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 pr
ofession, 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?

I had the honor of speaking at ReInventLawSiliconValley, a conference on innovation and the legal system sponsored by the ReInvent Law Laboratory at Michigan State Law School, co-founded by Professors Dan Martin Katz and Renee Newman Knake. This was a great learning day for me and I suggest if you are interested in the subject of change in the legal profession and legal education that you watch the videos when they are published on the ReInventLaw Law Channel. See also on Twitter #ReInventLaw and my pre-conference post on this Conference.

Here are the slides from my ReInventLaw presentation.

Private capital into law firmsI am interested in the subject of how to get private capital into law firms to spur innovation despite the prohibitions of 5.4 of the ABA Model Rule of Professional Conduct. This is the rule that prevents a non-lawyer from owning an equity interest n a law firm in all US states, except on a limited basis in the District of Columbia. This is a controversial issue in the US, and the the ABA Ethics 20/20 Commission decided not to address the subject in its recent deliberations. The ABA House of Delegates and almost all state bar associations are dead set against any change to this rule.

 

Jacoby & Meyers

 

Jacoby & Meyers, the pioneering consumer law firm, has filed a suit against the judiciary in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut  in Federal court to overturn the rule, but that’s another story.

 

I am interested in finding out if clever lawyers have figured out away around the rule. I discovered at least two instances where law firms have created a business model that enables private capital to fund technology and management support that would be beyond the ability of the law partners to fund by themselves.

The law firms are Clearspire and RajPatent, recently re-branded as LegalForceLaw.  Both law firms are built around the same concept – a law firm that is supported by an independent management company that provides technology and management services to the law firm.

ClearsspireClearspire invested over $5,000,000 in a technology and management platform to support the delivery of legal services to corporate legal clients. The firm is growing rapidly and recently opened a San Francisco Office.

LegalForceLaw was founded by a solo practitioner, Raj Abhyanker. The underlying company is called Trademarkia, Inc., which created the Trademarkia web site, the legal web site with the most traffic on the Internet. Like Clearspire, Trademarkia developed a technology to make it easy for non-lawyers to do a trademark search. The traffic to the Trademarkia site generates business for the law firm. [See previous post on LegalForce ].

In both cases, a separate management and independent management company provides services to the law firm. In theory the management company could serve other law firms, but in these cases the management company only has one client.

Foloow the MoneyThe arrangement raises more questions and the answers are not apparent.

I would like to learn more about how these management companies price their services to the law firms they serve. They can’t take a percentage of the legal fees or it would be a violation of Rule 5.4 How much of the cash generated by the law firm can be siphoned off by the management contract between the management company and the law firm? What is the pricing mechanism between the management company and the law firm? Is it a cost plus contract or are market rates charged for the services provided?

Why would an investor put funds at risk within the management company as there would be no easy exit. The law firm can’t go public and if the managing partners of the law firm were hit by a bus the law firm would go out of existence. The brand belongs to the law firm, not the management company. The financial return to the management company is limited because of the 5.4 prohibition. So where is the upside for the investors in the management company?

I think that these innovative law firms should be more transparent about the nature of the management agreement between their management company and their law firm, so that other law firms interested in replicating this business model can experiment.

Maybe these management agreement should be  scrutinized and approved by the ethics counsel from the bar associations in the jurisdictions where these law firms are located, so there is no question that there is no violation of 5.4?

 

 

The ABA Commission on Ethics 20/20 Working Group on Uniformity, Choice of Law, and Conflict of Interest has identified some issues related to defining limits on Virtual Practice under Rule 5.5. Model Rule 5.5 (b) (1) requires a lawyer to obtain a license in a jurisdiction if the lawyer has an office or a “systematic and continuous” presence there, unless the lawyer’s work falls within one of the exception identified in Rule 5.5 (d). The Commission has identified as a potential problem the situation where lawyers are physically present in one jurisdiction, yet have a substantial virtual practice in another. The problem is “that it is not always clear when this virtual practice in a jurisdiction is sufficiently “systematic and continuous” to require a license in that jurisdiction.”

This comment could be interpreted to mean that lawyers who have a virtual law practice, mostly solos and small law firms, may have an issue about whether they need to “secure a license” in the other jurisdiction.

This is a solution looking for a problem where none exists as far as the typical virtual law practice is concerned.

A virtual law practice is commonly associated with the online delivery of legal services. Lawyers engaging in virtual practice are only able to provide legal work that pertains to the laws of the state(s) in which they are licensed or they are in violation of 5.5. Whether or not their delivery methods or work with the clients takes place in a physical location other than where the lawyer is licensed, the key factor is that the lawyer is practicing the law of the jurisdiction they are licensed in and to which the client’s legal needs pertain. A law firm will have a website that anyone in any jurisdiction may find and read online. The lawyer places the appropriate disclaimers on the website and makes it clear in any registration process for a client portal that the law firm is only permitted to practice the laws of a certain jurisdiction. This is not misleading to the public nor is it the unauthorized practice of law.

For example, a client living in Florida who owns real estate in Maryland should be able to work online with a lawyer licensed in Maryland to handle the matter. That lawyer licensed in Maryland, whether he or she lives in Florida or New York, is not creating a “systematic or continuous presence” in the state of Florida to subject the lawyer to Rule 5.5(b). Contacts for the purpose of determining “systematic and continuous presence” in the context of determining “personal jurisdiction” have nothing to do with a virtual law firm that limits its practice to residents of the state in which it is primarily located, or serving out of state residents who have matters that are within the state where the attorney is licensed.

When an attorney creates a virtual law office, the gateway to the virtual law office is a Website that any other law firm would create and which is available for viewing by anyone in the world. The difference is the addition of a secure client portal where the prospective client and existing clients will register for assistance. The virtual law office Website states throughout where the attorney is licensed to practice law. The terms and conditions or disclaimers on the site should clearly explain where the attorney is licensed to practice law. This is no different than a traditional law firm Website.

Only residents of the state where the attorney is licensed, or out of state residents who have a legal matter within the state are permitted to register as clients of the law firm. Often the attorney may have the online client sign a traditional or digital engagement agreement that provides notice of which state’s law will apply should there be any dispute.

In addition, some virtual law office platforms have jurisdiction checks so that in order to register, the prospective client must provide their address. If the client is not physically located in the state, a notice is sent to the attorney reminding the attorney that before the client can be accepted as a client of the firm the attorney has to determined that the matter to be handled is a legal matter within the attorney’s jurisdiction. A notice is also sent to the client, reminding the client that the attorney is only licensed to practice law in the state in which the attorney is located. A client’s presence in a different geographic location than his or her attorney does not mean that a state’s ethics rules should come into play for the attorney handling a project that is unrelated to that state’s laws. Just because an attorney’s Website can be viewed in another state, doesn’t mean that a state should have disciplinary authority over that attorney because the Website and the law firm are not offering to provide “legal services” in that state. The alternative logic would suggest that a law firm should be available to be viewed only in the state in which the lawyer is a member of the bar – a truly absurd result – not worthy of further discussion.

To summarize: There are two separate questions about when a UPL claim would arise. First, what contacts does a state require to establish presence when the lawyer is not admitted there but is working with a client who physically resides in that state? Second, in the situation where the lawyer is admitted to practice in that state, but the lawyer physically wants to reside outside of that jurisdiction, what are the contacts that would need to be required to establish presence in the state where the lawyer is licensed? Again, the answer to both questions should be that the legal work that the lawyer provides to the client is what matters rather than where either the client or the lawyer is physically located. 

Stephanie Kimbro contributed to this post and see:  What constitutes virtual presence?  see also Carolyn Elefant’s post on this subject on her MyShingle Blog.

 

There has been much discussion recently in various venues about whether 5.4 of the US Rules of Professional Responsibility should be amended or revised to permit investment in law firms by non-lawyer, or non-lawyer entities, or even ownership of US law firms by non-lawyer entities. The ABA’s Ethics 20/20 Commission is circulating a paper on the subject and is soliciting comments.

Known in the United Kingdom as Alternative Business Structures (ABS), this new form of law firm organization, authorized by the UK Legal Services Act of 2007,  will be permitted after October 6, 2011. Alternative Business Structures are already permitted in Australia, where several law firms have already gone public.

Other than the State of North Carolina where there is bill pending to permit non-lawyer ownership of up to 40% of a law firm, there has been little movement in the US to make change Rule 5.4 Some hybrid models are beginning to emerge in the US,  but they are a workaround the existing rules.

There is no clear path for non-lawyer ownership or investment in a law firm in the United States, and as a result it is arguable that the legal services delivery system lacks the capital necessary to innovate and create the efficient systems that are necessary to serve not only the "latent market for legal services", but existing legal markets more effectively.

Now comes Jacoby & Meyers, a law firm that has pioneered in changing the way legal services are delivered, filing multiple law suits in the Federal District courts of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut against the presiding state justices in those states responsible for implementing and enforcing Rule 5.4, requesting that the Rule by overturned. The Complaint makes clear that Jacoby & Meyers "seeks to free itself of the shackles that currently encumber its ability to raise outside financing and to ensure that American law firms are able to compete on the global stage"

Click here for a complete version of the Complaint.

Andrew Finkelstein, the Managing Partner of Jacoby & Meyers, and also the Managing Partner of Finkelstein & Partners, said that "No legitimate rationale exists to prevent non-lawyers from owning equity in a law firm. The time has come to permit non-lawyers to invest in law firms in the United States,"

Now the fun begins!

Disclosure: Finkelstein and Partners is a subscriber to our  DirectLaw Virtual Law Firm Service.