LegalZoom's Achilles' Heel: Free Legal Forms

For those of you following the LegalZoom IPO, which was scheduled for Friday, August 2, 2012, it was postponed for the usual stated reason that market conditions were not suitable. This really means that the offering could not get off at the $10-$12 price per share that the selling shareholders wanted. Instead the maximum price institutional buyers were willing to pay was reportedly $7-$8 a share, which would have reduced the valuation of the company by one-third. The reasons that were given for this lower valuation were comparisons with other transactional-based companies like www,ancestry.com which is selling at a price to earnings ratio of 21.73, compared to a projected price to earnings ratio for LegalZoom of over 40x.

Perhaps the research analysts on the buy side perceived a more fundamental flaw in LegalZoom's business model.

The LegalZoom product offering at its core is still the provision of legal forms offered up to recently, without the option of the legal advice from an attorney. The pricing for these legal forms are comparable to the pricing of paralegal prepared  legal forms offered for example by the many legal technicians in the State of California who work with consumers off line in face-to-face meetings, like lawyers.  

Thus for example LegalZoom charges $299  for no-fault divorce forms, and $139 for name change forms. Many virtual law firms now offer comparable legal form services but bundled with legal advice. See for example www.morrisfamilylaw.com  where a no-fault divorce is offered with the full accountability and the backing of an attorney for a fee of $275. For another example see FlashDivorce a virtual law firm service that offers  no-fault divorce in four states for $199.

Law firms are going virtual and are finally figuring out ways to compete against LegalZoom on its own playing field. To be sure, these small law firms don't have the capital and marketing budgets of a LegalZoom, but as thousands of these law firms eventually migrate to delivering online legal services they will not only offer a better value to consumers, but they will constrain LegalZoom's growth and dominance.

The problem with the LegalZoom pricing model is that automated legal forms are digital goods whose marginal cost is zero. Eventually a pure digital good has a marginal cost of zero and will be made available a price which is either free or close to free. It is for this reason that a song, for example, on iTunes cost only .99. [I wrote about this idea previously at Legal Forms for the Price of a Song on iTunes? which identifies other legal start-ups moving into the free legal forms market space.]

LegalZoom itself has aggressively argued that it services are essentially software-powered and its document assembly processes are publications entitled to the same First Amendment protections as other kinds of commercial speech. Its products are therefore, it argues, immune from organized bar claims that their services constitute the unauthorized practice of law. By its own admission, the professional review of legal documents by LegalZoom is very limited and does not constitute legal advice.

If this is the case, once consumers figure out that the product that they get from LegalZoom is essentially the same digital form that can be purchased from many automated legal form websites at a price which is 10% of LegalZoom’s existing selling prices,  -LZ's revenue should implode, in theory. I say, "in theory", because LegalZoom has done an excellent job in persuading consumers that what they have to offer is a better service than what they get from the typical lawyer.

Because of the overwhelming advertising that LegalZoom pushes into multiple channels the LegalZoom brand  is likely to remain intact, because the truth about the nature of LegalZoom's product offering is obscured by their aggressive advertising messaging.

For many consumers,  if a service does not appear on page one of a Google search, they will look no further, and the opportunity to avoid using a lawyer in solving a legal problem is often the controlling decision factor.

For example, many consumers are still unaware of the fact that the US Legal Services Corporation has subsidized the creation of free automated legal forms available to people of all income levels that are available for  free from a network of state-based legal information and legal document web sites. These free legal form services have no budget for marketing, certainly nothing like the $40 million a year that LegalZoom's spends on marketing and advertising.

These legal forms are  fully automated, web-enabled, automated,easy to use, and often employ a visual graphical interface to help users navigate through online questions and courthouse procedures. The program is not limited to low- income people.

Even without a marketing budget, last year more than 500,000 legal forms were downloaded by users in 34 states using this program. This transactional volume already exceeds LegalZoom's annual volume and it is increasing as more legal forms are automated and the number of states participating in this program increases.

State courts have also jumped into the free legal forms market in response to the demands of pro se filers looking for free legal help. See for example Online Court Assistance in Utah and Maryland Family Law Forms.

Even the US Bankruptcy courts are prototyping a free online set of Chapter 7 bankruptcy forms to be used by self-filers. This service will eventually be rolled out nationwide to every US Bankruptcy Court Website.

I can think of other ways that the development and distribution of free automated legal forms can be monetized, without the need to charge a transactional fee to the consumer. (This is the subject of a future blog post).

Free legal forms are here and the supply is expanding. Lawyer's won't like the fact, any more than LegalZoom, that this development will disrupt their business models. The reality is that both kinds of suppliers of legal solutions will have to accept the challenge of the accelerated pace of technological change.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

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 MyLawyer.com, a smart legal forms Website, 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.

LegalZoom is a trademark of LegalZoom, Inc.

Legal Forms for the Price of a Song on iTunes?*

Legal forms, without the legal advice or assistance of a lawyer, continue to decline in value. As a pure digital product, a legal form follows the price curve of other digital goods eventually approaching zero.  Several new start-ups in the legal industry will accelerate this trend.

Docracy is a new legal document start-up, founded by Matt Hall and John Watkinson, that grew out of a TechCrunch Disrupt Hackathon in New York City. The idea is to provide a free depository of legal documents that meets the needs of small business and start-ups which are crowd sourced by individuals who register for the site. The concept is to provide an open source site for legal documents in the same way that GitHub is an open source site for code. The company is venture funded First Round Capital, Vaizra Seed Fund, Quotidian Ventures and Rick Webb by a group of investors who see opportunity in disrupting the legal profession. The documents are largely flat forms (MS Word or Adobe .PDF File format), with quality control provided by the "community." It's not clear yet what the business model for this site will be. Online signing of legal documents is coming.

A second legal document start-up has emerged out of the New York City start-up web scene called Paperlex  .  Paperlex is also targeting the small business market. This site will contain standardized legal documents that can be modified within the web browser. A user will be able to store all of their documents online in their own private and secure web space, will be able to collaborate with third parties, and will have the capacity to execute/sign documents online.

Rather than crowd sourcing the legal form content, Paperlex will provide their own libraries of standard forms. Alison Anthoine, Esq., the CEO and Founder, hopes to provide an accessible legal document portal that small business can easily use with their customers and other parties at a cost that is much less that the cost of a custom document crafted by an attorney. The business model for Paperlex is a Saas subscription service provided for a low monthly fee.

DocStoc is another document repository that includes not only collections of legal documents, but collections of documents in other categories as well, such as human resource, travel, and personal finance documents. Documents are for free or can be purchased. The site is also built on crowd sourcing principles. Users can contribute documents and sell them through the site, with DocStoc taking a cut. Most documents are not automated and are provided in either MS Word or Adobe .PDF file format. However, a new feature called "custom documents" enables the user to answer an online questionnaire which generates a more customized document. The user can view the assembled document before making a decision to purchase a monthly subscription.Monthly subscriptions range from $9.95 a month to $39.95. The site claims to have 20,000,000 users.

Docstoc, Inc., was founded by Jason Nazar (bio) and Alon Shwartz (bio). The company was selected in September of 2007 to debut its product at the prestigious TechCrunch40 Conference. The platform was subsequently launched to the public in October 2007.

Docstoc is a venture backed company (Rustic Canyon) and received funding from the co-founders/investors in MySpace, LowerMyBills, Mp3.com, PriceGrabber and Baidu.

WhichDraft.com , founded by Jason and Geoff Anderman, brothers, and both attorneys, offers free contracts that can be assembled within the web browser. Legal documents can be easily shared with third parties, and you can build your  own Question and Answer templates. A nice feature enables a user the compare any two versions to see new and deleted text in the fee legal form. 

By A Legal Forms PLan frm MyLawyer.comMyLawyer.com, our  own consumer legal document portal, also offers legal document plans that are libraries of automated legal documents that when purchased in a bundle are less than the cost of a song on iTunes*.

 

 

In the nonprofit sector, LawHelp Interactive, a unit of LawHelp.org,with funding from the Legal Services Corporation, [ See Technology Initiative Grants ] has been working with a legal aid agencies nationwide to help the automate legal forms and publish them to state-wide legal form web sites which are available to any one within the state. The program is not limited to low income people. Hundreds of thousands of free legal forms are now created annually in more than 34 states. LSC has invested millions of dollars in the development of interactive legal form sites over the past 9 years.

Courts have also jumped into the free legal forms distribution game in response to the hoards of pro-se filers looking for free legal help. See for example: Online Court Assistance Program in Utah and Maryland Family Law Forms .

These free legal form web sites raise some interesting questions about the future role of the attorney and the changing nature of law practice.  What role will the lawyer play in this changing environment?  What is the impact of these relatively new sources of free or low cost legal forms on law practice, particularly the practice of solo and small law firms? Our own research provides support for the fact that solos and small law firms will continue to loose market share to these new providers.

"Unbundling" legal services by providing legal advice and legal document review for legal forms that clients secure from another source, may be a way of expanding access to the legal system, but it is also disruptive of law firm business models,  just like iTunes* was disruptive of the bundled album approach of the music industry. Value is shifting from the lawyer to the consumer and non-lawyer providers of legal forms. I can hear the sucking sound as law firm business models collapse.

Some questions to think about:

  • What risk do consumers and small business assume when they use a legal form without the advice or review of an attorney? The answer depends on the type of form, its complexity and the complexity of the transaction. If a user represents themselves in their own relatively simple name change, and their name gets changed by the court successfully,  then one can assume that self-representation worked.
     
  • But what about a Shareholder's Agreement, where terms have to be negotiated, and the standard document doesn't include the particular language required by the parties to reflect their intent? Should the parties now draft their own language? Should the parties simply ignore the need to include special language that reflects their intent hoping that there will be no situation in the future that will create a conflict between the shareholders because of a failure to include the language?
     
  • Who should negotiate the terms of the Agreement? The lawyer or the principal? Who would do the better job? How much shuld be charged for a successful negotiation?
     
  • How should the lawyer price services, when the client comes to the lawyer with their own standardized form and asks the lawyer to review it?
     
  • Will the lawyer refuse to serve the client, unless the client uses the lawyer's form or document?
     
  • How important is the insurance that a lawyer provides that the document or form is valid for the purpose intended, accurate, and reflects the intent of the parties?
     
  • Lets assume that the 85% of the legal form content in many categories of documents is identical. [ This is what Kingsley Martin from KIIAC has concluded and he should know ! ] But 15% consisted of critical variable language not susceptible to easy document automation. Should the attorney charge on a fixed price for the entire project as if she drafted the entire agreement, although she only worked on several paragraphs? If the agreement fails because the variable paragraphs are incorrect for the particular case, why shouldn't the attorney charge as if she he worked on the entire agreement?

If you have thought about these questions, and have some ideas on the impact of free legal forms on the legal industry, please share them here.

Document Automation as  DisruptuveTechnology

 

*iTunes is a trademark of Apple, Inc.

 

What Lawyers Can Learn From LegalZoom

Unless you've been asleep for the last five years, you have probably heard of LegalZoom, the California-based, non-lawyer legal document preparation company that claims it has delivered over 1,000,000 wills to consumers, and that it is the largest incorporation company in the country.

LegalZoom is only one of hundreds of Internet-based legal form web sites that have emerged during the last 10 years and which are eating away at the market share of solos and small law firms. LegalZoom has been challenged by some state bars with the unauthorized practice of law, but hasn’t lost a case yet. They are serving thousands of customers who ordinarily would be served by solos and small law firms. They must be doing something that is in demand because they continue to grow at the expense of solos and small law firms.

LegalZoom, and non-lawyer legal form web sites like it, have a business model that consists of the following elements:

  • A legal service delivered purely over the Internet;
  • No physical offices, and thus no extensive rental costs to pass on to customers;
  • Limited services offered at a fixed price that can be easily compared with other providers including law firms;
  • The use of web-enabled document automation technology to reduce costs and increase productivity;
  • A secure customer portal where clients can execute legal tasks in their own personalized web space;
  • Access on their web site to thousands of pages of free legal information on hundreds of subjects;
  • Money-back guarantees to comfort consumers; and
  • Reliance on informed consumers to do part of the work, often called co-production, such as filing their own documents or executing their documents on their own based on provided instructions to keep costs down.

Consumers don’t seem to care that they are not dealing with a law firm. As lawyers, we know the service they are selling is risky for consumers, but for consumers it delivers a “good enough” result. LegalZoom would not be growing at this fast a rate if they weren’t offering something that consumers want and value.


How to Compete Against Legal Zoom and Other Non-Lawyer Providers

In the new, competitive environment that solos and small law firms face in the current economy, the keys to law firm survival are to expand the strategic options available by opening new client markets, reducing the cost of services, and delivering legal services in a way that distinguishes your firm from other firms in the pack. These strategic options should be mixed with more traditional approaches to differentiation such as specialization within a niche practice area.

It is time for solos and small law firms that offer personal legal services to the broad middle class to rethink their law firm business models. There are many opportunities for incorporating some of the elements of the LegalZoom business model into a more traditional law practice.

To name a few:

  • Consider offering "unbundled" limited legal services at a fixed price, both on-line and off-line;
  • Leverage a reputation in your local community and a physical office into an on-line brand that is both local to your community and extends throughout your state;
  • Add virtual law office functionality to your web site so that your clients can have the option of interacting with you on-line;
  • Figure out ways of using Internet-based technologies, such as web-enabled document automation to strip out costs from your overhead structure increasing profitability;
  • Figure out how to segment the market offering lower priced services for more routine matters in order to build trust so that when a client has amore complex problems they will turn to you for assistance;
  • Emphasize all of the advantages of using an attorney over a non-lawyer forms provider in your marketing materials and your elevator speech. Click here to see one such comparison.
  • Use web-based technologies to respond to both prospects and clients within hours rather than days.
  • Reduce the perceived risk that consumers have in retaining a lawyer by increasing transparency and structuring forms of performance guarantees.
  • Adopt project management technologies to better estimate costs and fees on more complex projects, translating that data into communications that clients understand.

The current depressed economy and its affect on the broad middle class is not going to change tomorrow. It is likely that solos and small law firms, will have to adjust to new pricing and market realities in the future as competition from non-lawyer providers of legal solutions continues to increase. Large law firms serving large corporations may be immune from these developments, at least for a few years any way, but the fact that Big Law is changing relatively slowly should not mask the rapid changes happening to solos and small law firm practitioners that serve consumers and small business.

I heard a report the other day that the volume of wills and estates practice in one state declined by 50% during the past year. I predict that this trend will continue and not reverse itself, despite any improvements in the economy.

Some commentators think that the monopoly will hold. History and the experience of other countries in deregulating the legal profession suggests otherwise.


Welcome to the "new normal."
 

On-Line Wills: Web Forms Only vs. Lawyer Services

Last week the New York Times, in it's Your Money column,  did an evaluation of non-lawyer legal form sites that offer wills on-line, including products offered by Legal Zoom and Nolo. The author concluded that a lawyer can still be very helpful:

"... a computer program can’t ask you about your family relationships or tease out complex dynamics, like your daughter’s rocky marriage."

"Still, the biggest risk might be summed up by Phillip J. Kenny, a lawyer in McLean, Va., who said that one client came back to him after looking at a software package and said, “I don’t know what I don’t know.”

A subsequent blog post in the New York Times Bucks  Blog that is linked to the column, discussed emerging online services that provide a lawyer review, or lawyer preparation of a will for a fixed price.  Services that were mentioned include: RocketLawyer, Nolo's Lawyer Directory, and DirectLaw's virtual law firm service for solos and small law firms. The MyLawyer.com web site, that wasn't mentioned,  is another example of a web site that links consumers to law firms that offer "unbundled legal services" over the Internet.

The lawyer review and lawyer assisted document preparation services are an example of how lawyers are learning from non-lawyer web sites to "productize" their services in a way that makes their legal services affordable to a wider range of consumers increasing their market penetration.

If more solos and small law firms followed the lead of the law firms delivering affordable online legal services, eventually the market share erosion from non-lawyer providers would diminish. More importantly, the legal profession could retain and consolidate its dominant position as the primary provider of legal services to the broad middle class. That's a big "if". At this point solos and small law firms continue to lose market share to new market entrants, despite the legal profession's UPL rules.

 

DirectLaw is Becoming an Open and Multi-Sided Platform for Virtual Law Firms

The DirectLaw Virtual Law Platform is evolving into what is called a multi-sided and open platform. Our latest feature enables the sales of non-Rapidocs documents and HOTDOCS templates, in addition to Rapidocs automated document templates.

We added this functionality in response to our #1 question from law firms -- "Can I use my own documents?" While this option doesn't have the benefits and efficiencies that our libraries of Rapidocs-based documents provide -- i.e., clients won't be immediately presented with an on-line Questionnaire that will automatically create their docs – firms now have the flexibility to easily put their own documents on the "menu" and convert them to sales.

Moreover, beginning in mid-June, 2010, law firms who have invested in automating their legal forms and documents in HOTDOCS for use on the desktop will be able to serve HOTDOCS Questionnaires through the Web browser via the DirectLaw Platform and charge clients for legal forms bundled with legal advice. We are also in the process of identifying other legal applications created by independent developers that can be served from DirectLaw’s Virtual Law Firm Platform.

The launch of our new consumer portal, MyLawyer.com, provides another side to DirectLaw’s Virtual Law Firm Platform. MyLawyer.com contains a searchable Law Firm Directory, legal information, legal tools such as calculators, and a limited number of free legal forms. 

The inclusion of free legal forms enhances DirectLaw's ability to promote the site most effectively through search engines.  DirectLaw also markets this site via press releases and articles/interviews in relevant media channels to drive traffic to DirectLaw’s network of virtual law firm web sites.  

Designed around the concept of limited ("unbundled") legal services, MyLawyer.com compares the differences between limited legal services provided through a law firm vs. a non-lawyer entity like LegalZoom.com

Consumers can easily search for a law firm in their state offering on-line, unbundled legal services, clicking directly through to the firm's MyLegalAffairs "menu of services". 

RocketLawyer Raises More Venture Capital

RocketLawyer, a consumer portal linked to a network of law firms has announced that they have secured $6.55 million out of a $7.55 million funding round, according to a regulatory filing.  This is in addition to an initial $2.9 million investment by LexisNexis. It would be interesting to know RocketLawyer's valuation. If the $7.55 million bought 25% of the firm, then RocketLawyer, would be worth upwards of $30,000,000, post-money. If RocketLawyer is generating $6.000,000 in annual volume, then the valuation would be 5 x revenue. Sounds pretty rich. Typically valuations are confidential, but this information could shed some light on how hot the "Software as a Service" legal industry is. 

Dan Nye, former CEO of LinkedIn, has assumed the role of CEO, replacing Charley Moore, the founder of RocketLawyer., who remains as Chairman. (I guess the old adage that the first thing that a VC does when investing in a company is to replace the CEO is true!).

It will be interesting to see how RocketLawyer scales its operation with this funding, and how it develops a strategy to differentiate itself from AVVO and LegalZoom.  As AVVO adds functions to link consumers with lawyers, and as LegalZoom moves towards expanding its referrals to law firms for consumers that need the assistance of lawyers, one can see a certain amount of convergence in these sites. Of course, neither RocketLawyer nor LegalZoom, actually rate or evaluate lawyers, so in my opinion, gives AVVO an upper hand.

Our own legal consumer portal at MyLawyer.com also offers to link consumers to law firms, but the MyLawyer.com Directory only contains virtual law firms that offer legal services online, a niche which we believe will continue to grow. MyLawyer.com's free legal forms and legal documents service is a disruptive move designed to undercut the RocketLawyer and LegalZoom, approach that a consumer should have to pay for a legal form. (Although, our own experience has demonstrated that consumers really like the idea of a person reviewing and creating a legal document even though the person is not a lawyer and can't function as much more than a "scrivener." )

Like "open source" code we believe that the cost of legal forms on the web will continue to decline until pricing approaches zero, and that the real value add while be an attorney's advice and review when it is needed. For an elaboration on this theory, see generally, Chris Anderson' work on , Free - the Future of a Radical Price.  Once a person's situation becomes a bit more complex that the simplest fact situation, it is arguable that some form of legal advice and guidance is required.