American Bar AssociationThe American Bar Association has issued its draft Report and Recommendations on the Future of Legal Education. You can download it here.

I agree with many of the recommendations of the report which urges law schools to experiment with different modes of legal education, recommends relaxing ABA accreditation rules which impede innovation, and modifies the traditional law curriculum to focus less on the teaching of doctrinal law and more on skills the prepare law students to actually practice law. Many of the recommendations,if adopted, would radically change the structure, focus, and culture of many law schools.

One of the recommendations of the Task Force is the idea of limited licensing of non-lawyers ("legal technicians") to deliver legal services to the public directly without the supervision of a lawyer:

"However, there is today, and there will increasingly be in the future, a need for: (a)persons who are qualified to provide limited law-related services without the oversight of a lawyer; (b) a system for licensing of individuals competent to provide such services; and (c) educational programs that train individuals to provide those limited services. The new system of training and licensing limited practice officers developed by Washington State and now being pursued by others is an example and a positive contribution."

Thus one of the final recommendations of the Task Force Report is:

"Authorize Persons Other than Lawyers with J.D.’s to Provide Limited Legal Services, Whether Through Licensure Systems or Other Mechanisms Assuring Proper Education, Training, and Oversight."

and:

"Develop Educational Programs to Train Persons, other than Prospective Lawyers, to Provide Limited Legal Services. Such Programs May, but Need Not, Be Delivered through Law Schools that are Parts of Universities."

Unlike the other recommendations which deal with fixing legal education, these recommendations are focused on access to justice issues, which requires a different framework for analysis. 

The recommendation to create a new class of limited licensed legal providers, so-called "Legal Technicians" –  needs to be re-evaluated in the light of changing legal industry market dynamics and the accelerating impact of Internet technology on the delivery of legal services.

Just to note, for decades I have been a strong advocate for the idea that trained paralegals should be permitted to serve the public directly, without further licensing or regulation by any state body, other than graduation from an ABA-accredited law school and a few years of experience working in a law firm.  I was formerly President and Dean of the Philadelphia Institute for Paralegal Training, the nation’s first paralegal educational institution, and in that role saw how effective a trained paralegal can be in serving a law firm’s clients.

More recently. the company I founded – DirectLaw – offers a virtual law firm platform for solos and small law firms. If there were a new class of limited license professionals in the market, I would not hesitate to modify our DirectLaw platform to serve limited licensed professionals, opening up a major new market for our virtual service. So personally I have much to gain by a new class of limited license professionals that would serve the public directly.

Only recently have I begun to reconsider the viability of a new class of legal paraprofessionals serving the public directly primarily because of  changes in the market for personal legal services.

I have  reservations about the proposal to license non-lawyers to provide limited legal services. My reservations are in the form of a challenge to the Task Force recommendations on limited-licensing, in the sense that the idea needs further thought and analysis before states rush to adopt these ideas. (despite the fact that Washington State already has a scheme in place, and  California and New York are considering similar proposals). 

Here are my reservations – comments welcome:

  • The data that we have (see for example www.attorneyfee.com) suggests that the pricing of legal services by solo practitioners and very small law firm firms is going down — not up. It is not a fact that the legal fees are out of reach of many consumers. There is an issue of connecting with consumers with lawyers– but it is becoming less of a price issue and more of an "engagement" issue. There is no evidence to suggest that the fees that limited licensed practitioner would charge would be any less than the fees currently charged by solo practitioners, but their service, by definition, would be much more limited than the service offered by an attorney.
     
  • Solo practitioners are already being displaced by technology which is forcing a reduction in legal fees. Limited license practitioners would be even more vulnerable to the impact of information technology on the more routine services that they would offer.
     
  • The restrictive licensing scheme for lawyers, which is based on a "job-shop" model is likely to be replicated in the licensing scheme for "legal technicians." Licensing of legal service professionals based on the "job shop" model creates a high overhead enterprise that is vulnerable to new entrants into the market, e.g., LegalZoom, that are not subject to such restrictions.  Lawyers already suffer from a competitive disadvantage against new market entrants. Legal technicians will face the same competitive disadvantages. I can’t see how the practices of legal technicians, with certain exceptions, will be viable economically. (I have yet to see a business plan of what such a limited license practice would look like that would include the cost of malpractice insurance, office expenses, advertising and marketing expenses, etc.).
     
  • Introduction of a new class of limited licensed professionals will continue to erode the economic model of solo and small law firm practice by sucking out from those practices the more routine legal services which are important to sustaining the economic viability of those law firms. It is naive to suggest that solo practitioners should concentrate on doing "more complex legal work" leaving the routine legal work to "limited license professionals.". If the ABA wants to deliver a death blow to solo practitioners this is a good way to do it. (See: Will California Threaten Lawyer Livelihoods with Legal Technicians?)
     

Creating a new re
gulatory scheme and educational system for limited licensed professionals is going to be high in cost. It is not likely that law schools and universities will be able to offer education a price point which is much lower than there existing price levels. The result will be that we will have a new class of students being trained in law that who will incur high student loans where the income generated from their practice will be insufficient to amortize the principal and interest, because of limited market prospects and price compression in the legal industry.

  • Many of these new students who aspire to limited licensed professionals professionals are likely to be members of minority groups. Since there will be no hard data on the income prospects for this new class of professionals — just the idea that that once graduate they will be able to compete with lawyers in a limited way – seducing students into a new field where there is no effective demand.
     
  • I can just hear the pitch of commission-based admission’s representatives at a variety of educational institutions who will jump in this market: "Become a licensed legal professional and you can provide legal services like a lawyer."

One result will be the imposition on a group of students excessive loan burdens which will be impossible for them to discharge. (This reminds me of the banking industry preying on minority neighborhoods with fraudulent loans). I would feel more comfortable with an of educational program to train legal technicians if the tuition was very low or free. Since there is no evidence that there is a viable career upon graduation, the risk should be assumed by society, and not the individual student. So if law schools and universities want to jump in this educational market the least they can do it make it tuition free or very low in cost for the first three years, until it is clear that there is a real career after graduation.

I could write more abut this subject, but this post is already long enough. 

 

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.

 

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

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.
 

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. 

Recently several Web sites have emerged that enable consumers to bid for legal services. Examples include: ExpertBids and  Shpoonkle. (Don’t ask me how to pronounce  it). They all work pretty much the same way.

You submit a description of your project or the service you want, your location and your estimated budget. You create a secure account with a user name and password. Your service request is then posted or published to a lawyers who have registered for the service so they can bid on your work. When a lawyer bids for your work, you receive an email (each bid includes a rate, a description, and the lawyer’s profile, rating and client reviews). When the lawyer bids, whether bid by the hour or fixed price, you receive an email which includes a rate, a description, and the lawyer’s profile, rating and client reviews. The process gives you options and a basis for comparing how different lawyer;s will submit bids and pricing for similar work.

The process is always free to the potential client. Once you are connected to a lawyer you can continue your conversation either online or off-line. The sites enable you to communicate with the lawyer online directly, but often you don’t get any free legal advice or any legal service until you accept a retainer agreement and the lawyer/client relationship is established.

For law firms that have learned how to offer legal services for common legal matters for a fixed fee, these bidding sites could be another channel to the consumer and potential clients. These law firms, often virtual law firms, are low-cost producers of legal services, and can out bid more traditional legal firms without sacrificing quality or their profit margins.

Many of these law firms offer what are called, “limited legal services”, which enable these law firms to offer a low cost solution to consumers, but often consumers have no understanding of this concept. See for example the law firms listed in the MyLawyer.com Directory of  Virtual Law Firms. We think that the bidding sites should have articles and information on their web sites describing the “limited legal service” concept as this would be way to educate consumers about another way to cost effectively buy legal services.

A problem that we see with the bidding sites that we reviewed is that there is no easy for the consumer to describe that they want “limited legal services“, as distinguished from traditional legal services. There are options for bidding by the hour, or by the project, but no option for limiting the scope of representation. “Unbundling legal services“, is a relatively new idea, but many states (more than 35) have already passed amendments to their Professional Rules of Responsibility that enable law firms to offer “limited legal services” as long as the retainer clearly defines the scope of representation.

I think this is a critical gap in the way the operators of these site understand how middle class consumers want to purchase legal services. I also think that there is likely to be a disconnect between what the consumer bids for a service, and what they law firm delivers for the bid price. Without a clear specification of the scope of services, there is bound to be miscommunication and confusion.

It is too early to predict whether these “bidding sites” will survive. In the “dot-com boom and bust” era, there were several experiments with lawyer bidding, but all the sites failed because they could not generate enough volume to support their overhead structure.

Susan Cartier Liebel, the President of Solo Practice University has written a good blog post analyzing these sites,  that is worth reviewing by consumers who are interested in this approach to securing legal services.

Buy a Legal Forms Access Plan from MyLawyer.com

After 40 years of leading the self-help law movement, Nolo, is being acquired by Internet Brands an advertising driven Internet company. Nolo was created by two frustrated legal aid lawyers, Charles (Ed) Sherman and Ralph (Jake) Warner, who wanted to figure out a way to help the thousands of consumers with their legal problems who could not afford an attorney and were turned away by legal aid because their incomes were too high.

Based in Berkeley, California, the center of the counter cultural revolution of the 1960’s, Nolo assembled a group of radical lawyers, editors, and writers who were determined to do something about a broken legal system where 90% of the US middle class were priced out of the legal system. Championing legal reforms that would make the U.S. justice system accessible to everyone, the company has seen these reforms become mainstream in the US.

Courts now offer their own automated self-help legal forms, legal aid agencies publish state-wide legal information web sites and also distribute automated legal forms, legal form web sites give away legal forms for free as a way to generate traffic, small claims court limits have been raised in many states, and lawyers are delivering "unbundled legal services" and creating virtual law firms,  figuring out ways to deliver legal services online for a fixed and affordable fee.

Its ironic that Nolo is being acquired by  Internet Brands, for an amount rumored to be in the range of $20,970,000, by an advertising company that is focused primarily on generating leads for law firms through their directories and advertising properties. How does self-help law fit into this business model?

The amount being paid is little more than one times revenue — not exactly a premium.  Although, Nolo  publishes Willmaker and several other excellent web-based legal software programs, it is still primarily a book publisher. In its hey day, before the Internet penetrated almost every household in America, Nolo self-help law books were the primary source for accurate do it yourself legal information and forms.

As the web expanded hundreds of legal information and legal form web sites also emerged, plus national brands such as LegalZoom. These web-based alternatives also provided  legal solutions without the need to use a lawyer — the same need that Nolo was meeting. Except that instead of reading a 200-300 page book in order to get to a legal solution —  web-based applications delivered a legal solution more efficiently, faster, and at less cost.

Nolo has migrated many of its legal forms online, too little and too late, and except for a few major products, non-automated forms. Here is another example of a print publisher whose business, despite the excellence of its product, has been eroded by the Internet.

It is well known that Nolo’s book business actually declined during this recession and growth has been flat. The fastest growing area of Nolo’s business is their Lawyer Directory. This is ironic for a company that prided itself in developing self-help legal solutions that don’t require the assistance of an attorney.

The challenge for Internet Brands will be to figure out how to unlock the assets buried within Nolo’s vast collection of self-help law books and turn these assets into web-based applications that can be distributed over the Internet. It remains to be seen whether the quality of Nolo’s self-help legal content will deteriorate under the management of an advertising-driven company that measures results in page views and unique visitors.

Internet Brands, previously a public company, was recently taken private private when it was acquired by Hellman & Friedman, a private equity firm, based in San Francisco,  in December, 2010. Internet Brands has acquired over 70 vertical web sites in areas ranging from travel to cars to real estate. Internet Brands derives more than 70% of its revenues from advertising on its portfolio of web sites.

In December, 2010 Internet Brands also acquired ALLLAW.com , a consumer legal information portal and AttorneyLocate – an Attorney Directory Service. Both of these web sites are relatively weak properties. Compete.com shows that in March, 2011 Nolo had 498,769 unique visitors ( an 8% decline for the year), ALLLAW.com  had 190,069 unique visitors, (for the of March, 2011); AttorneyLocate.com was especially weak with only 18,277 unique visitors (for the month of March, 2011). Internet Brands also owns ExpertHub, which in turn manages web sites in verticals markets such as dentists, plastic surgery, accountants, tummy tuck, and of course lawyers. The ExpertHub site for lawyers only generates 96,289 unique visitors a month (March, 2011), so I wonder if that level of traffic is high enough to support their advertising rates.

There is irony in the fact that LegalZoom, a company that prides itself on offering  legal solutions from a non-law firm generates more traffic than any of the sites mentioned above at 889,762 unique visitors in March, 2011, trailing only Findlaw and Lawyers.com, (both of which offer similar services as the Internet Brands properties).  With the traffic that LegalZoom gets, maybe LegalZoom should consider creating their own lawyers directory for consumers who need just a bit of legal advice to go with their forms to keep them on the right track? I wonder what solos and small law firms would think if LegalZoom moved in that direction?.

It will be interesting to see how Internet Brands integrates these legal properties to leverage the assets in each acquisition as its tries to compete with the likes of Findlaw and Lawyers.com . It will also be interesting to see whether the quality of Nolo’s self help legal content deteriorates under the management of an advertising company that measures results in impressions, clicks, and unique visitors. If Jake Warner, the present CEO stays involved, I am sure the quality of Nolo’s products will remain "top of class."

It’s an odd mix, –the best in class self-help legal book publisher with an excellent reputation, with some less than best in class lawyer directories and a legal information web site. Only time will tell whether this combination will work. (Although Internet Brands may intend to run each of these properties as separate brands, which would help Nolo maintain the quality of it self help legal content).

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.

 

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.

It seems like LegalZoom’s practices are finally catching up with it. The company is being sued in Missouri on the grounds of unauthorized practice of law and the plaintiff’s are requesting class certification. To give an example of how popular LegalZoom’s services have become, LegalZoom in its petition for removal to Federal court claims that it has served over 14,000 Missouri residents in a five year period, generating over $5,000.000 in sales. Missouri is a relatively small state, so you can get some idea of what kind of business LegalZoom is doing nationwide. No wonder the legal profession is getting nervous and starting to pay attention to this disruptive player in the legal industry.

A good discussion of the case can be found on the IPWatchdog Blog in an article by the Blog’s Founder Gene Quinn.

Click here for a copy of the Missouri Complaint,  LegalZoom’s petition for removal to Federal court, and a copy of a letter from the North Carolina Bar requesting that LegalZoom Cease and Desist from operating within North Carolina because it is violating North Carolina’s UPL statute when it prepares incorporation papers.

In its defense, LegalZoom in its removal petition,  claims that it is:

" a company whose principal business consists of providing an
online platform for customers to prepare their own legal documents. Customers choose a
product or service suitable to their needs and input data into a questionnaire. Where applicable,
the LegalZoom platform then generates a document using the product and data provided by the
customer."

It this were the case, LegalZoom would be functioning only as a "scrivener" transcribing the client’s information into a form. It is well established in some states, including California, where LegalZoom is based, and also Florida for example, that non-lawyers, often called "legal technicians" can help consumers prepare legal documents, as long as they don’t give legal advice.

The question of whether LegalZoom’s  staff do more than they say, and actually provide legal advice, even if it is limited legal advice, is a question of fact to be determined. It  would be interesting to see what the discovery process turns up and what the  LegalZoom, "platform" actually does and how it works.

For comparison, We the People, a retail chain of 35  "Legal Document Preparation stores  operating in six states, operates under the same principles. Customers complete paper questionnaires which are faxed to a central processing center where a technician simply inserts the client’s data into a desktop document assembly program which generates a form. (This is  the same process that many lawyer’s use, except lawyers provide legal advice and analysis).  This document preparation process is essentially the same as LegalZoom’s except that it takes place off the Internet through a network of retail stores. We the People has been attacked by the Bar in several states for UPL, but the company has worked hard to assure bar authorities that its staff and franchisees don’t provide  legal advice.

In theory, We the People, stores are able to reach a market of customers that do not have Internet access and prefer to deal with a human being directly. This market base is likely to have even lower incomes, and ignored by  both attorneys as a target market, and have too much income to qualify for legal aid.  Ironically, however, the We the People pricing is even higher than the LegalZoom pricing, probably because of the cost of maintaining a  retail location. Yet the remaining We the People stores, ( down from a high of 140 stores), seem to be sustainable, if not thriving.

Both companies provide a needed service in the sense that they provide an alternative to consumers who are willing to invest their own time and resources to make sure that the forms offered are the correct forms for their particular situation. Neither company can advise a consumer about what form they should use for their situation, as that would be a form of legal advice. Consumers may be taking a risk when they buy from a self-help document preparation forms company, but it seems this is a risk that consumers are willing to take to avoid what are perceived by many as high legal fees for the same  transaction. For these consumers, what they get is a "good enough" result at a price they can afford.

The other reality is that it is deceptive for LegalZoom and We the People , to claim that using their services will save hundreds or thousands of dollars in legal fees, when two very different category of services are being compared: 
 

  • one a legal information service;
  • and the other a true legal service from a licensed attorney.

    The content of the services are fundamentally different and to compare the services to each other is like comparing "apples’ and " oranges". 

    Sometimes you get the same legal result when you use a document preparation service, but often you don’t.  Apart from UPL issues, it seems to me that this is a misrepresentation in advertising and these claims should receive closer scrutiny from state consumer protection agencies. (Although I am sure that many of LegalZoom’s satisfied customers would say that they don’t need any protection).

Both companies demonstrate the principle that you can solve certain legal problems by having access to "legal information." Legal information by itself is a problem solver for many consumers, and the access to legal information and legal forms on the Internet, has simply accelerated this trend at a much faster rate in the last five years than the self-help law book industry has been able to accomplish in 30-35 years of its existence. This means that lawyers will have to do more to demonstrate their value to the consumer, particularly solos and smaller law firms that serve the broad middle class.

A better solution for consumers, as we have advocated in these pages, is for attorneys to offer legal forms bundled with legal advice at an affordable price, perhaps slightly higher than LegalZoom, but offering much greater value, over the Internet. This is often called. "unbundled legal services," enabling a consumer to purchase just the legal services they need, and no more.

Using virtual law firm technology, like DirectLaw’s virtual law firm platform, lawyers can be even more efficient that the LegalZoom or We the People models, because the entire document assembly process is software driven creating a legal document instantly from the user’s input, ready for the lawyers further review, drafting, and advice-giving. The increased productivity that results from a web-enabled document automation process enables the lawyer to offer a very price competitive service that in fact offers more value. The value of each sale is lower, from the attorney’s point of view, but volume can be much higher if effectively marketed. (Neither LegalZoom nor We the People have such a technology in place. No wonder there prices are so high for what you get!).

As long as the legal document preparers don’t give legal advice, they should be able to coexist with the legal profession, for certain kinds of common legal transactions, but not all.

But lawyers will have to work harder to provide their value and start offering true legal services online over the Internet. Driving non-lawyer legal document preparers out of business on UPL grounds is not an answer. At the end of the day prosecution efforts, will seem to the consuming public as just another attempt by the legal profession to maintain high legal fees for common transactions, while avoiding the cost of innovation.
 

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.