In a widely distributed press release to announce his coaching service in virtual lawyering, Attorney and co-founder of vLawyer Consulting, William McNeil makes this statement:

vLawyer defines a virtual law practice as a blending of a traditional brick-and-mortar law firm and legal services delivered entirely through the Internet and a secure client portal. The American Bar Association has responded by launching an e-lawyering task force, but to this point has only provided guidance for lawyers looking to open virtual law offices where clients never meet with the lawyer in person. This works for certain practice areas, but family law and criminal defense attorneys are left out of this definition. A virtual law practice, as defined by vLawyer, can apply to many different practice areas and gives attorneys the power to design their own lifestyle, while providing top-notch client service. 

This statement is "made-up" stuff.

The eLawyering Task Force of the Law Practice Division of the American Bar Association was not "just launched."  It was established in 2000 by William Paul, then President of the ABA. Nowhere in the statements that the eLawyering Task Force has published has been the representation that virtual lawyering should be limited to law firms that solely deliver legal services without seeing a client.   We have clarified in multiple statements and presentations that the idea of online delivery of legal services should be combined with an off-line face-to-face presence and each delivery mode should support and reinforce the other.

While it is possible to create a virtual law firm pure play where there is no face-to-face presence, it is difficult to make a success of a purely virtual law firm practice.  We expand on this idea in a White Paper, published by DirectLaw, the sponsor of this blog entitled: Virtual Law Practice:  Success Factors.   After working with over 300 law firms that use the DirectLaw virtual law firm platform, we have a good idea of what works and what doesn’t work. Download the White Paper here.

The eLawyering Task Force  minimum requirements for law firms delivering legal services online (October, 2009), provides a framework for further discussion and to define the essential requirements for enabling the delivery of ethically compliant online legal services.  The guidance was not designed to provide recommendations on how every type of law practice should execute on this concept.  

A more expansive discussion of these requirements is contained in an article which just appeared in Legalink Magazine, by Stephanie Kimbro and myself. Ms. Kimbro also served on the Task Force and wrote the book on Virtual Law Practice.  We conclude the article with this thought: 

The idea of A "Virtual Law Practice" will not be only something that early adopters utilize in their law practice – it will become an essential component of every law firm practice."

We welcome Attorney McNeil’s recent entrance into this field as solos and small law firms need all of the coaching and support they can get to adopt their practices to the requirements of 21st century practice.  The eLawyering Task Force is an open group that welcomes discussion of these concepts and their implications. Our next meeting will be during the American Bar Association Annual Meeting in Boston in August, 2014.  To learn more about what we are really doing  come join us. (McNeil that message is for you!).

 

 *Disclosure: Richard Granat is Co-Chair of the eLawyering Task Force, Law Practice Division, American Bar Association.

 

Legal EducationTwo ABA presidents to weigh in on future of legal education at South Carolina Law Review symposium Feb. 27 – 28.Legal Education

For more information and to register online, go to the South Carolina Law Review website.

Will non-lawyers soon be allowed to provide certain legal services? They might if one of the key conclusions from a recent report by the ABA Task Force on the Future of Legal Education is implemented. (See my blog post on this topic at: Limited Licensing of Legal Technicians: A Good Idea? 

I am participating in this program so I will get another opportunity to air my somewhat contrarian views on whether there should be another licensed class of professionals serving the public directly who are not lawyers. A complicated subject that needs more debate.

The report, released in January, will be the focus of the South Carolina Law Review Symposium Feb. 27 – 28 at the University of South Carolina School of Law. The symposium will explore why law schools and the legal profession must make changes – and what those changes should be – to keep up with the evolving marketplace for legal education and legal services delivery. 

Titled “On Task?: Expanding the Boundaries of Legal Education,” the symposium will take place in the law school’s auditorium. 

The symposium will begin at 4 p.m. Thursday with a panel discussion in response to the Task Force’s report and a keynote address by Jim Silkenat, president of the American Bar Association and partner at Sullivan & Worcester LLP in New York. Silkenat will discuss the legal profession and future of legal education and its impact on law schools, corporate counsel and private attorneys. USC board of trustee, alumnus and ABA president-elect William Hubbard will introduce Silkenat and offer his views on the future of legal education. 

Friday’s sessions, which take place 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. will focus on proposals outlined in the Task Force’s recent report and law schools’ responses to changing markets within—and outside of—the law curriculum. Panels also will address the changing expectations of law firms and clients, new platforms in the delivery of legal services, the growing demand for information management by corporate clients, and the promises and challenges of limited licensing. 

Participants include, among others: 

  •  Elizabeth Chambliss, USC professor of law and director of the Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough Center on Professionalism;
  • Steve Crossland, chairman of the Washington Supreme Court Limited License Legal Technician Board;                                          
  •  Barry Currier, managing director of accreditation and legal education, ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar;  
  • Neil Hamilton, professor of law and director of the University of St. Thomas School of Law’s Holloran Center for Ethical Leadership in the Professions; 
  • Renee Knake, professor of law and co-director of Michigan State University College of Law’s Kelly Institute of Ethics and the Legal Profession;  
  • Paula Littlewood, executive director of the Washington State Bar Association;
  •  Hon. Barbara Madsen, chief justice of the Washington Supreme Court;
  • Lisa Rohrer, executive director of executive education and the Case Development Initiative at Harvard Law School; and
  • Ronald Staudt, professor of law and director of Chicago-Kent College of Law’s Center for Access to Justice and Technology.

I am participating on a Panel with my colleague and friend, Ron Staudt, focusing on teaching legal technology in the J.D. curriculum,  a current project of mine through the new Center for Law Practice Technology at Florida Coastal School of Law..

·        

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. 

 

Center for Law Practice TechnologyThere has been much discussion lately on whether law schools are training lawyers for 21st century law practice. At the ABA Annual Meeting this week in San Francisco a Presidential Task Force on the Future of Legal Education is scheduled to report out its recommendations.. In my last blog post, I identified 13 law schools that were making a commitment to training law students in legal technology and law practice management. At one point in my career,  I taught these subjects at several law schools under the guidance of Gary Munneke., — whose untimely death last November has created a vacuum that will be hard to replace.

My own bias is that in this digital age, to be a competent lawyer requires an understanding of legal practice technology. The ABA supports this view as at last year’s mid-year meeting the ABA House of Delegates  acting on the recommendations of the ABA 20/20 Commission, voted to amend the Model Rules of Professional Conduct to make clear that lawyers have a duty to be competent in technology. Specifically, the ABA voted to amend the comment to Model Rule 1.1, governing lawyer competence, to say that, in addition to keeping abreast of changes in the law and its practice, a lawyer should keep abreast of “the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology.”

Center for Law Practice TchnologyI have been looking for an opportunity to getting back into teaching law practice technology and now have the opportunity with Stephanie Kimbro to create a new Center for Law Practice Technology with the backing of Florida Coastal School of Law in Jacksonville, Florida.

Stephanie and I will become Co-Directors of this new Center. and the plan is to develop a series of online courses for law students nationwide  that will lead to a Certificate of Law Practice Technology and Management. The first courses will be offered in January, 2014.

The Center will also be a laboratory for developing and testing new forms of online legal services.  Students will have the opportunity to experience virtual law firm technologies and other emerging technology tools such as legal expert systems, document automation technology, and legal applications that are designed to increase access to the legal system. You can read more about this new Center here.

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.

Burton-LawBurton-Law, a virtual law firm based in Ohio and North Carolina has been selected by Law Technology News for the most Innovative Use of Technology in a Small Law Firm. This small law firm is a good case study on how a law firm can leverage virtual law firm technology to serve a diverse group of clients over a wider geographical area.

We are proud that the Burton-Law has selected DirectLaw as their client portal with embedded document automation capabilities. Burton-Law also uses CLIO as their web-based practice management solution which integrates seamlessly with DirectLaw through the use of an API.

Stephanie Kimbro,  formerly co-founder of Virtual Law Office Technology which was acquired by TotalAttorneys several years ago, helped make the decision to adopt DirectLaw as Burton-Law’s virtual law firm platform. Stephanie is no longer with TotalAttorneys.  Stephanie joined Burton-Law last March to expand their operations in North Carolina. Stephanie is a pioneer in the development of the virtual lawyering concept, having written the book  on the topic.

Consmer Law RevolutionStephanie has also just released a new ebook on the Consumer Law Revolution which is the best description and analysis of online marketing platforms that I have seen. You can download it here.

Stephanie also blogs at Virtual Law Practice, and you can follow her on Twitter @StephKimbro.

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?

Expert Systems in the LawDavid R. Johnson, a Visiting Professor at the Institute for Information Law and Policy and New York Law School, has written a new thought piece for the World Future Society on how the digitization of law changes the nature of law. Building on a theme first articulated by Ethan Katsh in his seminal work on The Electronic Media and the Transformation of Law (Oxford University Press, 1991).  Katsh speculated that digital technologies would change our ideas about what the law actually is. Johnson extends the analysis and notes that "Katsh’s speculations are only now becoming right-in ways that not even he predicted." I am indebted to Katsh as when I first read his book in 1991, in pre-internet days, it set me off on a journey and a path that I am still pursuing to this day. I underestimated that time that it would take for these predictions to become a reality by about two decades!

Johnson envisions a future where there will be a proliferation of expert systems developed by lawyers that will enter into dialogues with clients and consumers that will provide answers to legal questions at low cost and at scale. He sees law becoming conversational and dynamic, rather than static. Legal documents becoming wholly interactive. Statutes will also become dynamic with interpretations of language build into the code itself.

In an environment where law is conversational, the meaning of a term or rule will become less obscure and ambiguous, so that disputes will be resolved based on the facts, rather than what a particular term means.

Johnson predicts that that:

"As law becomes conversational code, we will talk to it directly. Some people may not get the answer they like. so lawyers will always need to be around to provide comfort or help formulate alternative plans for those who can afford them."

The tools to create such "expert systems" are getting to be easier to use. Neota Logic, an expert systems authoring tool company, collaborated this year with New York Law School and Georgetown Law School in a project to train law students to help students build expert legal systems in the context of  courses offered by both law schools. I have reviewed these student projects and I can tell you that they are quite good and useful aids to decision-making. Here is a video that describes these projects. These students are learning skills that will enable them to become a new kind of legal professional that creates systems that can have wide distribution, and as Johnson points out a potentially a new kind profitable law practice.

(Richard Susskind , another one of my mentors to whom I owe a great intellectual debt, also predicts the rise of a new class of legal software engineers, in his seminal book on The End of Lawyers).

It will be interesting to see how long it will take for Johnson’s predictions to become a reality. (Probably another two decades!) One constraint  that we know of, is that it takes capital to build any kind of a digital application, because it takes time to build, and if you are spending time building a digital application, you are not billing hours to clients.

It is for this reason for example. that although we make our document authoring system available for free when a lawyer subscribes to our DirectLaw virtual law firm platform , less than 5 lawyers out of hundreds of law firm subscribers have elected to automate their own legal documents.

Perhaps the current generation of lawyers simply don’t possess the skills to do this kind work – a problem that some law schools are trying to address. See Reinvent Law at Michigan State Law School. Change comes very slowly to the academy, so I would not expect a new cadre of legal software engineers to available soon.

For those that acquire these new skills, I think they will find themselves in demand – not by law firms – but by disruptive law start-ups, privately-financed companies, that will be the source of these new legal expert system applications.

You can download the entire Johnson article here.

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In accordance with the   FTC 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guidelines Concerning Use of Endorsements and Testimonial in Advertising" I am disclosing that I have a material connection to some of the companies referred to in this Post. I am the Founder/CEO of  DirectLaw, a virtual law firm platform provider.. The opinions expressed here are my own. I did not receive any compensation from any source for writing this post. DirectLaw sponsors this blog by paying for the costs of hosting.

 

 

For those of you following the LegalZoom IPO, which was scheduled for Friday, August 2, 2012, it was postponed for the usual stated reason that market conditions were not suitable. This really means that the offering could not get off at the $10-$12 price per share that the selling shareholders wanted. Instead the maximum price institutional buyers were willing to pay was reportedly $7-$8 a share, which would have reduced the valuation of the company by one-third. The reasons that were given for this lower valuation were comparisons with other transactional-based companies like www,ancestry.com which is selling at a price to earnings ratio of 21.73, compared to a projected price to earnings ratio for LegalZoom of over 40x.

Perhaps the research analysts on the buy side perceived a more fundamental flaw in LegalZoom’s business model.

The LegalZoom product offering at its core is still the provision of legal forms offered up to recently, without the option of the legal advice from an attorney. The pricing for these legal forms are comparable to the pricing of paralegal prepared  legal forms offered for example by the many legal technicians in the State of California who work with consumers off line in face-to-face meetings, like lawyers.  

Thus for example LegalZoom charges $299  for no-fault divorce forms, and $139 for name change forms. Many virtual law firms now offer comparable legal form services but bundled with legal advice. See for example www.morrisfamilylaw.com  where a no-fault divorce is offered with the full accountability and the backing of an attorney for a fee of $275. For another example see FlashDivorce a virtual law firm service that offers  no-fault divorce in four states for $199.

Law firms are going virtual and are finally figuring out ways to compete against LegalZoom on its own playing field. To be sure, these small law firms don’t have the capital and marketing budgets of a LegalZoom, but as thousands of these law firms eventually migrate to delivering online legal services they will not only offer a better value to consumers, but they will constrain LegalZoom’s growth and dominance.

The problem with the LegalZoom pricing model is that automated legal forms are digital goods whose marginal cost is zero. Eventually a pure digital good has a marginal cost of zero and will be made available a price which is either free or close to free. It is for this reason that a song, for example, on iTunes cost only .99. [I wrote about this idea previously at Legal Forms for the Price of a Song on iTunes? which identifies other legal start-ups moving into the free legal forms market space.]

LegalZoom itself has aggressively argued that it services are essentially software-powered and its document assembly processes are publications entitled to the same First Amendment protections as other kinds of commercial speech. Its products are therefore, it argues, immune from organized bar claims that their services constitute the unauthorized practice of law. By its own admission, the professional review of legal documents by LegalZoom is very limited and does not constitute legal advice.

If this is the case, once consumers figure out that the product that they get from LegalZoom is essentially the same digital form that can be purchased from many automated legal form websites at a price which is 10% of LegalZoom’s existing selling prices,  -LZ’s revenue should implode, in theory. I say, "in theory", because LegalZoom has done an excellent job in persuading consumers that what they have to offer is a better service than what they get from the typical lawyer.

Because of the overwhelming advertising that LegalZoom pushes into multiple channels the LegalZoom brand  is likely to remain intact, because the truth about the nature of LegalZoom’s product offering is obscured by their aggressive advertising messaging.

For many consumers,  if a service does not appear on page one of a Google search, they will look no further, and the opportunity to avoid using a lawyer in solving a legal problem is often the controlling decision factor.

For example, many consumers are still unaware of the fact that the US Legal Services Corporation has subsidized the creation of free automated legal forms available to people of all income levels that are available for  free from a network of state-based legal information and legal document web sites. These free legal form services have no budget for marketing, certainly nothing like the $40 million a year that LegalZoom’s spends on marketing and advertising.

These legal forms are  fully automated, web-enabled, automated,easy to use, and often employ a visual graphical interface to help users navigate through online questions and courthouse procedures. The program is not limited to low- income people.

Even without a marketing budget, last year more than 500,000 legal forms were downloaded by users in 34 states using this program. This transactional volume already exceeds LegalZoom’s annual volume and it is increasing as more legal forms are automated and the number of states participating in this program increases.

State courts have also jumped into the free legal forms market in response to the demands of pro se filers looking for free legal help. See for example Online Court Assistance in Utah and Maryland Family Law Forms.

Even the US Bankruptcy courts are prototyping a free online set of Chapter 7 bankruptcy forms to be used by self-filers. This service will eventually be rolled out nationwide to every US Bankruptcy Court Website.

I can think of other ways that the development and distribution of free automated legal forms can be monetized, without the need to charge a transactional fee to the consumer. (This is the subject of a future blog post).

Free legal f
orms are here and the supply is expanding. Lawyer’s won’t like the fact, any more than LegalZoom, that this development will disrupt their business models. The reality is that both kinds of suppliers of legal solutions will have to accept the challenge of the accelerated pace of technological change.

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In accordance with the   FTC 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guidelines Concerning Use of Endorsements and Testimonial in Advertising" I am disclosing that I have a material connection to some of the companies referred to in this Post. I am the Founder/CEO of MyLawyer.com, a smart legal forms Website, and Founder/CEO of DirectLaw, a virtual law firm platform provider. The opinions expressed here are my own. I did not receive any compensation from any source for writing this post. DirectLaw sponsors this blog by paying for the costs of hosting.

LegalZoom is a trademark of LegalZoom, Inc.