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.
Welcome to the "new normal."