LegalForce Store Offers Walk-in Lawyer Access in Palo Alto

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

New Law Start-Up Lead Generation Sites: What Lawyers Need to Know

Legal Referral websitesI have noticed recently the launch of many lead generation Web sites for lawyers.

In a previous blog post  , I noted that lead generation sites for lawyers as one category of legal start-ups were increasing and entering into an already crowded market space. By a "lead generation Web site" I mean a third party Web site whose primary purpose is to provide qualified leads to law firms. The site may be free to users, or sell legal advice to users for a fixed fee, but the purpose is still to generate leads for lawyers. A "lead generation web site" is typically what I call a multi-sided platform - one side involves users looking for a lawyer,  and other side are the providers who offer legal services. The lawyers who subscribe to the Web site typically pay a "marketing" or "advertising" fee to get access to the leads generated by the Web site.

More mature legal generation sites are expanding their features and depth of offerings TotalAttorneys recently received of infusion of $15 million in new venture capital from Bain Capital Ventures of Mitt Romney fame. A new CEO, Paul Ford, with expertise in developing lead generation Web sites is in place providing leadership.  TotalAttorneys now gives away their Web-based practice management system for a $1 a month, to attract attorneys to their more expensive legal generation services.  At $1.00 a month this is really good value for a web-based practice management application. However, for TotalAttorneys this web-based practice management solution that was originally developed by Stephanie Kimbro, now with Burton-Law,  and her husband and acquired by TotalAttorneys, is now just a marketing strategy for their lead generation services.  TotalAttorneys now claims that it is," the leading US company providing customer acquisition for lawyers"

I am not sure that ExpertHub, owned by InternetBrands, which acquired Nolo last year,  would agree with this assessment, with its broad network of practice specific legal sites now being reinvigorated with content from Nolo. [ See previous blog post on this acquisition ]. 

 

Virtual Law firm Success Factors

Plus the big elephants in the room like Findlaw and Lawyers.com are still growing and not going away. I can easily see FIndlaw and Lawyers.com incorporating some or all of the new features being promoted by the newer sites listed below.  In addition there are many lead generation sites that range from AVVO to FreeAdvice to USLegalForms that have been around for awhile, are well funded, and which have as a core element of their business model driving traffic to law firms in return for advertising fees.

Cash for Legal eferralsTo these older players, now come these new entrants

AttorneyFee.com - attracts consumers by publishing legal fees that lawyers charge for typical transactions. I have written previously about AttorneyFee.com in this blog, as I think they have a original twist on how to attract consumers to a lead generation site. There is no fee charged to lawyer's at the present time for participating in the site. A new feature is user accounts for attorney, so a lawyer can control the data appearing in their profile. (Disclosure: I am now an advisor to this company ).

LexSpot - Claiming to be the best way to find a lawyer which enables you to make an appointment with a lawyer on line, integrating with the available time in the lawyer's calendar. Their concept is based on the ZocDoc model which has proved successful in linking patients to doctors.

LawZam - which enables video chat with an attorney online. Free consultations for consumers. Developing a mobile platform. Still in Beta. Eventually as the services scales, revenues will come from attorney marketing fees and advertising.

Lawdingo - Lets people consult immediately (or by appointment) with a relevant lawyer by phone or video conference. Participating attorneys offer 15 - 30 minute virtual legal consultations free of charge and thereafter have the option to bill clients their hourly rate, prorated to the minute. Lawyers gain the ability to engage (and charge) potential new clients located outside their immediate vicinity (but in their state), and people gain the convenience of never having to leave home to work with a lawyer. According to Nikhil Nirmel, CEO/founder of Lawdingo, the site is still in beta and  is presently free for attorneys to participate.

 

MyRight -  specializes in providing interactive dialogues which the consumer his or her legal problem and then access an attorney who can solve it.. (Attorney Directory not yet in place). This company start-up with initial funding from a StartEngine, a start-up accelerator based in Los Angeles. MyRight is interested in licensing its interactive guides to other third party entities according to co-founder, Nikhil Jhunjhnuwala.


MyLawSuit.com -  specializes in generating leads for contingency fee lawyers. Consumers submit their cases for free and the lawyers decide of they want to take it. There is no initial charge to the lawyers to participate, except that if the lawyer wins a percentage of the fee it is paid to the Web site. The Web site states that it has an opinion from an nationally known ethics counsel (identity unknown) who has rendered an opinion that the Web site does not violate any ethical rules, but the opinion is not available for review. I would not participate in this Website unless I had an opportunity to review this opinion.

LegalSonar -  uses the power of your social network to help you find just the right attorney. The site is integrated with the major social networks and uses the trust factor in your personal relationships to help you find an attorney for your problem. The Website provides a variety of social media support and reputation management services and charges $99.00 a month for the basic level of service.

Shpoonkle.com - is a reverse auction bidding Web site where prospects submit a case and lawyers who participate in the site submit bids. Like eBay, the prospect can view the bids from different lawyers and compare their pricing. In the next, upgrade and Website release, according to Robert Niznik,  prospects will be able to compare the credentials and the experience of the bidding attorney. The site has an interesting Facebook type comment and news feed feature  and integrates nicely with Facebook. Lawyers have been able to register for free, but a monetization strategy is in the works. This is a site to watch.

VirtuallLawDirect - enables consumers to find a lawyer and get legal advice online. The website enables you to manage your cases online, enter into retainer relationships with clients online. Lawyers can bill and get paid online. The site is free to consumers and lawyer presently. It is still in beta. The Website describes itself as "a utility through which legal and related services, information and products may be provided and/or supplied by Attorneys and/or other Users of the site, and none of Virtual Law Direct nor any Virtual Law Direct Representative provides legal advice, information, services or products."

How does a lawyer decide which of these sites to subscribe to?

If your marketing budget is limited you must be careful as a solo practitioners or small firm when buying into multiple lead generation sites. If you over invest and get few leads, you lose. If a Website is initially free to participate, there is no reason not to try it.

Here are some decision factors to consider:

First,  how much traffic does the Web site get?If the site gets little traffic then the lawyer's profile won't  be seen even if if you are the most brillant and competent lawyer. Not enough traffic, means not enough visibility. One way to tell how much traffic a lead generation site gets is to use compete.com .

Simply set up a free account, insert the site's URL, and you will get a free estimate of traffic from the last month. If the site is free for attorney participation try it. If the site wants to charge you a marketing fee look closely at the traffic flow,and ask the sales staff how many unique visitors a month. If the site gets less than 5,000 unique visitors a month, it's not ready for prime time and not ready to monetize its traffic flow by charging lawyers marketing or membership fees.So for example, according to Compete in  July, TotalBankruptcy had 436, 237 unique visitors, LawPivot had 32,291 unique visitors, and Shpoonkle.com had 5,839 unique visitors.

Second, evaluate what is different about the site that will enable it to scale  its traffic flow without massive amounts of Google AdWords advertising. If the site has to build its traffic by buying boat loads of Google AdWords, the marketing cost to you will be very high. You might be better just marketing your law firm website directly by incorporating new and unique content and increasing your own organic search results. 

Third, does the lead generation Web site have a specialty focus. For example TotalAttorneys sponsors TotalDivorce And Total Bankruptcy , specialty sites that have high traffic and designed just to aggregate prospects with divorce and bankruptcy problems. LawPivot has a reputation for attracting business start-ups that need legal assistance. It is often difficult for a lead generation site to build traffic in many different areas For this reason, ExpertHub runs a network of specialty law practice Web sites that have a better chance of getting good organic placement in the search engines.

Fourth is pricing. Does the pricing or advertising fee make sense for my type of practice? Many of these sites are charging fees that are only justified if if you get a big case. But if your practice is serving up limited scope representation for modest fees, the fees charged by these sites will not result in a decent return on investment. If your average legal fee is $300 for an uncontested divorce, you can't pay the equivalent of $50 a lead, since you need about ten leads to convert to one lead that converts to a client that buys your service. 

How many of these new sites will survive a year from now? It is hard to tell.  My prediction is that there will be a shake out and many of the new lead generation sites won't be around in 2 years. Only time will tell. 

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In accordance with the   FTC 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guidelines Concerning Use of Endorsements and Testimonial in Advertising" I am disclosing that I have a material connection to some of the companies referred to in this Post. I am the Founder/CEO of SmartLegalforms a lead generation Website for a network of virtual law firms, and Founder/CEO of DirectLaw, a virtual law firm platform provider. The opinions expressed here are my own. I did not receive any compensation from any source for writing this post. DirectLaw sponsors this blog by paying for the costs of hosting.

 

Virtual Law firm Success Factors

How Do Lawyer Bidding Sites Work?

Recently several Web sites have emerged that enable consumers to bid for legal services. Examples include: ExpertBids and  Shpoonkle. (Don’t ask me how to pronounce  it). They all work pretty much the same way.

You submit a description of your project or the service you want, your location and your estimated budget. You create a secure account with a user name and password. Your service request is then posted or published to a lawyers who have registered for the service so they can bid on your work. When a lawyer bids for your work, you receive an email (each bid includes a rate, a description, and the lawyer’s profile, rating and client reviews). When the lawyer bids, whether bid by the hour or fixed price, you receive an email which includes a rate, a description, and the lawyer’s profile, rating and client reviews. The process gives you options and a basis for comparing how different lawyer;s will submit bids and pricing for similar work.

The process is always free to the potential client. Once you are connected to a lawyer you can continue your conversation either online or off-line. The sites enable you to communicate with the lawyer online directly, but often you don’t get any free legal advice or any legal service until you accept a retainer agreement and the lawyer/client relationship is established.

For law firms that have learned how to offer legal services for common legal matters for a fixed fee, these bidding sites could be another channel to the consumer and potential clients. These law firms, often virtual law firms, are low-cost producers of legal services, and can out bid more traditional legal firms without sacrificing quality or their profit margins.

Many of these law firms offer what are called, “limited legal services”, which enable these law firms to offer a low cost solution to consumers, but often consumers have no understanding of this concept. See for example the law firms listed in the MyLawyer.com Directory of  Virtual Law Firms. We think that the bidding sites should have articles and information on their web sites describing the “limited legal service” concept as this would be way to educate consumers about another way to cost effectively buy legal services.

A problem that we see with the bidding sites that we reviewed is that there is no easy for the consumer to describe that they want “limited legal services“, as distinguished from traditional legal services. There are options for bidding by the hour, or by the project, but no option for limiting the scope of representation. “Unbundling legal services“, is a relatively new idea, but many states (more than 35) have already passed amendments to their Professional Rules of Responsibility that enable law firms to offer “limited legal services” as long as the retainer clearly defines the scope of representation.

I think this is a critical gap in the way the operators of these site understand how middle class consumers want to purchase legal services. I also think that there is likely to be a disconnect between what the consumer bids for a service, and what they law firm delivers for the bid price. Without a clear specification of the scope of services, there is bound to be miscommunication and confusion.

It is too early to predict whether these “bidding sites” will survive. In the “dot-com boom and bust” era, there were several experiments with lawyer bidding, but all the sites failed because they could not generate enough volume to support their overhead structure.

Susan Cartier Liebel, the President of Solo Practice University has written a good blog post analyzing these sites,  that is worth reviewing by consumers who are interested in this approach to securing legal services.

Buy a Legal Forms Access Plan from MyLawyer.com

NJ Attorney Advertising Committee Rules that a TotalAttorneys WebSite is Misleading

The Committee on Attorney Advertising of the New Jersey Court System issued an Advisory Opinion this week that stated that a Total Bankruptcy web site,  published by TotalAttorneys®, a law firm marketing and services organization based in Chicago, is misleading and in violation of the Rule of Professional  Conduct 7.1 (a) .Download Full Opinion .

The Committee also ruled that the web site was not an impermissible referral service and that Attorneys are not flatly prohibited from paying for advertising on a "pay-per-lead" or "pay per click" basis. That's good news for TotalAttorneys and other performance-based marketing schemes on the Internet.

The Committee sets out clearly that "Attorney advertising cannot be misleading or omit operative facts." and found that the website did not provide sufficient information to the user and is misleading. 

In this case, the user was directed to only one attorney based on the purchase of exclusive rights to a geographical area. To avoid misleading consumers, the Committee stated, the methodology for the selection of the attorney's name must be made clear, including the fact that the website limited participation to one (paying) attorney per geographical area. Further, the Committee specified that all requirements to participate in the website must be clearly specified; a full list of participating attorneys must be readily accessible, and the website must inform the user that the attorneys have paid a fee to participate.

It is easy for attorneys to violate their professional obligations and expose themselves to bar sanctions, by ignoring the fine print in their agreements with Internet-based marketing websites.

For example, no less a credible organization as Lexis-Nexis®,  recently launched a direct to consumer web site, called  EZLAW.COM. The website purports to offer wills, powers of attorney and advance directives forms bundled with legal advice for a fixed and reasonable fee. A goal I would heartily endorse.

However, the site seems to suffer from the same issues as the TotalAttorney's web site when viewed through the lense of the New Jersey Advisory Opinion.

At EZLAW, the site operator provides a mechanism for consumers to assemble legal documents on-line and then make available a network of attorneys to provide legal advice as part of the offered package. In describing its Attorney Network, EZLAW states that:

They are all prescreened by EZLaw to ensure that you get professional, experienced and confidential legal counsel. To be included in our network, attorneys must meet our rigorous 12-point checklist of criteria.

This suggests that EZLAW is vouching for the quality of the qualifications of the participating attorneys, not only whether an attorney has practiced a number of years or maintains a certain level of malpractice, and this could be construed as misleading.

Moreover, the NJ Opinion states clearly that as a form of attorney advertising, " a full list of participating attorneys must be readily accessible," but on the EZLAW web site no list of participating attorneys is to be found.

Moreover the limited representation agreement executed by the client with the law firm is provided by EZLAW on behalf of the law firm, so the client never knows the identity of the law firm prior to entering into an engagement with the attorney. Normally you would expect that the client would enter into a limited retainer agreement directly with the law firm. I never heard of a retainer agreement that wasn't entered into directly between the client and the law firm. Not in this case.

Click here for a copy of the Representation Agreement between EZLAW and the client.  You decide whether  this agreement is ethically compliant? I am interested in hearing other opinions about this agreement. If you have one. please comment.

So what's the bottom line? Lawyer's need to read the fine print. Lawyers need to have a  full understanding of how their ethical obligations apply  to these new Internet-based marketing schemes lest they be caught in a web of disciplinary proceedings that wasn't part of the bargain. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what are the factors that contribute to success?

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

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

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

See: Law Firm Web Site Design: Tips and Techniques

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

LawPivot: Another Legal Advice Web Site

Another interesting start-up has emerged out of Silicon Valley to provide crowdsourced legal advice to other start-ups for free.

Vertical Q&A web sites seems to be the next new thing among venture capital investors. Even Facebook  rolled out this year a crowd-sourced Q&A service.

LawPivot, a legal Q&A web site founded in 2009,  hopes to fill a niche by providing legal advice to the founders of start-up and early stage high-tech companies based in California at a legal fee they can afford -- FREE.   Legal advice is provided by an experienced network of high-priced business law attorneys, recruited from the top 200 hundred or so law firms, who hope to pick up new clients by entering into discussions by providing free legal advice services to start-up companies.

Free legal advice or the “free consult” has been employed by lawyers for years, pre-Internet, as a tried and true marketing strategy for acquiring new clients. Now many lawyers are beginning to offer free legal advice online from their web sites directly. See for example,  VirtualEsq.Com . By next year there will be hundreds of these free legal advice services offered directly by lawyers from their web sites as the virtual law firm movement begins to scale.

However, free legal advice from an individual law firm's web site, is not the same thing as a vertical web site that aggregates answers from many lawyers, giving consumers a wider variety of responses to their particular situation.

Free legal advice online is not a completely new idea. FreeAdvice has been doing it for years, and consumers can get answers to their basic legal questions from sites such as AVVO, RocketLawyer, and JustAnswer. What is new, is that LawPivot provides through its network of lawyers “real” legal advice that applies to the client’s particular situation, as distinguished from merely legal information. And this advice is reputedly to be "high quality" given the stature of the lawyers recruited to the LawPivot network.

However, genuine legal advice, [as distinguished from “legal advice” that is characterized as “legal information” ],  like any legal service, has to be delivered in an ethically compliant way requiring that the client’s information be kept confidential, that an attorney/client relationship be established, and that the attorney providing the legal advice be a member of the bar within the jurisdiction  where the client is located. Presumably LawPivot is addressing these issues. The LawPivot service is presently limited to California, but the company, according to its representations, plans to expand nationwide.

Although the company recently raised $600,000 from Google Ventures, the venture capital arm of Google, after a $400,0000 round from from a group of angel investors, it will be interesting to see how or whether it survives. At this point, neither the clients are charged for legal advice, nor are the participating attorneys charged an advertising fee. So there is no revenue, and apparently no business model. However, I doubt that the investors thought they were making  charitable contributions, so there must be a business model lurking in the background somewhere?

Unfortunately, the only business model that is ethically compliant in the US, is one where the participating lawyers pay an advertising fee to play (get listed) and get exposure. Splitting legal advice fees between a law firm and a non-law firm , is a big “No, No” and an ethical prohibition that exposes the participating attorneys to bar sanctions which could lead to disbarment.   Perhaps because Google is now involved as a major backer of  LawPivot , and the company is planning to move to the GooglePlex campus start-up incubator,  "they can do no wrong.!"

Many other Western common law jurisdictions, like the United Kingdom, have abolished the division of fees, but the rules against splitting fees with non-lawyers remains sacrosanct  in the US, on the theory that splitting fees would compromise the independent judgment of the attorney. However, in the UK, lawyers are permitted to work for a profit-making company and provide legal advice directly to consumers, and no one seems to be complaining about compromised judgment. [ See: FirstAssist in the UK  for an example ].

Charging clients an administrative fee to “use” the web site, as an alternative revenue source, has been tried before in an earlier Internet era, and it failed then. [ e.g. AmeriCounsel ]. I doubt that this model will work today when consumers are expecting everything on the web to be for free.

I think it is a good sign that innovation is happening in the legal industry, and that private capital is finally looking for a way to get a return by investing in the delivery of legal services. [See: Total Attorneys Receives Multi-Million Dollar Investment ].

I would like to see companies like LawPivot thrive, but at this point I don’t see the juice.  Are advertising revenues sufficient to make this venture sustainable, or has LawPivot  figured out another legitimate source of revenue that doesn't violate US ethical prohibitions? Only time will tell.

 

Will LegalZoom Become the Largest Law Firm in the US?

 

LegalZoom has been beta testing a concept which links its marketing capabilities to a network of law firms that offer legal services under the LegalZoom brand. With some state bar associations accusing LegalZoom of  the unauthorized practice of law,  it might makes sense for the company to seek deeper alliances with networks of attorneys who are able to offer a full and ethically compliant legal service. Solos and small law firms, leveraging off the visibility and prominence of the LegalZoom brand, could reduce their marketing costs and enable these firms to better capture consumers who are part of the “latent legal market”  on the Internet. It could be a win/win for both parties.

Unfortunately, linking the capital and management resources of profit-making organization with private law firms is almost impossible in the United States, given the regulatory framework that governs law practice. Unlike, the United Kingdom, which is in the process of deregulating the legal profession, enabling profit-making companies, from banks  and insurance companies to retail chains like Tesco,  to actually own a law firm, and/or split legal fees with a non-law firm, these practices in the US are strictly taboo.

In the US, law directories can charge a flat marketing fee for a listing, but sharing legal fees with a marketing organization can get you disbarred.

During the dot-com boom around 1999-2000, a company emerged by the name of AmeriCounsel that tried to create a hybrid organizational structure similar to the LegalZoom experiment. The company sought to enable a network of attorneys to offer legal services at a fixed and reasonable price and to mediate between the consumer and the law firm in terms of guaranteeing the quality of the legal services offered. The company failed during the dot-com bust for various reasons, including lack of financing, but on the way to failure, secured some opinions from state bar associations that blessed their model and provides a blue print for hybrid delivery systems which combine the expertise of a law firm with the marketing, management, and technological resources of a non-law firm.

One such opinion was issued by the Nassau County Bar Association New York State.

The Bar Association reasoned that the AmeriCounsel scheme was permissible because:

[S]ince AmeriCounsel does not charge attorneys any fee and since AmeriCounsel does not “recommend” or “promote” the use of any particular lawyer ’s services, it does not fall within the purview of DR 2-103(B) or (D). Rather, AmeriCounsel is a form of group advertising permitted by the Code of Professional Responsibility and by ethics opinions interpreting the Code.

In this model, AmeriCounsel provided technology and administrative services to link the client with the lawyer, but the law firm made no payment to AmeriCounsel. Instead, a separate administrative/technology fee was paid by the consumer to AmericCounsel for using the web site and gaining access to the lawyer. (This is not a practical scheme in today’s web environment, in my opinion), Moreover, AmeriCounsel did not choose the lawyer. The client was able to compare the credentials of different attorneys and choose their own lawyer. Thus no legal referral was involved, which would not be permitted in New York, as only an approved non-profit organization can make legal referrals.

In my opinion, this model, forced on AmeriCounsel, by the Rules of Professional Responsibility, is cumbersome, hard to implement, and was not economically viable for AmeriCounsel. Perhaps this was one of the causes of its failure.

Almost a decade later, companies that want to enter into this kind of hybrid relationship with lawyers, have to follow the same rule structure, as the ABA Model Rules of Professional Responsibility as the rules have not changed in any significant way. changed.  It will be interesting to see whether the ABA Ethics 20/20 Commission, which was set up just last year, will address these issues at all.

Perhaps there should be a “safe harbor” that enables organization’s like LegalZoom to experiment with new patterns of legal service delivery that could operate for a limited period of time in a specific state, like California, The experience would be evaluated carefully as a basis for rule and policy change. The evaluation would be aimed to see if client's interests are compromised in any way, and whether the delivered legal service is less expensive, without compromising the quality of legal service.

Instead of creating legal profession regulatory policies that are based on the legal profession's idea about what is good for the consumer, policy could be based on real experience and facts. Experimentation is good. It leads to change, and in other industries improvement of methods and approaches over a period of time.

Of course, I don’t believe that this will ever happen in the US, at least not in my professional lifetime.

 

Framing the Discussion About Virtual Law Firm Practice

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

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

I would make the following additional points:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Example of a Niche Practice: Estate Planning for Single Parents

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

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

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

 

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

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

Total Attorneys Responds to Zenas Zelotes Attack

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

The Total Attorneys response can be found here.

Total Attorneys summarizes its response as follows:

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

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

Zelotes Complaint with Exhibits

Total Attorneys Response filed in Illinois

Zelotes Reply

South Carolina Ethics Opinion

Kentucky Ethics Opinion

Total Attorneys Being Sued for Violation of Legal Referral Rules

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

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

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

 

New Book on Marketing for Lawyers is a Winner!

A colleague of mine, Paula Black has just published a new book for lawyers on how to market themselves and their law firms.  This book should be on every lawyer's desk or night table. You don't get business, unless you ask for it, and Paula Black shows you how to do it. That’s why I am happy to share with you a special opportunity. For the next 48 hours only, Paula is offering a collection of FREE bonus gifts to anyone who purchases this little gem: “The Little Black Book: A Lawyer’s Guide To Creating A Marketing Habit in 21 Days.” Designed to help lawyers integrate marketing into their daily lives, this book is quick, easy and inspirational. By purchasing it within the next 48 hours you will receive special access to information and resources from more than 30 experts. A compilation of advice from some of the most sought-after marketing and management experts in the legal profession, “The Smart Lawyer’s Toolkit” gives you instant admittance to an incredible collection of tips and information. Click here for details…but do it fast!