Nolo is Acquired by Internet Brands as Part of Legal Roll Up

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).

LawPivot: Another Legal Advice Web Site

Another interesting start-up has emerged out of Silicon Valley to provide crowdsourced legal advice to other start-ups for free.

Vertical Q&A web sites seems to be the next new thing among venture capital investors. Even Facebook  rolled out this year a crowd-sourced Q&A service.

LawPivot, a legal Q&A web site founded in 2009,  hopes to fill a niche by providing legal advice to the founders of start-up and early stage high-tech companies based in California at a legal fee they can afford -- FREE.   Legal advice is provided by an experienced network of high-priced business law attorneys, recruited from the top 200 hundred or so law firms, who hope to pick up new clients by entering into discussions by providing free legal advice services to start-up companies.

Free legal advice or the “free consult” has been employed by lawyers for years, pre-Internet, as a tried and true marketing strategy for acquiring new clients. Now many lawyers are beginning to offer free legal advice online from their web sites directly. See for example,  VirtualEsq.Com . By next year there will be hundreds of these free legal advice services offered directly by lawyers from their web sites as the virtual law firm movement begins to scale.

However, free legal advice from an individual law firm's web site, is not the same thing as a vertical web site that aggregates answers from many lawyers, giving consumers a wider variety of responses to their particular situation.

Free legal advice online is not a completely new idea. FreeAdvice has been doing it for years, and consumers can get answers to their basic legal questions from sites such as AVVO, RocketLawyer, and JustAnswer. What is new, is that LawPivot provides through its network of lawyers “real” legal advice that applies to the client’s particular situation, as distinguished from merely legal information. And this advice is reputedly to be "high quality" given the stature of the lawyers recruited to the LawPivot network.

However, genuine legal advice, [as distinguished from “legal advice” that is characterized as “legal information” ],  like any legal service, has to be delivered in an ethically compliant way requiring that the client’s information be kept confidential, that an attorney/client relationship be established, and that the attorney providing the legal advice be a member of the bar within the jurisdiction  where the client is located. Presumably LawPivot is addressing these issues. The LawPivot service is presently limited to California, but the company, according to its representations, plans to expand nationwide.

Although the company recently raised $600,000 from Google Ventures, the venture capital arm of Google, after a $400,0000 round from from a group of angel investors, it will be interesting to see how or whether it survives. At this point, neither the clients are charged for legal advice, nor are the participating attorneys charged an advertising fee. So there is no revenue, and apparently no business model. However, I doubt that the investors thought they were making  charitable contributions, so there must be a business model lurking in the background somewhere?

Unfortunately, the only business model that is ethically compliant in the US, is one where the participating lawyers pay an advertising fee to play (get listed) and get exposure. Splitting legal advice fees between a law firm and a non-law firm , is a big “No, No” and an ethical prohibition that exposes the participating attorneys to bar sanctions which could lead to disbarment.   Perhaps because Google is now involved as a major backer of  LawPivot , and the company is planning to move to the GooglePlex campus start-up incubator,  "they can do no wrong.!"

Many other Western common law jurisdictions, like the United Kingdom, have abolished the division of fees, but the rules against splitting fees with non-lawyers remains sacrosanct  in the US, on the theory that splitting fees would compromise the independent judgment of the attorney. However, in the UK, lawyers are permitted to work for a profit-making company and provide legal advice directly to consumers, and no one seems to be complaining about compromised judgment. [ See: FirstAssist in the UK  for an example ].

Charging clients an administrative fee to “use” the web site, as an alternative revenue source, has been tried before in an earlier Internet era, and it failed then. [ e.g. AmeriCounsel ]. I doubt that this model will work today when consumers are expecting everything on the web to be for free.

I think it is a good sign that innovation is happening in the legal industry, and that private capital is finally looking for a way to get a return by investing in the delivery of legal services. [See: Total Attorneys Receives Multi-Million Dollar Investment ].

I would like to see companies like LawPivot thrive, but at this point I don’t see the juice.  Are advertising revenues sufficient to make this venture sustainable, or has LawPivot  figured out another legitimate source of revenue that doesn't violate US ethical prohibitions? Only time will tell.