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 experti
se 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. 

In a Fortune Magazine blog post by Roger Parloff just last week, entitled Can Software Practice Law?, writing about the class action suit against LegalZoom in Missouri for violating Missouri’s UPL statute, Parloff argues that LegalZoom is no more than a self-help legal software company, and therefore entitled to the same protections as a self-help legal software publisher. The question of whether legal software constitutes the practice of law is a controversial one. When the Texas Bar won a suit against Nolo Press on the grounds that its WillMaker program constituted the practice of law, the Texas Legislature amended the UPL statute and further defined the practice of law  as follows:

Texas Code, 81.101 (c) the "practice of law" does not include the design, creation, publication, distribution, display, or sale, including publication, distribution, display, or sale by means of an Internet Web site, of written materials, books, forms, computer software, or similar products if the products clearly and conspicuously state that the products are not a substitute for the advice of an attorney. This subsection does not authorize the use of the products or similar media in violation of Chapter 83 and does not affect the applicability or enforceability of that chapter.

No other state has passed such an exemption, but there is a well-established line of cases that supports the position that the publication of information about the law, as well as self-help legal books, divorce forms with instructions, and do-it-yourself kits is not the practice of law and protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and may be protected by state constitutions as well. See, e.g., New York County Lawyers’ Ass’n v. Dacey, 21 N.Y.2d 694, 234 N.E.2d 459 (N.Y. 1967), aff’ing on grounds in dissenting opinion, 283 N.Y.S.2d 984 (N.Y. App. 1967); Oregon State Bar v. Gilchrist, 538 P.2d 913 (Or. 1975); State Bar of Michigan v. Cramer, 249 N.W.2d 1 (Mich. 1976); The Florida Bar v. Brumbaugh, 355 So.2d 1186 (Fla. 1978); People v. Landlords Professional Services, 215 Cal. App.3d 1599, 264 Cal. Rptr. 548 (Cal. 1989). 

LegalZoom takes the position that it is no more than a self-help legal publisher and seeks to fall within this classification, as Roger Parloff argues in his blog post. This is also the position that Legal Zoom takes on its Web site and in its answer to the Missouri Complaint:

From the LegalZoom Web site:

"Is LegalZoom engaged in the practice of law?"

"No.  LegalZoom is the latest and natural evolution of the centuries-old legal self-help industry."

"No jurisdiction prohibits the sale of software that generates a legal document based on a customer’s unique input.  LegalZoom has never been prohibited from operating in any state."

"Should consumers be concerned about LegalZoom losing this case?"

"No.  If LegalZoom is found to be engaged in the unauthorized practice of law in Missouri, then every guide and legal formbook in libraries and bookstores in the state would also be engaging in the unauthorized practice of law.  These days, nearly all such books are packaged with computer software that works in a similar manner to LegalZoom.  Just like with a Nolo Press® book or a preprinted form, LegalZoom customers have the ability to review and consider their legal form before committing to their purchase."

It is not possible to know how LegalZoom’s document technology actually works without further evidence. However, one can state with certainty that it doesn’t work like a true Web-enabled document automation technology which generates a document instantly from data entered into an on-line questionnaire that is presented through the Web browser.

Vendors of true Web-enabled document automation solutions, such as HotDocs, Exari, DealBuilder, WhichDraft and Rapidocs (our company) have document automation technologies that generate a document instantly after the user clicks on the submit button. Because LegalZoom’s technology seems to require a separate step that is executed off-line, it does not in my opinion, fit into the category of a Web-enabled document automation technology. [ For a more extensive discussion of Web-Enabled Document Automation as a Disruptive Technology, click here to download our white paper on the subject. ]

Instead, in the LegalZoom  business model, as described by LegalZoom, a data file is created, reviewed by a legal technician, and then imported into their – document assembly application utilizing some form of import mechanism. It is not clear whether the document is fully-assembled until this second step takes place, and it’s a distinction that makes a difference.

If LegalZoom were just a legal software company, it is hard to understand why it needs over 400 employees to provide services to its customers, other than the fact that these employees are conducting professional reviews and providing real service support. For these services, LegalZoom receives a substantially higher price than if they were just selling a self-help legal form. See for example on the LegalZoom Web site, the 30-point review of wills conducted by LegalZoom’s "professional legal document assistants."

These more labor intensive, personal services makes LegalZoom a "service business" and not just a "legal software publisher" entitled to the First Amendment protections that are afforded to publishers.

Andrea Riccio, a Canadian lawyer who has commented about this subject, responds to some of the arguments that LegalZoom makes in its defense:

LegalZoom’s argument: "Typically, there is no interaction between the customer and the person reviewing the file."

Riccio’s response:

“The mere fact that the employee is granted access to the customer’s response is an interaction between the employee and customer.”

LegalZoom’s argument: "If there is an inconsistency, it is NOT corrected by the employee – instead, it is brought to the attention of the customer." 

Riccio’s response:

“Whether it is the customer or the LegalZooM employee that physically changes the document is irrelevant. What is important is that it is the LegalZoom employee that has identified the inconsistency. That, in my opinion, goes beyond "self-help" and is an act of legal draftsmanship.”

LegalZoom’s argument: "no employee revises or corrects any portion of the customer’s self-created document." 

Riccio’s response:

“Identifying inconsistencies or errors in another person’s document is in my opinion an act of revision and correction. Who physically makes the changes is irrelevant.”


It is for these reasons that LegalZoom was required to be licensed under California law as a registered and bonded legal document assistant (see footer
LegalZoom Web site).

What is a Legal Document Assistant?

A "Legal Document Assistant", as defined by the California Business & Professions Code (Section 6400 (c)) is:

"Any person who is otherwise not exempted and who provides, or assists in providing, or offers to provide, or offers to assist in providing, for compensation, any self-help service to a member of the public who is representing himself or herself in a legal matter, or who holds himself or herself out as someone who offers that service or has that authority, or a corporation, partnership, association, or other entity that employs or contracts with any person who is not otherwise exempted who, as part of his or her responsibilities, provides, or assists in providing, or offers to provide, or offers to assist in providing, for compensation, any self-help service to a member of the public who is representing himself or herself in a legal matter or holds himself or herself out as someone who offers that service or has that authority."

This California statutory scheme is based on the idea that a non-lawyer can perform clerical support functions without violating the unauthorized practice of law statute in California. Only a few states have carved out this exception by statute (e.g., California, Florida, Arizona).  Missouri is not one of them.

Could LegalZoom operate in California, where it is headquartered, without being registered with the state as a Legal Document Assistant?  I think not.  

This is the category that LegalZoom fits into, not “self-help” software.

Otherwise, I suppose Nolo, a California-based self-help legal software publisher, and other California-based legal software publishers that sell directly to the public, would have to be licensed in California as Legal Document Assistants!!!  (See generally – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Legal_document_assistant, for a more extensive discussion of what a Legal Document Assistant is, and is not.)

Just to be clear, I am personally in favor of both self-help legal software and paralegal-assisted document preparation services as a way of providing access to the legal system, and personally think there should be more choices for consumers.  But my personal opinions are not the issue.  The issue is: 

“What does the law in the different states now require, and what can we do to change it if we don’t like it?”

It is becoming clear that LegalZoom’s defense strategy in the Missouri case is to associate itself with “self-help software”.  I am sure that its well-financed publicity machine is already approaching bloggers and the business press to write stories about whether “legal software” should be prohibited or regulated, when the real issue is whether and under what conditions a legal document preparation service should be regulated, or immune from regulation.

Definitions of what is “legal self-help software”, and what is not, are critical for carving out safe harbors for innovation, particularly as legal software applications that are distributed over the Internet have potential for great impact and for providing access to the legal system for those who cannot afford full service legal representation.

For example, LawHelpInteractive, a non-profit pro bono support organization, with grants from the US Legal Service Corporation, has assisted in the creation of true Web-based document assembly Web sites in many states that provides free legal forms directly to consumers that can be assembled directly on-line. 

LawHelpInteractive has generated thousands of legal forms during the past few years that are instantly available and free to consumers throughout the United States. No one is arguing that these Web sites constitute the practice of law.

Because of the wider reach of the Internet, Web-enabled legal software applications are actually more of a threat to the legal profession, than desktop software, and the opportunity for over-regulation remains ever present. I would regret the day that courts prohibit the sale of self-help legal software because it is the unauthorized practice of law.

However, stronger arguments can be made for protecting from regulation the distribution of legal software applications, than there are for exempting from regulation a "service business", so I maintain that confusing one category with another is dangerous and takes us down a slippery slope.

Whether or not LegalZoom provides a valuable service; whether or not consumers have been harmed by LegalZoom; and whether or not the company provides some form of legal advice are questions of fact for the Missouri jury, and beyond the scope of this post.

The question for the U.S. District Court in Missouri is whether, as a matter of Missouri law, LegalZoom’s document preparation service business constitutes the practice of law in Missouri, under the terms of the Missouri UPL statute.

I think it does. What do you think?

 

Apparently LegalZoom is in the early stages of planning an IPO, (going public),  according to an unnamed source at VentureBeat. Employing more that 500 employees, and having raised over $45 million in venture capital over the last few years, LegalZoom is clearly the leading non-lawyer legal document preparation web site. This is a good example of a disruptive innovation in the delivery of legal solutions by a non-lawyer provider that continues to eat away at the market share of solo practitioners and small law firms.

Focusing on a market that is not served well by the legal profession, in the same way that Southwest Airlines first targeted people who traveled by bus, rather than by air because air travel was too expensive, LegalZoom is will undoubtedly figure out a way to move up the value chain, capturing even more complex business from law firms, without actually giving legal advice.

In the United States, because the definition of what constitutes the "unauthorized practice of law" is so vague. (perhaps unconstitutionally vague),  it would seem that even though LegalZoom does not actually provide legal advice, it would be prohibited from assembling legal documents, even when the document assembly is purely software-driven. 

The reality is that bar associations have a tough case to make against a non-lawyer provider when no actual legal advice is given. UPL statutes haven’t been truly tested on the issue of whether a non-lawyer can assemble legal documents without actually giving legal advice. In Florida, when the issue came up, there was a compromise between the bar and non-lawyer providers and non-lawyers can help a consumer complete court forms as long as no legal advice is provided. It gets murky when you move beyond courts forms, to more complex transactional documents such as a will,  a living trust, or a marital separation agreement, even if the user is making the selection through a software driven questionnaire. Some UPL advocates, have argued that the selection of alternative clauses is still UPL, because a person had to "program" the clauses. There is some precedent for this position, but the State of Texas on the other hand, specifically excludes software driven document assembly from the "unauthorized practice of law., provided there there are disclaimers which state "clearly and conspicuously that the products are not the substitute for the advice of an attorney."

I think the risk portion of the prospectus will make for fascinating reading, particularly since in many states UPL is a felony. I can just visualize this language: "Investors should be aware that the company may be violating unauthorized practice of law statutes in many states, and as a result, if convicted, one or more executive officers may be required to serve time in the pokey."

In the interest of full disclosure,  Epoq US,  of which I am President, and which is the parent company of DirectLaw, also provides legal document preparation services over the web directly to consumers through a network of legal web sites    So perhaps I should be worried as well.

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.