New Center For Law Practice Technology

Center for Law Practice TechnologyThere has been much discussion lately on whether law schools are training lawyers for 21st century law practice. At the ABA Annual Meeting this week in San Francisco a Presidential Task Force on the Future of Legal Education is scheduled to report out its recommendations.. In my last blog post, I identified 13 law schools that were making a commitment to training law students in legal technology and law practice management. At one point in my career,  I taught these subjects at several law schools under the guidance of Gary Munneke., -- whose untimely death last November has created a vacuum that will be hard to replace.

My own bias is that in this digital age, to be a competent lawyer requires an understanding of legal practice technology. The ABA supports this view as at last year's mid-year meeting the ABA House of Delegates  acting on the recommendations of the ABA 20/20 Commission, voted to amend the Model Rules of Professional Conduct to make clear that lawyers have a duty to be competent in technology. Specifically, the ABA voted to amend the comment to Model Rule 1.1, governing lawyer competence, to say that, in addition to keeping abreast of changes in the law and its practice, a lawyer should keep abreast of “the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology.”

Center for Law Practice TchnologyI have been looking for an opportunity to getting back into teaching law practice technology and now have the opportunity with Stephanie Kimbro to create a new Center for Law Practice Technology with the backing of Florida Coastal School of Law in Jacksonville, Florida.

Stephanie and I will become Co-Directors of this new Center. and the plan is to develop a series of online courses for law students nationwide  that will lead to a Certificate of Law Practice Technology and Management. The first courses will be offered in January, 2014.

The Center will also be a laboratory for developing and testing new forms of online legal services.  Students will have the opportunity to experience virtual law firm technologies and other emerging technology tools such as legal expert systems, document automation technology, and legal applications that are designed to increase access to the legal system. You can read more about this new Center here.

Is Axiom Law a Law Firm?

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

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

For example:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two final questions for consideration:

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

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

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

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

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.

Best Practice Guidelines for Legal Document Service Providers

Legal Documents On-LineThe American Bar Association’s eLawyering Task Force has compiled a draft set of best practice guidelines for legal document providers, which can be downloaded here*.  

An increasingly popular – and controversial – category of service providers are those that supply customer-specific documents over the Internet, using interactive software and/or human resources, without purporting to be engaged in the practice of law. There are literally hundreds of these legal documents Web sites. More of these legal document Web sites launch every month, of not every week on the Internet.

 

These Web sites include for example:

The Task Force believes that there are common principles that ought to guide these legal document sites, and practices that consumers should be able to expect.  The  eLawyering Task Force  also recognizes that consumers have different levels of knowledge in meeting their documentation needs.  Some believe, for instance, that it is simply a matter of getting “the” right form, and pay little attention to careful drafting and appropriate execution.  Others have a more sophisticated understanding of options and implications. Nevertheless there should be baseline expectations that meets the needs of all kinds of users. The goal is not to issue a "seal off approval" of these legal document Web sites. The objective is to encourage these Web sites to use acknowledged "best practices" in the development and delivery of their services.

These guidelines do not take a position on whether certain document services may constitute the unauthorized practice of law in certain jurisdictions if not performed by a licensed attorney, other than to urge providers to know and observe applicable law on that thorny subject.

The primary purpose is to aid consumers in making informed decisions about what they are buying.

Comments on these Guidelines are invited. They can be submitted on the eLawyering Task Force ListServ which any lawyer can join, Click here.

 

Hyatt Regency Incline Village Lake Taho, CaliforniaThe eLawyering Task Force is having a Quarterly Meeting at he Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe Resort, Spa and Casino on Friday, October 19, 2012 between 9:00 - 11:00 A,M,

This is an open meeting and individuals who want to submit comments on these Guidelines are invited to attend and participate.

Additional Conference details can be found here.

 

 

*(Disclosure: I am Co-Chair of the eLawyering Task Force. The Co-Chair of the Task Force is Marc Lauitsen, of Capstone Practice Systems, who is providing leadership to this project.)

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

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  DirectLaw, a virtual law firm platform provider and SmartLegalForms, a web-based legal document 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.

 

 

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. 

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

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

Does JustAnswer.com Provide Legal Advice Online? Is this Site Ethically Compliant?

Just Answer is a question and answer platform that provides answers to users questions for a flat fee of approximately $30.00 per question. It turns out that one of the fastest growing categories within JustAnswer is the answering of legal questions by lawyers.  

Here are other the JustAnswer terms and conditions that apply to lawyers that participate in this service:

"Experts in the Legal categories must be attorneys licensed to practice law, and be
in good standing in at least one jurisdiction in the United States or foreign
country. Such Experts shall provide general information only, such as providing
descriptions of general principles of law, and shall not provide legal advice. In
responding to questions, Experts in the Legal Category shall not apply their legal knowledge or skills to resolve or advise on the Customer's specific factual circumstances described in the question, such as by proposing a specific course of action (other than advising the User to seek the advice of an attorney licensed to practice in the relevant jurisdiction). Experts in the Legal Category shall not form an attorney-client relationship on the Site."

To be qualified to answer questions as a lawyer within the JustAnswer platform, the lawyer has to take a test in the practice area and meet other qualification standards.

Disclosure: I answer legal questions on the JustAnswer.com website in my capacity as an attorney and a member of the Maryland Bar.

The Website is very well executed. Users can select from a panel of lawyers that are online at the time that the question is asked. You can name your price - indicate what you are willing to pay for an answer. You can see the credentials of the lawyers and their track record in answering questions, communications are secure and confidential, and the user can indicate the urgency of the answer, and the level of detail required. Answers are 100% guaranteed. If you are not satisfied you get your money back. You can select the State that you are located in, so answers can be state specific. Most questions are answered within minutes.

I have yet to see a state bar association offer such a service with the same level of Website sophistication and quality control.

 

JustAnswer.com is not a law firm, but retains part of the fee paid by the user, and pays a portion of the fee to the lawyer who answers the question, provided the user is satisfied with the answer. JustAnswer.com claims that this fee splitting between a law firm and a non-law firm does not violate the Rules of Professional Conduct because the answers are "legal information" and not  "legal advice". See previous blog post on LawPivot and this fee-splitting issue -- and a method of getting around the prohibition against fee-splitting.

A recent ethics opinion by the Ethics Advisory Committee of the South Carolina Bar, however, concluded that the JustAnswer website was not ethically compliant and advised South Carolina attorneys not to participate in the service. See opinion here.

The Opinion is worth reading, because it is likely that if other bar association ethical committees were presented with the question of JustAnswer's ethical compliance they would reach the same conclusion. Lawyer's who participate in ventures that are not ethically compliant expose themselves to liability and bar censure.

One key conclusion reached by the Committee is that the JustAnswer Website is providing legal advice not just legal information:

Because this specific website asks lawyers to provide specific legal advice in response to detailed questions, it is substantively inviting the creation of attorney-client relationships despite its likely ineffective attempts to disclaim them. Initial boilerplate responses to questions include requests for “more details about your situation” and the advice provided is often specific and contains legal conclusions based on application of the law to the facts presented. At a minimum, justanswer.com provides, not just question-and-answer, but a specific question-and-paid-professional-answer service that removes it from the radio call-in show/public seminar paradigm described in prior advisory opinions and is irreconcilable with the site’s disclaimers.

Therefore a lawyer participating in JustAnswer.com would be violating the prohibition against splitting fees with a non-lawyer. Other advertising statements on the JustAnswer Website would also cause the lawyer to violate South Carolina's lawyer advertising rules, by attribution. The bottom line is that the Committee recommended that lawyers who are members of the South Carolina bar should not participate in this service.

Comment:

The South Carolina's Ethics Committee's interpretation of its rules as they apply to the JustAnswer Website is not unreasonable and a straight forward analysis of undisputed facts about the way the service operates. Yet there is obviously a great demand for this service, and consumers have few alternatives to get answers to their legal questions for a reasonable flat fee online.

This situation is changing as law firms figure out how to deliver "unbundled" legal services online using virtual law firm platforms like DirectLaw and VirtualLawDirect.  Yet very few law firms offer this kind of service directly to consumers online - also known as "unbundled" legal services.

When lawyers do provide answers to consumers questions they usually do so through a third party Web portal like JustAnswer.com. The problem with participating in a third party portal is that:
(1) the portal may suffer from the same ethical issues as JustAnswer; and
(2) often the consumer can not connect with the lawyer directly so the potential for future work for the lawyer is not an option.

A list of other online legal advice portal websites can be found here.

Consumers seem very satisfied with the JustAnswer service. There is high demand for it. There is no empirical evidence of consumer harm.

Maybe its time to change the rules that regulate the legal profession so lawyers can serve the real needs of consumers at a price they can afford? Just to note, the United Kingdom has no such rule structure that constrains the delivery of legal advice by lawyers or non-lawyers, and there is no evidence of consumer harm in that country.

___________________________________________________________________________

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  DirectLaw, a virtual law firm platform provider that supports the delivery of "limited legal services.". I participate as an attorney n the JustAnswer.com website. 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. 

 

My Experience with LawPivot: An Online Legal Advice Service

LawPIvotLawPivot, is a Silicon Valley legal industry start-up,  a new breed of online legal advice Web site that provides legal answers through a network of attorneys. Sometimes the legal advice or legal information is free like AVVO and LAWQA,  and sometimes you pay a fee, which LawPivot and JustAnswer require. See more:  American Bar Association Journal article on LawPivot.

I had a technical, corporate legal question that I needed a quick answer to, so I decided to try LawPivot's Confidential Question and Answer Service, pay their fee, and see how well it worked. I knew that LawPivot has a pretty extensive panel of corporate lawyers, so I thought this would be a good starting place. Because my question involved a technical question, I think  if I had asked our regular outside counsel I probably would have generated a $450.00 legal fee and a long memo -- which I really didn't need at this point.

Instead for  $49.00, I received within 24 hours 8 answers from as many lawyers.  Of the 8 answers I received, I marked 5 as not helpful for my purposes. But 3 were very much on target, and one answer was exactly what I was looking for.

This service is "Confidential", but no attorney/client relationship is created, and the answers are supposed to be "legal information" rather than "legal advice",  The reality is that what I received was pretty good legal advice that applied to the particular facts of my situation.

Overall the site was very easy to use and I was very satisfied with the result. I think that even if I were not an attorney with experience in corporate law, I would have been able to recognize which answer to my question was the correct one. I am not sure that this would always be the case, so my conclusion is that this kind of online service for the average user is a starting point for more research, not an end point. The service helps you make a decision whether you need to retain an attorney for additional assistance. This is a good example of the use of the Internet to deliver "unbundled" legal services at an affordable fee.

The Ethical Issues

LawPivot makes clear that they do not share any fees with an attorney. The site also makes clear that it is not a legal referral service and that it does not promote any particular attorney. LawPivot properly avoids making claims about the lawyers in their network such as they are "the best", highly specialized in their fields", or the most experienced lawyers in their specialty.

Apparently, lawyers are ranked by an algorithm  on how well and promptly they answer questions. Whether this technology violates traditional legal referral rules, which prohibits profit-making organizations to be in the legal referral business, is the subject of a future blog post. 

Is LawPivot, as a non-law firm, permitted to charge a fee for legal advice? Is this the unauthorized practice if law? Not if the fee is paid by the user for the use of the Web site, and not for the legal answer or legal advice itself. There is a bar association opinion that holds that a Web site may charge a user for the user of the Website, when purchasing a legal service, and that this fee is not a fee for the legal service itself. See for example, Nassau County OK's Tie with Americounsel.

In the AmeriCounsel scheme, which dates back to 2000, the Nassau County Bar concluded that:

"[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 Cod of Professional Responsibility, and by ethics opinions interpreting the Code."

I think this opinion is still good law.

However, LawPivot has been forced to create a business model, based on a work-around of a Rule of Professional Conduct that no longer serves any useful purpose.

In my opinion,  a regulatory scheme that enables private companies to take a share of the legal fee for referring client work to law firms would have a positive benefit.  It would result in providing more resources to the Web provider so that it could develop more nuanced quality control systems, more extensive marketing programs,and invest in innovative client referral systems. The prohibition on splitting fees between non-law firms and law firms doesn't serve the purpose for which the rule was originally designed -- to discourage "ambulance-chasing."

In fact, the ABA's Standing Committee on the Delivery of Legal Services most recently sent a letter to the ABA Ethics 20/20 Commission recommending that Rule 7 (2) (b) be eliminated. 

Model Professional Rule (7) (2) (b) states:

(b) A lawyer shall not give anything of value for the recommendation of the lawyer’s
services except that the lawyer may:
 (my emphasis).
(1) pay the reasonable costs of advertisements or communications permitted by this Rule;
(2) pay the usual charges of a legal service plan or a not-for-profit or qualified lawyer
referral service. A qualified lawyer referral service is a lawyer referral service that has been
approved by an appropriate regulatory authority;
(3) pay for a law practice in accordance with Rule 1.17;

 

Comment [5] to the Rule merely states, “Lawyers are not permitted to pay others for channeling professional work."

The Standing Committee's letter to the Ethics 20/20 Commission states: 

"The comment provides no rationale for this conclusion, which frankly is a position swallowed by the Rule’s exceptions. Law directories have channeled legal services for well over a hundred years. Lawyer referral services have channeled work to lawyers since the mid-twentieth century. Prepaid legal services have channeled work to lawyers for nearly 50 years. Public relations and marketing have joined lawyer advertising as vehicles that channel work since the Supreme Court ruled that states could not prohibit lawyer advertisements in 1977. Law firms providing services to corporations and institutions have in-house marketing staff, some of whom are paid well into six-figures, for the purpose of channeling professional work to their firms. And most recently, we have seen a proliferation of online third-party intermediaries that in some instances defy categorization as advertisements or referral services. Intermediaries are discussed in detail below, but suffice it to say here that the channeling of professional services in the marketplace in and of itself is not inherently inappropriate. Collectively, these mechanisms create access to legal services for potential clients of all economic strata. They are, however, most important for those of moderate or middle class individuals who infrequently use of the services of a lawyer and need the information provided by these resources to help them make the decisions about the legal services most appropriate for them. "

The Ethics 20/20 Commission gave no serious consideration to the Standing Committee's proposal so this reform is dead for the foreseeable future -- unfortunately. 

The problem with Rule (7)(2)(b) is that it has been made irrelevant by the Internet and arguably is a deterrent to innovation in devising new ways of enabling consumers to access legal services. This is a Professional Rule that chills innovation, rather than preventing consumer harm.

AmeriCounsel failed as a company because it could not generate sufficient cash flow as it was limited to charging a relatively small administrative fees for use of the Web site, as distinguished from earning larger fees that could result from channeling work to lawyer's in their network.

I hope that LawPivot does not suffer the same fate as AmeriCounsel.
 

May the LegalForce Be With You!

 Raj AbhyankerHere is a tale of an exceptional entrepreneur/solo lawyer who has built a thriving Internet-based law practice of large scale in less than seven years. Raj Abhyanker, 37,  started his law practice in Palo Alto in a small office above a rug store in 2005 (sounds like many Palo Alto start-ups like Apple and Google!). The law firm's focus is patent and trademark law which is Mr. Abhyanker’s specialty.  

In September, 2009, Mr Abhyanker launched a web site called Trademarkia which is designed to help small business secure a trademark for an affordable fee. Trademarkia contains an easy to search data base of all of the trademarks of the USPTO office. The site has been written up in the New York Times.

Little more than two year after launch,  Trademarkia has become the leading trademark site on the Web generating more than as 1,000,000 visitors a month, more than either LegalZoom or RocketLawyer.  The law firm now employs more than 60 lawyers, including a team of lawyers in India trained in U.S. trademark law.

This is an example of how a single lawyer with a deep knowledge of the power of the Internet, together with a background in knowledge process management and outsourcing, can create a world-class enterprise from nothing in a relatively short period of time.

Quality Solicitors in the United KingdomMr. Abhyanker is now moving his concept to a new level by creating LegalForce,  a new national legal services retail brand, similar to the Quality Solicitors concept in the UK.

Quality Solicitors
is a national network of retail offices serving consumers and small business by linking together a network of small law firms that share a common brand, advertising and marketing budgets, and an online presence. Mr Abhyanker's goal is to create a Quality Solicitors type network in the United States.

Legal force Law CenterLegalForce is creating, in a historically-preserved building, a retail law center in downtown Palo Alto in the heart of Silicon Valley, (right across the street from the new Apple store on University Ave.)  The LegalForce center is set to open in the Fall of 2012.

Mr. Abhyanker's idea is to create a physical space, that is as much about education as it is about "retail", like an Apple Store. In this innovative legal space clients can meet with their lawyers in a comfortable and non-formal setting. Like Starbuck's "Third Place"  consumers and small business entrepreneurs will be able to meet their lawyer's in a casual friendly environment. Part coffee bar, self-help book store, legal education and  legal research center, the idea is that a LegalForce center will be a nexus where people can connect and get to meet their lawyers in an accessible environment. Legal services won't actually be delivered from the store - instead the store will be designed as a gateway to legal and other related services and the visible manifestation of a national retail legal services brand.

There have been other attempts to create a physical retail space where clients can meet with their lawyers in a comfortable and accessible environment. LegalGrind, based in Santa Monica, Los Angeles, advertises coffee with your counsel, but has never been able to expand beyond a few locations. Chicago has their LegalCafe, which is a similar concept, but remains a limited operation. 

My opinion is that the failure of these two operations to scale is the absence of an online strategy which offers legal services over the Internet as well as in a physical setting.

Unlike these smaller operations, Mr. Abhyanker plans to create a national branded legal service that links together lawyers working in the real world with a powerful online legal service strategy.

Unlike a typical law firm, Mr Abhyanker employs a team of software engineers capable of creating an innovative Internet legal services delivery platform that can create referrals for law firms that are members of the LegalForce network.

LegalForce  has the promise of creating a true national retail legal services brand that will offer a range of legal services – from limited legal services online to full service legal representation.

I have often thought that what serves consumers best is a business model that combines a strong online presence with lawyers who provide a full range of services within their own communities.

Online legal form web sites, like LegalZoom, CompleteCase,  RocketLawyer, and our own SmartLegalForms, are limited in scope.These are alternatives that consumers choose because (1) there is no existing national trusted legal service brand; and (2) consumers don't understand what they are not getting when they purchase just a form from a non-law firm.

The LegalForce idea is designed to be a counter-force to these online insurgents which are capturing market share from the legal profession.

It will be interesting to see how this LegalForce idea develops and whether Mr. Abhyanker will be successful in this venture. LegalForce is one to watch.

 Free White Paper- Virtual Law Practice: Success FActors

Get Free White Paper on
What Makes a Virtual Law Practice Work.

LegalZoom: The "Good Enough" Legal Solution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Book on Limited Scope Legal Services from Stephanie Kimbro

Limited Scope Legal Services: Unbundling and the Self Hep ClientStephanie Kimbro, a virtual solo practitioner based in North Carolina and a member of the ABA's eLawyering Task Force,  has authored a new book on Limited Scope Legal Services- Unbundling and the Self-Help Client, published by the Law Practice Management Section of the American Bar Association.

The book is "must reading" for solo practitioners and lawyers in small firms who want to expand the reach of their legal services to serve an expanding latent market for legal services plus provide innovative and responsive legal services to existing clients.

The original book on this subject, also published by ABA/LPM, was written by Forest "Woody" Mosten, who is considered the "Father of Unbundling" in 2000. That was 12 years ago, before the ascendency of the Internet. A lot has happened in 12 years. Kimbro's book up-dates the original concept and explains clearly how these ideas can be used ito create new on-line business models for law firms.

When you combine the power of the Internet as a delivery platform,  with the idea of limited scope representation, new "unbundled legal services"  can be created that can be sold to clients in volume over a wide geographical area. The Internet takes the idea of "unbundling" to an entire new level. An example is the packaging of highly specialized legal forms with legal advice for a fixed legal fee that are sold through out a state. Long Tail marketing concepts apply when selling specialized legal services to a niche market and are compatible with the idea of limited scope legal representation.

Like Kimbro's earlier work on Virtual Law Practice,  this new book is a manual filled with relevant case studies, explanations, and other resources that help a lawyer figure out out how limited scope representation could be applied to an individual practice. It should be on the book shelf of every lawyer who is thinking about ways to compete with non-lawyer companies like LegalZoom - which in effect has taken the idea of "unbundling" to an extreme by simply "unbundling" the lawyer completely out of the legal document creation process. [ LegalZoom is not a law firm, in case you haven't heard.]

The book comes with useful check lists, discussions of best practices, a discussion of the pros and cons of "unbundling" , a discussion of ethical rules that apply, a chapter devoted to marketing unbundled legal services, sample limited retainer agreements, and a sampling of state by state ethics rules that apply to limited scope representation with citations back to the relevant state statutes. This is only the tip of the iceberg. With this single book, a practitioner has enough information to develop a viable business plan for offering limited scope legal services.

If Woody Mosten is been considered the"Father of Unbundling" than Stephanie Kimbro has earned the title of "Mother of Unbundling." 

Buy this book!.

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.

The Online Bar Association Meets 04/29-05/01 in Coral Gables, Fl

A new international bar association was formed last year, based in Miami, Florida, called the Online Bar Association. It is an eclectic group of attorneys some based in the United States and many based internationally, who have come together around a common interest - the online delivery of legal services.

The first inaugural meeting is this weekend, April 29-May 1, 2011 at the Westin Colanade Hotel in Coral Gables, Florida.  Here is information about the meeting and the agenda.

Future of Legal Education

Last week I was privileged to attend a Conference on the Future of Education, sponsored by New York Law School and Harvard Law School. This conference was the third in a series on this subject. The purpose of this conference is to initiate a conversation among and between law schools on how to make legal education better, cheaper, and faster, as Dean of New York Law School, Richard Matasar frames the issue. Personally, I think that Matasar's presentation on the problems and prospects for legal education was the best that I have ever heard.

The format for the conference was a series of presentations of very inventive proposals presented by teams of legal educators and other legal specialists, mostly academics, 12 teams in all.

As participants, we each had $1,000,000 to spend as if we were venture capitalist's listening to start-up pitches.

The team that I was part of actually won the competition, by receiving the most "venture capital" dollars. Credit goes to  Ron Staudt from Chicago-Kent Law School and Marc Lauritsen from Capstone Practice who did the heavy lifting on developing the proposal. The proposed project called for law students in clinical programs to be engaged in the development of "Apps for Justice" that could be used by legal service programs to provide tools for access to justice. The title of the project is "Learning Law by Creating Software"  Click here for a copy of the proposal.

Marc and Ron receiving their $10,700,000 check.

Ron Staudt and MArc Lauritsen

 

DAvid Johnson receiving his venture capital investment

David Johnson from New York Law School won second place for a proposal to create "legal apps" that are games that would be used to teach and learn. The "State of Play" Academy.

Click here for a link to many of the other proposals.

 

How safe and secure is your law practice environment?

A new nonprofit organization has emerged to help lawyers assess the safety and security of their law practice environment. The organization is the International Legal Technology Standards Organization and it recently released a set of standards that law firms can used to evaluate:

  1. the law firm's internal security standards; and
  2. help law firm's make informed decisions about "cloud computing" vendors and other hosting arrangements where confidential data is stored outside of the physical office of the law firm

The Standards are much more detailed and comprehensive than the ABA/LPM's eLawyering Task Force publication of Cloud Computing Guidelines for Law Firms.

Disclosure: I am on the Advisory Board of ILTSO and provided some guidance to the development of the standards.

The standards are being circulated for comment before final publication.

The standards offer a sensible definition of "reasonable under the circumstances" by recognizing that different types of law firms have different security needs, although all lawyers are bound to prevent the disclosure of client data. Law firms are categorized into three types of situations:

  • "Bronze - this standard is appropriate in every law practice, including solo practices."
  • "Silver - this standard is typically appropriate for firms of more than one attorney, or where circumstances or resources dictate."
     
  • "Gold - this standard is typically appropriate for larger firms or those with additional IT resources, or where circumstances or resources dictate."

The idea of categorizing law practice environments into these three categories is a new idea, as some of the standards only apply to the Gold and Silver category. The intent is to recognize that law firms have different IT capabilities and the size of the law firm usually determines how the law firm will approach the problem of securing client and other firm data.

At this point of development, the law firm is responsible for undertaking their own self-assessment. Law firms can apply to the standards to their own law practice environment and if in compliance display the ILTSO seal.

ILTSO Seal of ComplianceAt some point, I can see where ILTSO might undertake an independent assessment of a law firm's security arrangements and if it compliance with the standards, award a certificate like the Truste certification which assesses an organization's privacy policies. A small fee could be charged for this assessment and it would vary depending on whether the type of law firm practice environment is  Bronze, Silver, or Gold. This would give assurance to clients that all reasonable efforts have been taken to secure the confidentiality of their data.

It will be interesting to see how the organized bar responds to these standards, as their are entities both at the state level, and the American Bar Association that are analyzing these same subjects.

The ABA Ethics 20/20 Commission, for example, has been holding hearings on cloud computing and security of data and has released a working paper on this subject.

Just last week, the Commission released its recommendations on outsourcing, which is a process that has an impact on the confidentiality of client data. The recommendations have not yet been posted on the Commission's web site, but the ABA Journal reports that:

"The commission proposes revisions to the Model Rules recognizing that electronically stored information, including metadata, is material subject to confidentiality rules. It also proposed revisions directing lawyers to make reasonable efforts to prevent inadvertent disclosure of information relating to representation of a client."

ILTSO's new standards would give concrete meaning to the definition of "reasonable efforts" and provide a detailed framework that could guide attorney assessment of particular outsourcing and cloud computing arrangements.

A positive impact of having this evaluation framework in place might be the accelerated adoption of technologies, such as cloud computing. Compliance with the guidelines would support a law firm's assertion that the firm has taken all reasonable steps to secure client data to reduce its liability in case of a security breach over which the firm had no control.

An unanticipated consequence might be a slow down in adoption, as the lack of clarity in this area might give many lawyers a reason not to become "early adopters." Many lawyers might choose to wait until standards like ILTSO's are accepted by a broad base of legal organizations and law firms.

Of course, by then, the "real" early adopters will have acquired a first mover advantage over law firms that are still thinking about the subject, to the those firms competitive disadvantage.

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.

 

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.

60% of UK Survey Respondents Said They Would Buy Legal Advice From National Brands

YouGov, a research firm based in Great Britain, in a survey of consumer preferences for legal services recently reported that 60% of respondents said they would buy legal advice from brands like Barclays, AA, Co-op and Virgin. The report states that  “Law firms build their business on their reputation not on their brands and, in a highly fragmented market, recognisable legal brands are few and far between. The large non-legal brands could follow the Co-op’s example and build a strong presence relatively quickly in a market where no strong brands currently exist." In the US there are no national legal brands that serve consumers directly, except for LegalZoom, which isn't even a law firm. It would be interesting to see what would happen if nationally branded networks of law firms emerged to service consumers with a better value proposition than the typical local solo or small law firm practitioner.

The study also asked about online legal services: 34% of respondents said they would be more likely to choose a law firm that offered the convenience of online access to legal documents over one that had no online capability; 22% disagreed and 37% neither agreed nor disagreed.

Younger males were the most likely to choose a law firm with online services and access: 44% of 25-to-39 year-old males (and 40% of such women), along with 40% of 16-to-24 year-old males, would choose a law firm offering online access to documents over another law firm.

There is obviously a generational shift happening.  As a younger generation matures to the age where they have legal problems, their desire to deal with counsel online becomes a preference.

 

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.

 

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

 

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.

 

Online Legal Services-A Revolution that Failed?"

Chrissy Burns, an Australian lawyer produced a PHD thesis in 2007, entitled 'Online Legal Services-A Revolution that Failed?', where she argued that Clayton Christensen's theory of disruptive innovation does not apply to online legal knowledge products and that a "latent market" for legal services really doesn't exist. Ms Burns is presently Director of IT and Knowledge Management at Blake  Dawson so she brings first hand knowledge to her thesis based on her  work with large law firms. In a recent review of her workby Darryl Mountain, an attorney with expertise in document automation, makes the counter-argument  that Ms Burns focus is purely on large law firms and the corporate legal market and overlooks the documented unmet legal needs of the broad middle class and the disruptive response of non-lawyer providers such as LegalZoom which has served generated over a 1,000,000 wills for consumers during the past five years. Mountain cites other evidence that there is a wide and growing latent market for legal services, that Burns has overlooked. Mountain concludes that, " The legal marketplace has continued to evolve since Burns finished writing in 2007. On the retail side of law practice, the revolution is very much alive and people are beginning to resolve legal problems solely through the use of online legal knowledge products."

Mountain also argues that Burns has defined "online legal services"  too narrowly because her definition is limited to knowledge products that solve legal problems without lawyer assistance or involvement. Such products are stand alone applications, such as "expert systems."

Mountain argues that the better model for thinking about disruptive change is to consider how Internet-based legal technology can work together with legal professionals to increase law firm productivity, maintain profit margins, or result in lower fees. Instead off stand-alone, legal  knowledge products, Mountain argues that technology-assisted legal service is likely to become the more pervasive model in the future. Mountain writes:


"The best solutions are often those that combine people and software, whether the people are lawyers, paralegals, or outsourced personnel. "

His review and Burns' thesis are both worth reading for those who follow developments in the delivering of legal services online. 

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.

 

Defining the Virtual Law Firm

Jay Fleischman, who authors the LegalPracticePro Blog, recently had a blog post where he wished "Death to the Virtual Law Firm." His problem is not with the idea of lawyers practicing law over the Internet, but that the term "virtual" is confusing because it connotes that the lawyer really isn't present. In reality, the virtual lawyer is very present as the producer of legal services, perhaps even more so than a traditional lawyer, because there is the potential for 24/7 accessibility.

He argues that this term confuses the consuming public and potential clients.

In my opinion, the idea of a "virtual law firm"  is becoming a way of describing a law firm that delivers legal services in a new and innovative way. The average consumer whose purchasing behaviour  has changed because of the proliferation of non-lawyer web sites on the Internet, such as LegalZoom, understands very well that when a law firm uses the terms, "virtual" or "online" that the firm is offering a service that is often more reasonably priced, more convenient to use, and often delivered at a faster response time than is usual.  Our market research shows that when consumers see the term "virtual law firm", that it means that a law firm is willing to offer legal services in a non-traditional way, usually  "unbundled legal services," and at a fixed price.

Sometimes a term moves into common usage with unanticipated consequences and a different meaning than its common meaning.  For law firms offering online legal services, this is a way for them to differentiate themselves from law firms that offer legal services in a traditional office setting who eschew digital methods.

It is a marketing message that is powerful, because at the present time there are very few lawyers who have learned to harness the power of the Internet to increase their productivity and keep their prices affordable. "Virtual lawyering" communicates a message to consumers that this is not your "grandparents" law firm.

I doubt that consumers think that a virtual lawyer is someone who is just an avatar in http://www.secondlife.com. At some point in the future, delivering legal services online will become common. At the present time it is not, and the online law firms, that use this moniker, are trying to differentiate themselves from from the rest of the pack. There are very few law firms reaching out to the broad middle class with affordable legal services and too few law firms using the Internet as a platform for the delivery of legal services. "Virtual law firms" represent a new category of law firm that are reaching out to a "latent" market of consumers with a new value proposition.

Because the method of delivering legal services over the Internet is shaped by technology, and the underlying technology needs to be carefully examined and evaluated in terms of whether legal services delivered online are ethically compliant, it is useful to be able to treat this activity as a separate category, at least for the purpose of discussion.

Perhaps in the future, lawyers who deliver legal services over the Internet will refer to themselves as "digital lawyers", or "Online Lawyers", and these terms will become synonyms for "virtual lawyers".  For now, the label, "Virtual law firm" and "Virtual lawyers" is a useful way of framing this emerging activity so its benefits and deficiencies can be further examined. Without precision in definition, it is easy for any lawyer who works from home, and who never sees a client face to face, and who simply uses email, to call themselves a "virtual lawyer." 

I think that the Wikipedia definitions of a "virtual law firm" and "elawyering" , are useful as a starting point for understanding this new category of law firm. The only way to advance the "state of the art" is to recognize that the Internet as a platform for the delivery of legal services is something unique that requires careful examination and assessment. That exploration doesn't get very far if we simply lump all law firms into the same category.


 

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.

 

Free Version of DirectLaw Offer Expires 08/31/2010

During the summer we experimented with promoting a free Version of the DirectLaw virtual law firm platform, that includes all of the communications, collaboration, and ecommerce functions, but which excludes the document automation functions.

The DirectLaw Free Version is not quite free, because we charge a $99.00 set-up fee to cover our costs for setting up the account and the ecommerce component which enables law firms to bill their clients on-line.

We wanted to see how much demand we would experience for essentially a free virtual law firm platform, without doing much advertising or marketing. We want to see how ready solos and small law firms are to embrace the virtual law firm concept by adding this functionality to their web sites at almost no cost.

To our surprise, demand was much stronger that we had expected and we met our sign-up goals very quickly. Thus we are ending this Free Version Offer, effective August 31. 2010, and replacing it with what we call: DirectLaw Basic.

DirectLaw Basic, which includes all of the same functions as the original Free Version, but excludes the document automation functions and automated legal form libraries.

The monthly subscription fee will be $49.00 a month for a solo practitioner, plus $50.00 a month for each additional lawyer in the firm, if the firm is larger than a solo, up to four practitioners. There is no charge for access by support personnel and no-set-up fee. A free listing in MyLawyer.com, our consumer legal information portal,  is included in the subscription fee. This program is designed for solos and small law firms. Law firms with over 5 attorneys should contact us for a quotation. For additional details see: DirectLaw Virtual Law Firm Free Version.

eLawyering Events at the ABA Annual Meeting

The Virtual Law Firm: How to Build Your Practice in an Online World, Friday, August 6, 2019, 2:00-3:15 P.M. Moscone Center

Moderated by Marc Lauritsen
Presented by Richard Granat ,Will Hornsby, Stephanie Kimbro
Co-Sponsored by General Practice, Solo & Small Firm Division, Standing Committee on Delivery of Legal Services

This program will discuss in a panel format the concept of practicing law virtually and how it can enhance an existing traditional law practice, or be a exist as a totally virtual law firm. The program will discuss the benefits of a delivering legal services online and how it can help a law firm acquire clients who are members of the connected/Facebook generation as well as provide more effective services to existing clients. Topics covered will include: what is a virtual law practice; the web architecture for a virtual law practice; online legal service applications, such as web-enabled document automation; ethical issues in the delivery of online legal services, such as confidentiality, security, unauthorized practice of law, client identification and authentication procedures, conflict of interest checking; criteria of vendor selection; the costs associated with setting up a virtual law practice; and marketing your brand and virtual law practice online.

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

eLawyering Task Force Meeting, Saturday, August 7, 2010, Hilton Hotel, Union Square, 9:00 - 11:00 A.M.Open Meeting

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

20/20 Vision: The Impact of Technology and Globalization on Ethics for the 21st Century Lawyer. August 5th, Thursday, 10:30am, Moscone Center West Room 2016, 2nd Floor. Stephanie Kimbro, a member of the eLawyering Task Force is participating.

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

National Conference of State Bar Presidents

Joint Workshop 3A – Keeping Pace with the Evolving Practice of Law
Continental Parlor 7, Ballroom Level, Hilton San Francisco

Ethics 20/20 continues to explore the impact of technology on the practice of law, as well
as global developments that may redefine and expand our ideas about law practice and
how to regulate it. Join us for a discussion of cutting edge ideas that are going to affect
the profession and your members: the virtual law firm, elawyering and cloud computing,
publicly traded law firms and alternative business models for law firms.

MODERATOR
Frederic S. Ury, Fairfield, CT, Past President, Connecticut Bar Association; NCBP
Secretary, and Member, ABA Commission on Ethics 20/20
PANELISTS
Richard S. Granat, Palm Beach Gardens, FL, Founder, President and CEO, DirectLaw, Inc.,
and Co-Chair, eLawyering Task Force, LPM, and Member, ABA Standing Committee on the Delivery of Legal Services
Steven Mark, Sydney, NSW, Australia, Commissioner, New South Wales Office of the
Legal Services Commissioner, and Chairman, Australian Section of the International
Commission of Jurists

 

 

2010 ABA Legal Technology Survey Report on E-Lawyering: Questionable Data

Volume IV of the recently released 2010 ABA Legal Technology Survey Report is devoted to Web and Communication Technology. A section on E-Lawyering reports that 14% of Respondents over all, and 19% of solo practitioners, report that they have a virtual law office or virtual law practice. This question in the survey that deals with with the question of whether a law firm has a 
"virtual law practice" was framed in terms of whether the attorney primarily interacts with clients using Internet-based software and other electronic communications software.

In my opinion, these self-reported responses from attorneys are not meaningful and are much too high to be accurate. The reported numbers are not useful in understanding where the legal profession is in terms of adopting the concept of a "virtual law practice." The reality is that the adoption rate is much lower.

The ABA Law Practice Management Section's eLawyering Task Force (disclosure: I am Co-Chair of the eLawyering Task Force),  defines a "virtual law practice" as one that offers to its clients a secure client portal, as part of the law firm's web site, where the client can log in with a user name and password, and interact with their attorney, as well as consume other online legal services. A virtual law practice is more than simply communicating with clients by email and never meeting with clients face-to-face. In order to have a "virtual law practice" by our definition,  you have to have a web site and a portion of that web site has to be dedicated as a secure portal for clients. Without this distinction, many law firms can claim that they are "virtual law firms" simply because they use email extensively, as the ABA Study seems to imply, giving the impression that integration of Internet technologies as part of their legal service delivery system is much higher than it actually is.

For example, in another question, the survey participants were asked whether the firm has a web site. The solo practitioner group responded that only 52.1% had a web site, but this is the same group that responded that 19% has a "virtual law practice."  By our definition, if you don't have a web site you don't have a "virtual law practice." The only explanation for the discrepancy in these numbers is that the question of " Do you have a virtual law practice?" was phrased so broadly that more law firms where included in the category than should be.

Another question that was asked to determine what kinds of online legal services were offered by the firm was: "Does your law firm offer online document preparation?" 11.4% of solo firms reported that they did. Again this number doesn't make any sense. There were 149 respondents in the Solo category. Only 52.1% actually had a web site, or 77 firms had a web site from which online document preparation could be offered. 11.4% would suggest that only approximately 8 law firms could offer this service. Not only is this number too small to make any meaningful projections in terms of the total number of solo practitioners in the US (more than 400,000), but it is also likely to be misleading. Here's why:

The technological options for offering online document assembly for solo practitioners are very limited. One option is to provide fillable Adobe . pdf forms. But you can't easily use a fillable Adobe .pdf to create a text document such as a Will or a Shareholder's Agreement. The major document assembly vendors such as HotDocs, DealBuilder, and Exari have systems that support online document assembly but the price for licensing these systems is much too expensive for the average solo practitioner. Wizilegal, a new entrant to the field, provides a new low cost web-enabled document assembly solution, but our market information suggest that they have only a small number of users. (Disclosure: DIrectLaw, which sponsors this blog, is one of the few web-enabled document assembly solutions that is offered at a price that a solo practitioner can afford.)

In short, the question about the use of online document assembly should have been phrased much more narrowly, with a field in the questionnaire that would require that the law firm indicate what platform is being used to support online document assembly, and whether it is a third party vendor, or whether the programming was done in-house. My sense is that if the question were asked properly, the number of law firms offering online document assembly would be much lower than actually reported.

Finally, 3% of respondents report that their firms offer expert system on their web sites (compared with 1% in the 2009 survey), including 7% of the large firm respondents. Based on our surveys of law firms from solos to large law firms, this percentage seems very high to me. It is very rare that I come across a law firm web site that actually offers an "expert system" for use by its clients, and I review or check out literally thousands of law firm web sites a year.  Most lawyers don't even know what an "expert system" is! I would like to see a more precise question, where the respondent is required to name the kind of "expert system" they are offering and the url of the web site where it is offered, so that a reviewer could more closely examine what the law firm represents they are doing is in fact the case.

I think that it is commendable that the ABA Legal Technology Resource Center now has a separate section of its annual report just on web and communication technology. The platform for the delivery of legal services is gradually shifting from traditional face-to-face office practice to the Web, but my sense is that the the pace of adaptation is much slower than is being officially reported. This is understandable in a profession that views its core identity as one where clients are dealt with primarily face-to-face. 

On the other hand, our own research on consumer preferences suggests that more than half of consumers would like their law firm to have an online virtual component. Thus, the legal profession continues to lag behind what other service industries offer to their clients and customers online.

 

 

Free Version of DirectLaw Now Available

As many of you know who have been following this blog, DirectLaw is a client portal that enables a law firm to offer online legal services. It is not designed as a cloud-based practice management system, such as timekeeping and billing which we view as "back-office" functions, although DirectLaw still incorporates many practice management features. The purpose of the client portal concept is to enable the law firm to work with a client online, rather than just by telephone and face-to-face, and in ways that are powerful than simply using email.

This week, we launched a Free Version of DirectLaw.  We call it "free" because there is no monthly subscription charge, but there is a $99.00 set-up fee to cover our costs in activating a new account.

This is a fully operational platform that includes all of the virtual law platform features except web-enabled document automation and our state specific libraries of legal forms and documents.

Here is what you can do with the "DirectLaw Free Version":
 

  • Legal Advice by Phone, E-mail and Web Cam.  Sell any or all of these services on a flat fee basis.  You set the pricing.
  • Legal Document Review.  Offer review services and provide advice for existing documents or forms.  Example:  "I purchased a will from LegalZoom.com, and need an attorney to review it."  You quote a fee based on the complexity of work.
  • Legal & Court Coaching.  Another legal advice service you can offer on a flat fee basis.
  • Online Collaboration Features.  Share and store documents.  Communicate with clients online.  Secure, archived and accessible 24/7.  Works great for existing/traditional clients, as well online clients.
  • Calendaring.  Publish important, upcoming dates/events.  Includes an automatic reminder feature.
  • Legal Resources.  Publish client-relevant legal information/links.  Information is accessible via the "client space".
  • Attorney Dashboard.  Manage all client-related data; communications; selection/pricing of legal services, etc.
  • MyAccount. Stores client contact information.  Information is downloadable to Excel spreadsheet format.
  • Integrated Credit Card Processing.  Accept online credit card payment for online legal services.
  • Legal Invoicing.   Bill clients via the "client space".  Easy, convenient way to offer online credit card payment of legal invoices.  Works great with existing/traditional clients and for online clients where work beyond the scope of limited services is necessary.
  • Rapidocs Solo, our Rapidocs document authoring system, is also included, so you see if you can automate your own documents.

The DirectLaw Free Version is to be distinguished from the Free Trial, which is not a fully operational version and is simply a "sandbox" which lets you play around with the DirectLaw features. You can convert from the Free Trial to the DirectLaw Free Version at any  time, and you can upgrade from the DirectLaw Free Version to Levels I, II, and III at any time. Click here to see the differences between the three levels of service and the different levels of pricing.

We decided to introduce the concept of a Free Version with the idea of accelerating the adoption of virtual law firm concepts by solos and small law firms. Our marketing data, based on analyzing Google Key Word popularity in this market space, such as "virtual law firm," "online legal services", and "virtual law firm,"  shows a relatively low hit rate compared to other trends in the law firm technology market space. We will provide more details of this analysis in a later post. What it says to me is that the number of lawyers, particularly solos and small law firm lawyers, who are simply just interested in learning more about the"virtual law firm" concept is a very low percentage of the total addressable market. This is typical of the way in which the legal profession adapts to new technology - - very slowly. Thus we think the concept of a "Free Version" of DirectLaw can be an important learning tool for lawyers who are interested in moving their law practices onto the Internet. By making this proposition a "no-cost" experiment, law firms can witness first hand how operating on the Internet can enhance their law practice and increase law firm productivity.

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.

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.

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.

Ethics 20/20 Commission

The ABA Ethics 20/20 Commission had public hearings at the ABA mid-year meeting in Orlando. Florida this week-end. A focus of the Commission's work is the impact of Internet technology on the delivery of legal services, both globally and within the United States. The Commission has a 3 year period to undertake research, conduct hearings, and report its findings and recommendations.  Three years from now Internet technology will be further transformed, and by 2020 who knows what technologies will be available. By then, I am sure, legal business (negotiations, dispute settlement) could well be conducted by our avatars in virtual legal environments on an international and cross jurisdictional basis. Licensing of lawyers by states may prove to be increasingly anachronistic by 2020, although it is unlikely that state bars will go away without fight.

I was honored to be able to testify before the Commission and submit a written statement which can be found here. Stephanie Kimbro now a member of the ABA's eLawyering Task Force, also made a presentation on the virtual law office concept which I thought was very well received.  My impression was that the Commission members were very interested in our statements and explanations of how Internet technology enables the more effective delivery of legal services.

Innovation and Rules of Professional Responsibility

ABA President B. Lamm has created a new Commission on Ethics called Ethics 20/20 to review  ethics rules and regulation of the legal profession in the United States in the context of a global legal services marketplace. Hearings will be held at ABA Meetings to get input from various interests on how to reform or modify the ABA Code to enable US law firms to remain competitive in an age where Internet  technology is pervasive.

I have been invited by the Commission to testify and submit a statement at the ABA Mid-Year Meeting in Orlando, where the Commission is holding one of its first public hearings.

My statement will discuss the following topics:

  • how the rules of professional responsibility function as a deterrent to innovation;
  • issues relating to the unauthorized practice of law and the definition of "the practice of law;"
  • legal referral concepts in the age of the Internet;
  • state rules of professional responsibility that require a "physical" business office in order to practice law in that state;
  • the potential for cloud computing;
  • enabling the delivery of limited legal services online;
  • law firm ownership structure as it relates to innovation in the delivery of legal services;
  • and the eLawyering Task Force Recommended Guidelines for the Delivery of OnLine Legal Services.

I am looking for suggestions and ideas about other issues that relate to the delivery of online legal services and the rules of professional responsibility. Any ideas are welcome. Just comment on this blog.

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

DirectLaw Launches SlatterLaw - Its' Third Virtual Law Firm in Georgia

 DirectLaw is pleased to announce the launching of SlatterLaw its third virtual law firm in the State of Georgia. SlatterLaw will provide online legal services to small businesses and individuals throughout Georgia.

Kerry Slatter founded the law firm with the goal of providing convenient and cost-effective legal services to small business owners and individuals across the state of Georgia. In addition to small business legal services, the Slatter Law Firm also provides counsel in various other areas, including estate planning, corporate law, and employment law.

From the web site:

 "Slatter Law provides the following core values for its clients:

  • Customer Service – Provide value and legal solutions to exceed client’s expectations.
  • Cost Efficiency – Provide cost efficiencies to enable clients to obtain more value from their legal budgets.
  • Responsiveness – Limit attorney workload and the number of clients. The motivation to build long term relationships with clients drives this goal.
  • Convenience – Utilize excellent customer services and technology to provide legal services in a convenient manner for the client (via secure online website client space, by email or by phone as needed).
  • Innovation – Promote innovation for all aspects of client legal services, including the use of cutting edge technology, resources, and fixed fee arrangements."

Mr. Slatter has an undergraduate degree from Morehouse College and a law degree from State University of New York at Buffalo School of Law and is licensed to practice in Georgia.

 

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.

 

James Keane Award in Excellence in eLawyering

The Law Practice Management Section of the American Bar Association awards the James I Keane Memorial Award in Excellence in eLawyering, annually at the ABA TechShow in Chicago. Nominations are now open for the Award to be in March, 2010. Candidates can self-nominate. The Award Requirements can be found here. The nomination form can be found on-line here.

Here is a brief summary of the Award criteria:

  • The project or law firm must demonstrate the use of the Internet to deliver legal services.
  • It must be unique. It should be an on-line legal service that has never been done before, or not quite this way before.
  • Absence of precedent - Never been done or done quite this way before.
  • There should be some measurable outcome that would indicate that the innovation is accomplishing what it was intended to do.
  • 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.

 

A Report from Darryl Mountain, Guest Blogger, on the Pacific Legal Technology Conference


On Friday, October 2nd, I presented at Vancouver’s Pacific Legal Technology Conference on the topic of Virtual Law Practice with Simon Chester of Heenan Blaikie and Nicole Garton-Jones of Heritage Law.

 

We discussed the two heads of the definition of virtual law practice:  practising law over the Internet through a secure online portal and practising law under one brand through satellite offices (which are often home offices).

 

Nicole is an early adopter who described her experience in managing Heritage Law, a paperless office where most staff work from home.  Some staff are located in places such as Victoria and the Sunshine Coast that are remote from Heritage Law’s central office in West Vancouver.  Heritage Law soon will be implementing DirectLaw through a separate business model called Heritage Law Online, subject to regulatory approval.

 

I analyzed Web-enabled virtual law practice using the Eliminate-Reduce-Raise-Create grid, which sets out a framework for contrasting innovative value propositions with conventional value propositions.  It comes from a book called Blue Ocean Strategy.  Among other things, Web-enabled virtual law practice eliminates the visit to the lawyer’s office, reduces cost and waste, raises a lawyer’s reach beyond his or her immediate geographical area, and creates a packaged solution.  I also discussed Chrissy Burns’ PhD thesis, entitled “Online Legal Services—A Revolution that Failed?.”  It is found at http://tinyurl.com/kvtden.

 

Simon discussed the regulatory issues involved in setting up a virtual law practice in Canada.   Canadian regulators have not addressed virtual law practice specifically but there are issues with regard to limited scope representation, preservation of data, and the client identification and verification rules.

 

Our PowerPoint slides from the presentation are located here:

 

http://www.pacificlegaltech.com/download/SSF2.pdf

 Reported by Darryl Mountain, President, Ontago, Inc.

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.

The Good Enough Revolution

The month's WIRED Magazine, (September 2009) has an interesting article on how the Internet is enabling "Good Enough" solutions, (when cheap and simple is just fine). I have maintained for a long time that often there is a certain amount of overkill when lawyers tackle a problem, when consumers really want a quick and reasonably priced result. Consumers will often sacrifice securing every "right" they have in order to save thousands of dollars in legal fees. I see this in the divorce area in my online practice all of the time. Often the divorcing parties want to get on with their life at the lowest possible cost. Rather than spend $15,000 in legal fees pursuing every right that the parties think they have, often the best solution is to use the funds that would have been spent on legal fees to invest in their individual futures. The present recession is accelerating these trend.

Lawyers are taught to represent a client "zealously". In fact they are required by the ethical codes of professional conduct to do so -- but at what price. Pursuing every legal angle results in prohibitive legal fees that the average consumer or small business can't afford. There must be a better way to practice law without breaking the bank.

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.

New DirectLaw Firm In Texas focusing on OnLine Wills

DirectLaw  has announced that the Law Office of Kyle Rhodes, based in Fort Worth, Texas has subscribed to DirectLaw's virtual law firm platform to enable the firm to offer legal services over the Internet to Texas residents. The firm focuses on offering Texas, Wills, Texas Trusts, and other asset protection documents for a fixed price, bundled with legal advice.

This law firm is not a pure virtual law firm as Attorney Rhodes maintains a downtown Ft. Worth office for clients who prefer to meet with him face-to-face. This is a good example of what I call, "click-and-mortal" - combining a virtual law practice with an off-line physical practice.  The market research that we have conducted suggests that the most effective implementation of the "virtual law firm" concept is as an add-on to a office-based practice, as this combines the best of both worlds.

For more information visit the website. The firm utilizes Rapidocs, DirectLaw's web-based document automation system to enable clients to complete online questionnaires which generate documents ready for lawyer review and editing.  This is DirectLaw's third law firm launch in the State of Texas. 

 

Kimbrolaw wins James Keane Award in Excellence in eLawyering

Stephanie Kimbro, a solo practitioner who operates Kimbrolaw.com, a virtual law firm in North Carolina, has been selected as this year's winner of the James Keane Memorial Award for Excellence in eLawyering. This award is given annually by the eLawyering Task Force of the Law Practice Management Section of the American Bar Association, a group which was founded by Jim Keane an active and long-standing member of the ABA/LPM section who died tragically from lung cancer several years ago. I am the present Co-Chair with Marc Lauritsen.

Ms. Kimbro's law firm is a completely virtual law firm that serves individuals and small business over the Web. Our group concluded that Kimbrolaw.com  met the criteria for the Award perfectly as it demonstrates an innovative online model for delivering services to the broad middle class. Clients access their own individual web space where they can consult with their attorney, have their documents reviewed, and conduct other legal tasks -- all online.

The Award will be formally given to Ms. Kimbro at the American Bar Association's TECHSHOW on April 2, 2009, immediately before the key note speech by Richard Susskind, who will discuss his new book: The End of Lawyers: The Rethinking the Nature of Legal Services.

Solo Practice University

 I joined up as faculty with Solo Practice University last week. This is a new online educational venture started by Susan Carter Liebel , a coach and consultant to solo practices. Law schools really don't teach law students how to open a solo practice -- they are too busy training students for large law practice for which many of their students aspire but very few achieve. This program will be a welcome addition to bar association CLE courses as it focuses on the needs of solos, who still make up the largest percentage of practicing lawyers. I am going to develop a course on how to offer what is known as limited legal services or "unbundled legal services" both online and offline. My plan is to use pre-recorded video, discussion groups, an online blog, and email to help course participants develop a business plan for increasing and diversifying their revenue base. I am looking forward to this learning experience in how to deliver legal services online.

 

Best Practices for Virtual Law Firms

The eLawyering Task Force of the Law Practice Management Section of the ABA, had its monthly telephone call on Friday. One of the action items is a renewed interest and commitment to produce a set of best practice guidelines for law firms that want to deliver legal services online. These guidelines would complement the Best Practice Guidelines for Legal Information Web Site Providers that were produced by the eLawyering Task Force and approved by the ABA House of Delegates in 2003. The Legal Information Best Practices Guidelines apply to both law firms and non-law firms and don't deal specifically with issues that lawyers face when they want to deliver legal services online. In some cases it has been reported that malpractice insurance carriers have declined coverage when a law firm attempts to provide legal services directly through their web site. With more law firms embracing the concept of virtual legal practice, it becomes even more important to provide a framework for best practices.  The guidelines would cover such topics as ethical issues in delivering online legal services, security issues, and the attorney/client relationship.

In addition, a new group of software vendors that license "software as a service" {SaaS) have emerged to provide online software applications that support virtual law practice. Some of these vendors include: Virtual Law Office Technology, RocketMatter, Clio, and our own DirectLaw, Inc.,  As part of the guidelines development process, we plan to seek input from this emerging group of software as service vendors.

The goal is to have a draft ready for the discussion by the eLawyering Task Force at the ABA mid-year meeting and then a revised draft for further discussion as the quarterly meeting of the Law Practice Management Section in New Orleans in May, 13- 16, 2009.

Feedback and ideas about what issues should be covered are welcome from all.

 

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.

 

eLawyering Task Force Conference Call

For those of you who are members of the eLawyering Task Force of the Law Practice Management Section of the ABA, this is reminder that there is a Task Force Conference call on January 9, 2009 at 10:00 A.M.

Our agenda includes a discussion on standards and best practices for elawyering and delivering legal services online.

Members of the American Bar Association, who wish to become members of the Task Force should contact Marc Lauritsen, Co-Chair of the Task Force at marc@capstonepractice.com directly. In order to be eligible for membership you also have to be a member of the Law Practice Management Section of the ABA. 

 

LEGALTECH NEW YORK 2009

We are exhibiting our DirectLaw Web Service at LEGALTECH in New York on February 2-4, 2009. This show is one of the largest legal technology shows involving over 450 legal technology vendors which attract over 13,000 participants. The show is at the New York Hilton at 1335 Sixth Avenue. We are Booth #1621 on Level II.  If you are planning to attend, please stop by for a demonstration of our DIrectLaw Service or just to chat about new developments in the delivery of online legal services. We will be introducing the latest version of Rapidocs, known as Rapidocs 4.0, which is our web-enabled document automation solution that operates totally within the web browser without requiring the downloading of an Active X control, Java Applet, or other software application.  Come see legal documents assembled in real time within the web browser.

Richard Cohen, CO-CEO of EPOQ, our sister company in the London, will also be in attendance and is up to date on new developments to de-regulate the legal profession in the UK and EPOQ's new mylawyer network of web-enabled UK law firms that serve consumers.