the group, and passed away tragically from cancer six years ago.

Legal Genie - Keane Award Winner - 2011

Bob Cohen is the long time leader of Orange County Legal Aid, and provided the leadership for this Project. 

This project combines the use of advanced web-enabled document automation technology to generate Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 documents, as well as California divorce pleadings. It is unique because it involves a network of lawyers who provide legal advice, document review,  and other assistance to clients who use the program. The use of Internet technology makes it possible for the lawyers to be involved, and to also get paid a fee, because the entire transaction is made more efficient. The lawyers who participating get the benefit of the Legal Aid brand, and the marketing that results from promoting the project.

The Project demonstrates how a vertical branded network of attorneys, empowered by a robust technology platform, can provide legal services at an affordable fee to individuals who could not normally afford a lawyer.

This is from the Legal Genie website:

 “Legal Genie is a simple, affordable and reliable online service created by Legal Aid Society of Orange County. It is designed for people who do not qualify for legal aid and cannot afford the services of an attorney. It asks simple questions and puts answers on the forms in the correct place.

"Legal Genie is different from other services because it connects you to a licensed attorney on our Lawyers Referral Service panel. The LRS attorney will give you telephone consultations, review your documents and give you legal advice. Legal Genie combines the magic of technology with the help of a professional at a price you can afford.”

The formal granting of the Award will be on April 12, 2011, at a Lunch for all of the attendees of  ABA TECHSHOW in Chicago, Illinois at the Hilton Hotel.

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

 

Increase in Self-Help Divorce in Detroit; Calibre Law Offers Limited Legal Services for Divorcing Couples

Detroit News just published an article on the decrease in divorces because of the recession - a national trend, and an increase in pro se divorces in Detroit, also a national trend. The article discussed the possibility that law firms could offer "unbundled legal services" as a way of reducing the cost of divorce, but apparently there are very few Michigan law firms that provide this kind of limited legal service.

One law firm in Michigan that is pioneering in offering a reasonably priced limited legal service for divorcing couples over the Internet is Calibre Law, PLC at  Michigan Virtual Law, one of the law firm;s in the DirectLaw network.  Calibre is Michigan's first virtual law firm.  Calibre offers no-fault divorce forms with legal advice for a reasonable fixed fee.

Calibre Law is lead by Edward F. Hudson II. a litigator with experience in estate planning, family law, and small business disputes. Based in Royal Oak, Michigan and launched only a few months ago, Attorney Hudson, plans to have an impact on making legal services affordable throughout the entire Detroit metropolitan area.

Conn Bar Attacks Web-Based Legal Services

Attorney Louis Pepe, a Connecticut attorney and Chair of a Connecticut Bar Task Force examining non--lawyer legal information web sites, believes that these web sites are breaking the law by providing legal services in a state in which they're not licensed to practice, as reported in the Connecticut Law Tribune.

There are differences between  legal information web sites that provide legal information and legal forms only, and web sites that offer something called "legal document preparation services" where a paralegal or other non-lawyer reviews a document and assists in preparation prior to sending the form back to the client.  Rather than making a distinction between the different kinds of web sites, Pepe's  Task Force lumps them altogether into a single "evil" category. If it's not a  law firm web site, it has no place on the web, at least as far as the Connecticut Bar is concerned.

As reported by the Tribune, "the task force filed its report with the Department of Consumer Protection alleging that the on-line legal providers also were engaged in deceptive advertising because the companies are offering legal advice by providing relevant legal documents."

Can it be that the provision of just a legal form constitutes the "unauthorized practice of law?"  If that were the case why don't we just ban self-help legal software and self-help law books from Barnes & Nobles book shelves? All of the legal information web sites that I know of,  have a clear disclaimer that they are not a law firm and do not purport to give legal advice.

Does Pepe think that a consumer can't tell the difference between an attorney and a legal information web site? Is any publication - whether print-based or web-based -  that is a legal form the "unauthorized practice of law?"

In my opinion, there is a good argument to be made that a legal information web site that states that it's services and products are the equivalent to what a lawyer provides is a misrepresentation. It would be a misrepresentation in advertising, and consumer protection agencies should monitor the claims made by these providers. However, the claim that the mere provision of a legal form is the "unauthorized practice of law" is an abuse of the legal profession's self-regulatory power to protect the consumer from harm.

 

Catherine J. Lanctot has written an interesting article on the subject in “SCRIVENERS IN CYBERSPACE: ONLINE DOCUMENT PREPARATION AND THE UNAUTHORIZED PRACTICE OF LAW,” 30 Hofstra Law Review 811 (2002, 44 pp, pdf), where she argues that those who wish to apply UPL enforcement against such software products or document preparers ”must not lose sight of the broader implications.”  Not only do they risk constitutional challenges, but :

“[W]e must consider the ramifications of such enforcement. The public reaction would likely be negative. Enforcing unauthorized practice of law statutes against online document preparation services would be neither painless nor popular. The lay public, which already detests lawyers, generally perceives unauthorized practice of law enforcement as yet another way for the legal profession to line its collective pockets at the expense of consumers. . . .

“In addition, it is at least possible that these websites are managing to provide some consumers with a necessary service—basic legal documents at an affordable price. At a time when the bar seems to have abdicated its responsibility to provide routine, noncomplex legal services to the poor and middle class, it could well be counterproductive to try to shut down one vehicle for serving those unmet needs.”

If  the Connecticut Bar can't distinguish between their self-interest in maintaining a monopoly over the delivery of legal services and the public's right to legal information whether in the form of a book, a desk-top software program, or a web-based software program, perhaps the citizens  of Connecticut should either strip the bar of its self-regulatory power, or further define what the "practice of law" means. That is what the citizens of Texas did, when the Texas Bar attempted to ban self-help law books and self-help legal software from being sold in the State of Texas.

 

 

 

ABA Teleconference on the Virtual Law Firm

The Law Practice Management Section of the American Bar Association is sponsoring a Teleconference on the The Virtual Law Firm: Benefits, Costs, and Ethical Pitfalls to Avoid, on Thursday, December 17, 2009 between 1:00 P.M. and 2:30 P.M.

The program is a Live Audio Webcast with PowerPoint support.

I am participating in the program, together with Stephanie Kimbro of KimbroLaw Services and Marc Lauritsen, President, Capstone Practice, and Co-Chair, eLawyering Task Force, ABA Law Practicement Section .You can register online.

 

DirectLaw Launches Montreuil & Associates- Its' Fourth Virtual Law Firm in Georgia

DirectLaw is pleased to announce the opening of a new virtual law practice by Montreuil & Associates in Macon, Georgia.   The firm will provide services in the areas of business, family and divorce, estate planning, landlord/tenant, and name changes over the Internet throughout the state of Georgia.

The firm provides both traditional legal services and an online legal solution platform to serve new and existing clients. The online service allows the firm to provide cost-effective legal services so that everyone in the state can have access to affordable legal services. Ms. Montreuil says that she is committed to the idea of using the Internet to providing increased access to the legal system.

Renay Bloom Montreuil has an undergraduate degree, magna cum laude, from Youngstown State University and a law degree from Mercer University School of Law. Renay has been a Pro Bono Volunteer for Georgia Legal Services and has worked with Life support as a mentor for woman and youth.  She is licensed to practice law in Georgia and Florida.

For more information see website.

 

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

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.

 

Virtual Law Office Technology, LLC (VLOTech) has been acquired by TotalAttorneys

Virtual Law Office Technology, LLC, (VLOTech) based in North Carolina has been acquired by TotalAttorneys, a well-regarded law firm marketing and management services organization based in Chicago. VLOTech should do well and flourish under TotalAttorneys management umbrella, and with TotalAttorneys' financial backing, VLOTech will continue to be a major player in the emerging market for web technology that enables law firms to deliver legal services virtually. Stephanie Kimbro, the co-founder of VLOTech,  was the winner last year (2009) of the James Keane Award in Excellence in eLawyering, awarded by the Law Practice Management Section of the American Bar Association, for her work in designing and operating her virtual law firm in North Carolina, (which was the prototype for the VLOTech technology).

As many of our readers know, we have been a friendly competitor of VLOTech , through my company, DirectLawa client-centered hosted web service for solos and small law firms , in the sense that the more vendors that are in this space, the less time it will take for these ideas to move beyond early adopters to capture the interest of the mainstream of the profession. My view is that the more competitors in this market space the better, as each will come up with their own unique innovation to respond to the differing needs that law firm's have as they migrate their practices to the web. Our experience is that it always takes longer than we can predict for these innovative ideas to catch the interest of the bulk of practicing lawyers.  Congratulations to Stephanie and her team and good luck with their new partner. Click here for more details.

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.

On-Line Course in "Unbundled Legal Services"

 I am offering an on-line course on "unbundling legal services" with a particular focus on how to offer limited legal services over the Internet.  "Limited legal services" is another name for "unbundled legal services."The course begins the week of June 1, 2009 and there will be 7 sessions over a 12 week period. By the end of the course participants will have developed a design for an "unbundled legal service" that can be integrated with their traditional law practice. Topics include: how to "unbundle" legal services by task or by issue; how to create and price an on-line service; marketing of on-line "unbundled legal services"; and ethical and regulatory requirements for offering "unbundled legal services."

For a detailed syllabus go to: Solo Practice University

Automated Document Assembly as a Disruptive Legal Technology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The End of Lawyers? Rethinking the Nature of Legal Services

 Richard Susskind's new book, The End of Lawyers?: Rethinking the Nature of Legal Services was just published by Oxford University Press, in the United Kingdom. I received a copy from my associates in London today, and US distribution should begin within 10 days.  For law firms thinking about the future of the legal profession, this book should be mandatory reading.

Susskind sees the legal market as “broken.” Access to justice is available only to citizens who are very poor or very rich. The cost of dispute resolution in the courts often exceeds the amount at issue. Small businesses invariably claim that mainstream legal services are beyond their budgets. And even the world's largest companies and financial institutions are seeking radically new ways of meeting their legal needs.

Susskind argues that, in this time of grave economic uncertainty, the market will no longer tolerate traditional, expensive lawyers who handcraft tasks that can be better discharged with the support of modern systems and techniques. He claims that the legal profession will be driven by two forces in the coming decade: by a market pull towards the commoditization of legal services, and by the increase of disruptive, Internet-based technologies. The threat here for lawyers is clear - their jobs may well be eroded or even displaced.

Susskind challenges the legal profession to ask what elements of their current workload could be undertaken more quickly, more cheaply, more efficiently, or to a higher quality using different and new methods of working. Susskind argues that if automation can streamline certain legal tasks and that the market will forces lawyers to adapt to the "digitization"  or they won't survive.

I am still working my way through this important book, so will have more to say in future blog posts when I finish it.

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