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?

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.

Private capital is beginning to flow into companies that are operating at the intersection of the delivery of legal services and the Internet.

Total Attorneys, a Chicago-based company,  just announced that they received a multimillion dollar investment from BIA Digital Partners, a Virginia-based venture capital firm. Total Attorneys is most known for the marketing services that it provides to law firms and the recent ethical controversy in some states surrounding the use of pay-per-click advertising on behalf of law firms. (Apparently this controversy has been resolved in favor of Total Attorneys in every state where it was considered by bar ethics committees.)

The company plans to extend its technology assisted services to law firms by expanding its virtual law firm Software as a Service offerings (SaaS).   Total Attorneys mission is to become a leading provider of elawyering Services to solos and small law firms by providing a comprehensive suite of outsourced technology services, from marketing to web-based practice management tools to a robust client portal.

The company licenses virtual law office technology to solos and small law firms as a subscription service, that now consists primarily of a robust suite of "back-office" practice management tools. The pan is to expand the service into a more comprehensive "front-office" client portal, providing a total solution to solos and small law firms.

This expansion would entitle the company to claim that it is a leading provider in the eLawyering space  and it would compete more directly with our own DirectLaw virtual law firm platform service and other web-based companies moving in the same direction.  [ See:  Legal Vendors Cloud Computing Association ] .

The concept of "technology-assisted service" is an interesting category for  the legal industry for it describes a form of outsourcing which combines both a digitally-based service combined with human service. Thus Total Attorneys also provides "virtual receptionist services", and at one point virtual support services to bankruptcy law firms. One management solution for solos and small law firms it to out source to independent specialized companies functions which can be done more effectively and at less cost than the law firm can do itself using internal resources.

It is good to see competition heating up in the eLawyering space, which has been moribund for a long period of time.  The eLawyering Task Force of the Law Practice Management Section of the ABA was created in 2000, more than a decade ago. For many  years there was not much to report in terms of the innovative delivery of on-line legal services by law firms. The last 2 years has witnessed an explosion in elawyering industry developments as lawyers adapt to change — caused by a severe recession, widespread unemployment of recent law school graduates, and the challenges created by consumers who are seeking lower-cost and "good enough" alternatives to lawyers, [such as LegalZoom.]

Competition among a variety of vendors provides choices to law firms.  Competition focuses attention on the fact that delivering legal applications as a SaaS is emerging as a new paradigm for enabling solos and small law firms to access complex Internet technologies at a fraction of the capital cost of developing these applications internally.  Private capital moving into the legal industry will create more choices for law firms, and as a consequence more choices for consumers.

Creative legal outsourcing will enable solos and small law firms to become more productive and survive in an increasingly competitive environment.

Washington State’s Attorney General has entered into a settlement agreement with LegalZoom , requiring that LegalZoom cease comparing its fees to attorneys’ fees unless the company clearly discloses that its service isn’t a substitute for a law firm. The agreement also prohibits LegalZoom from engaging in the unauthorized practice of law, selling personal information obtained from Washington customers or misrepresenting the benefits of any estate distribution agreement. LegalZoom is also the subject of a class action suit in Missouri for the unauthorized practice of law.

This action has been a long time coming, but much of the damage to solos and small law firms has already been done, as LegalZoom, with its substantial venture capital backing, has already imprinted itself on the minds of America’s middle class consumers that it offers a better alternative that seeking the advice of an attorney.

Even Polaris Investors – the VC firm that backs LegalZoom – claims on its web site that:

"Legalzoom is the nation’s largest online legal service center.  The company helps its consumer and small business customers quickly and affordably create estate planning documents, form businesses, and protect valuable intellectual property such as trademarks and provisional patents through their easy-to-use website thus avoiding costly attorney fees." (Our emphasis).

There is a value in having non-lawyer, trained paralegals assist consumers in completing legal forms, but LegalZoom’s consumer practices have set this reform movement back.  If an attorney claimed that his practice, "put the law on your side," as Robert Shapiro of OJ fame has done on every Cable-TV channel, that lawyer would probably be subject to disciplinary action for an advertising claim that is a material misrepresentation.

It is time to level the playing field by requiring LegalZoom to disclose clearly the limitations of the services it provides.

Other State Attorney General’s with responsibility for enforcing consumer protection legislation should take notice.

 

The North Carolina Bar Committee reviewing the appropriateness of "cloud computing" has posted an Opinion for Comment which is posted on line courtesy of Stephanie Kimbro.  There are two parts to the Opinion. The first part leaves the issue of Cloud Computing to the law firm, leaving to the attorney to use his or her judgment in protecting client confidentiality and client data. The section part of the Opinion lists "best practices" for the use of Software as  a Service (SaaS), which are likely to be further refined by both comments and a review by a subcommittee.The proposed opinion will be published in the next issue of The State Bar Journal.

Recently a prospect for our DirectLaw Web Service asked me whether it was the unauthorized practice of law for a law firm to use a legal document that is generated by our web-enabled document automation system (Rapidocs), because the legal form did not originate within the law firm itself. In this model, a client completes an on-line questionnaire which generates a legal form or legal document instantly ready for attorney review and further modification. I asked my colleague Will Hornsby, who is Counsel to the Standing Committee on the Delivery of Legal Services, American Bar Association, and a leading expert on ethical issues that arise from delivering legal services over the Internet.

Hornsby says that a lawyer commits the unauthorized practice of law when the lawyer assists a non-lawyer, whether that is a person or a corporation, to undertake the practice of law. This leads to the question of whether online document automation that creates a legal form or document from data provided by the client is the practice law. The definition of “the practice of law” varies from state-to-state but frequently includes the drafting of legal documents and the use of legal knowledge or skill. (For specific state definitions of what is the practice of law, or the unauthorized practice of law, click here.

 

However, the question here revolves around whether the lawyer is “assisting” the software vendor in practicing law when the document preparation is provided as a legal service of the law firm. This is analogous to services provided by paralegals and other outsourced services. In most states, for example, paralegals have no independent authority to provide legal services. If they independently provide document preparation or use their legal skills in serving clients, they may be deemed in violation of their state’s UPL laws, as are any lawyers who assist them in providing those services. [This is the LegalZoom model ]. However, if paralegals provide those same services under the direction of a lawyer and the lawyer assumes supervisory obligations, the paralegal is not practicing law and is not violating UPL laws, nor is the lawyer who provides the supervision “assisting” in the unauthorized practice of law.

 

ABA Formal Opinion 08-451 (Aug. 5, 2008) clarifies that a lawyer may outsource legal services, subject to several considerations. The opinion directly addresses independent contractors, such as temporary lawyers, but also mentions sources of tasks such as a photocopy shop, a document management company and a third-party vendor for the firm’s computer services. In its discussion of Model Rule 5.5 and the unauthorized practice of law, the Opinion states, “Ordinarily, an individual who is not admitted to practice law in a particular jurisdiction may work for a lawyer who is so admitted, provided that the lawyer remains responsible for the work being performed and that the individual is not held out as being a duly admitted lawyer.”

 

Therefore, according to Hornsby, and I agree, even if a document automation application would be deemed the unauthorized practice of law if its services were provided independently of a lawyer’s services, once those service or the documents produced by the software application are provided under the lawyer’s direction and supervision, within the scope of the lawyer’s services, the lawyer can no longer be assisting the document preparation in the practice of law and no longer has a risk of assisting in the unauthorized practice of law.

 

 

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.

 Myrna Arroyo, a solo practitioner in located in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who specializes in estate planning, has launched a virtual law firm site that offers wills, living trusts, and other estate planning documents bundled with legal advice for a fixed price. The site is designed to provide an alernative to web sites like LegacyWriter, Do Your Own Will, LegalZoom, and Wills-Online, which offer legal forms without any legal advice. None of these legal form web sites offer documents that are specific to the State of Louisiana because of the particular nature of Louisiana law, which is based on the French Civil Code. Users are able to complete an on-line questionnaire which generates a completed legal document, ready for lawyer review, analysis, and further customization. Web enabled document automation enables saves time in document creation, enabling Ms. Arroyo to provide legal advice with the document for a fixed price. The site is powered by Epoq’s, DirectLaw Web Service.