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!.

The Law Wizard - from Great Britain

I discovered an interesting web site called The Law Wizard,  still in beta, for pro se parties doing their own probate, in the United Kingdom.  The site promises to offer a unique package of online interactive tools, guides and videos. The Probate Wizard is initially designed for individuals who want to probate their own estates, but the site states that the tools will be made available for law firms as well.

The site is scheduled for launch later n 2011. The site looks interesting because it combines a web-enabled document automation system with extensive video and other information guides that takes the user through a  complicated process step by step. We will see more web sites like this, both in the legal form market space and the virtual law firm space.

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.

The "Good Enough" Legal Solution

There has been some recent blog comments [See: Carolyn Elefant 's Blog  [about  the meaning of Robert Capps article  in this month's WIRED Magazine, (September 2009) about the concept of "Good Enough",  "Good Enough" solutions, (when cheap and simple is just fine). , and my quote about how this concept applies to the legal profession.

When I was interviewed for the Wired Article, I didn't know the focus of the article, and I was simply reporting my experience in offering limited legal services to consumers for a fee they can afford. I wasn't saying at all that lawyer's should do less competent or less excellent work. Rather I was thinking about how legal transactional events between consumer and lawyer can be restructured to get to the "good enough result" that many consumers seem to want.

My best example is one that I participate in daily, and which I mentioned in previous blog post. Divorcing couples opt for a quick settlement, even if they don't get "every right" they are entitled to in the interest of reducing their legal fees and getting on with their lives.

Divorce lawyers can charge from $5,000 - $10,000 (low-end of fee schedule) for even a relatively simple divorce. case. The lawyers will say there are no simple divorce cases. But that is from the the viewpoint of the lawyer. From the consumer point of view, they have a choice to spend $5,000 for each counsel who is representing either party- or to take the money and use it to get on with their lives. The question is--  what is the ROI from the consumer's point of view?  Sometimes the investment of $5,000.00 in legal fees is worth it. ($5,000.00 is really a low end estimate). Consumers don't think so, or there would not be thousands of pro se litigants representing themselves in family court. Pro Se Representation is a good example of a restructuring of the lawyer/client relationship to get a "good enough result." The success of LegalZoom -  admittedly a service which is a very small step above a bare legal forms service is more evidence of consumer preferences.

So is the movement towards "limited legal services." Lawyers, mostly solos and small law firms, that think that otherwise and think that full service representation is the only way to go are not facing consumer reality. These lawyers are living in a dream world.

Consumers want solutions to their legal problems. If they can get legal solutions in a different form than a traditional legal service from an attorney that is "good enough" at much less cost, they will turn away from the legal profession and seek those alternatives if they get a result that satisfies their expectations. 

 

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.

 

LegalZoom.com Sued Over Trademark Filing Fees

Apparently LegalZoom has been advertising to its customers that the trademark filing fee is $325.00, when it was actually $275.00,  an obvious misrepresentation. Apparently they have been doing this since 2005. This has resulted in a consumer class action suit to recover the $50.00 overcharge on behalf of all customers who have paid the higher fee. Here is a good summary of the details of the case.  LegalZoom has since changed its web site to characterize the additional $50.00 fee as an administrative fee. If a law firm made this kind of misrepresentation on its web site it would receive a sanction from the bar for misrepresentation. This is another example of the lack of regulatory control over non-lawyer providers of legal services and the absence of any accountability other than the response of the market -- which is in inefficient as consumers  rarely have sufficient knowledge to understand the nature of a misrepresentation.  LegalZoom's claim that a consumer can save thousands of dollars by using its service, rather than lawyer, assumes that somehow the services of LegalZoom and an attorney are identical. Nothing could be further from the truth. Caveat Emptor!!!

First DirectLaw firm in Georgia

EssentiaLegal, based in Atlanta, Georgia, and founded by Robert Arrington, Latif Oduolo-Owoo, & Michael Mason, three alumni from large law firm practices in Atlanta, is a new style law firm, part virtual and part physical that is designed to serve the broad middle class with unbundled legal services. The physical office is located in a shopping mall for easy access, but the virtual component is powered by our DirectLaw Service and enables the firm to serve clients throughout the state of Georgia. Clients can complete Questionnaires either on-line, or within the physical office, which results in the instant creation of the first draft of a document or form, ready for the lawyer's review and further modification. Clients have the option of meeting with an attorney at their offices or relating to the firm on purely virtual basis through the MyLegalAffairs application created within the web site by our DirectLaw Web Service. I believe that this "click and mortar" strategy will be ultimately more effective than a purely virtual strategy because clients have the option of face to face contact with their attorney. "Click and mortar" refers to a business model that has both on-line and off-line components.