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.

 

 

The College of Law Practice Management is presenting the Futures Conference on October 26-27, 2012 at Georgetown Law in Washington, DC. Anyone interested in the future of law practice and legal business should attend. Click here to register 

I am a Fellow of COLPM and highly recommend this Conference. My colleague, Ron Friedmann, is a Trustee of COLPM and is Co-Chair of this important Conference.

Below you will find the program in chronological order.

NEW MODEL LAW FIRMS
Big Law has never been the only option for general counsel. Today, many alternatives exist, including “new model law firms.” This panel will examine how these firms do business, practice law, differentiate, serve clients, and offer lawyers a different work experience. We will also hear from the founding visionaries on where they think the law firm market is heading.
Moderator: Ron Friedmann, Fireman & Co. Consulting
Panelists: Mark Cohen, ClearspireBen Lieber, Potomac Law Group PLLCAndy Daws, Riverview Law, and Patrick Lamb, Valorem Law Group.

THE CHALLENGES OF DIVERSITY IN A NEW STAFFING ENVIRONMENT
Law firms are adjusting the traditional personnel model, reducing the number of equity owners and adding new tiers of service providers. But the challenge of diversity remains. A nationally-recognized expert in diversity issues within law firms and other legal settings, Verna Myers will address what legal employers can do to tackle this critical issue.
Speaker: Verna Myers, Verna Myers Consulting Group LLC, author of Moving Diversity Forward.

PRESENTATION OF 2012 INNOVACTION AWARDS
The 2012 InnovAction Award Winners present.
Moderator: Tim Corcoran

LEGAL ACADEMY RESEARCH PROJECT
Reports on two research projects underway at the Center for the Study of the Legal Profession, Georgetown Law: Integration and Fragmentation in the Modern Law Firm; Developing Attorneys for the Future: What Can We Learn from the Fast Trackers?
Moderator: Mitt Regan, Georgetown Law
Panelists: Juliet Aiken, Georgetown LawHeather Bock, Georgetown Law and Lisa Rohrer, Georgetown Law.

THE CONSUMER LAW REVOLUTION
The panel will consider such questions as: How is technology changing delivery of legal services to consumers? How is technology changing how lawyers who serve consumers practice? Do we see signs today that consumer law developments are already doing so? Will constraints – for example, client or lawyer conservatism, immature technology, or ethical barriers – limit a more rapid evolution or a real evolution?
Moderator: Tanina Rostain, Georgetown Law;
Panelists: Stephanie Kimbro, Burton Law LLCMichael Mills, Neota Logic, and Marc Lauritsen, Capstone

EXPLORING THE NUANCES OF VALUE
In 2011, a panel focused on defining value. Now, in this panel discussion, we take the next step, as law firm and inhouse representatives explain how alternative arrangements are developed and tweaked so that both sides can derive value.
Moderator: Aric Press, American Lawyer Media
Panelists: Toby Brown, Akin GumpMark Chandler, Cisco Systems.

FUTURE OF MANAGING PARTNERS
The future demands a new focus in law firm management. This panel, featuring extraordinary managing partners, examines the critical roles and responsibilities of MPs in firms of all sizes—and what the panelists see as the future challenges and opportunities in firm management, including managing talent at all levels and “getting things done” in ways that most benefit the firm, its people and its clients.
Moderator: John Michalik, JJeyEm Consulting and author of The Extraordinary Managing Partner, Reaching the Pinnacle of Law Firm Management
Panelists: Thomas Grella, McGuire Wood & Bissette, P.A.Fredrick Lautz, Quarles & Brady LLPCharles Vigil, Rodey, Dickason, Sloan, Akin & Robb, P.A.Ward Bower, Altman Weil, Inc.

THE NEW NORMAL FROM THE GENERAL COUNSEL PERSPECTIVE
General Counsel face continuing pressure to control costs while coping with growing demands for legal advice. In a panel organized by the Association of Corporate Counsel, you will hear how experienced law department leaders respond to this pressure and what it means both for their department operations and the law firms they retain.
Moderator: Amar Sarwal, ACC
Panelists: Scott Chaplin, Jorge Scientific Corporation; Susan Hackett, Legal Executive Leadership and Eric Margolin, CarMax, Inc.

LEGAL SERVICES UPDATE
2012 has been a year of intense pressure on low-income people facing legal problems and unfortunately, intense pressure on the legal aid organizations that serve them. In these tough times, law practice management expertise and best practices are needed more than ever to improve efficiency, buoy up morale, tune up staffing and employ new technologies. During lunch, Jim Sandman, President of the Legal Services Corporation and a 2012 College fellow-elect, will update attendees on bleak conditions facing LSC and describe a new mentoring initiative in the planning stages that will expand the pro bono consulting the College can offer to legal aid.

 

 Raj AbhyankerHere is a tale of an exceptional entrepreneur/solo lawyer who has built a thriving Internet-based law practice of large scale in less than seven years. Raj Abhyanker, 37,  started his law practice in Palo Alto in a small office above a rug store in 2005 (sounds like many Palo Alto start-ups like Apple and Google!). The law firm’s focus is patent and trademark law which is Mr. Abhyanker’s specialty.  

In September, 2009, Mr Abhyanker launched a web site called Trademarkia which is designed to help small business secure a trademark for an affordable fee. Trademarkia contains an easy to search data base of all of the trademarks of the USPTO office. The site has been written up in the New York Times.

Little more than two year after launch,  Trademarkia has become the leading trademark site on the Web generating more than as 1,000,000 visitors a month, more than either LegalZoom or RocketLawyer.  The law firm now employs more than 60 lawyers, including a team of lawyers in India trained in U.S. trademark law.

This is an example of how a single lawyer with a deep knowledge of the power of the Internet, together with a background in knowledge process management and outsourcing, can create a world-class enterprise from nothing in a relatively short period of time.

Quality Solicitors in the United KingdomMr. Abhyanker is now moving his concept to a new level by creating LegalForce,  a new national legal services retail brand, similar to the Quality Solicitors concept in the UK.

Quality Solicitors
is a national network of retail offices serving consumers and small business by linking together a network of small law firms that share a common brand, advertising and marketing budgets, and an online presence. Mr Abhyanker’s goal is to create a Quality Solicitors type network in the United States.

Legal force Law CenterLegalForce is creating, in a historically-preserved building, a retail law center in downtown Palo Alto in the heart of Silicon Valley, (right across the street from the new Apple store on University Ave.)  The LegalForce center is set to open in the Fall of 2012.

Mr. Abhyanker’s idea is to create a physical space, that is as much about education as it is about "retail", like an Apple Store. In this innovative legal space clients can meet with their lawyers in a comfortable and non-formal setting. Like Starbuck’s "Third Place"  consumers and small business entrepreneurs will be able to meet their lawyer’s in a casual friendly environment. Part coffee bar, self-help book store, legal education and  legal research center, the idea is that a LegalForce center will be a nexus where people can connect and get to meet their lawyers in an accessible environment. Legal services won’t actually be delivered from the store – instead the store will be designed as a gateway to legal and other related services and the visible manifestation of a national retail legal services brand.

There have been other attempts to create a physical retail space where clients can meet with their lawyers in a comfortable and accessible environment. LegalGrind, based in Santa Monica, Los Angeles, advertises coffee with your counsel, but has never been able to expand beyond a few locations. Chicago has their LegalCafe, which is a similar concept, but remains a limited operation. 

My opinion is that the failure of these two operations to scale is the absence of an online strategy which offers legal services over the Internet as well as in a physical setting.

Unlike these smaller operations, Mr. Abhyanker plans to create a national branded legal service that links together lawyers working in the real world with a powerful online legal service strategy.

Unlike a typical law firm, Mr Abhyanker employs a team of software engineers capable of creating an innovative Internet legal services delivery platform that can create referrals for law firms that are members of the LegalForce network.

LegalForce  has the promise of creating a true national retail legal services brand that will offer a range of legal services – from limited legal services online to full service legal representation.

I have often thought that what serves consumers best is a business model that combines a strong online presence with lawyers who provide a full range of services within their own communities.

Online legal form web sites, like LegalZoom, CompleteCase,  RocketLawyer, and our own SmartLegalForms, are limited in scope.These are alternatives that consumers choose because (1) there is no existing national trusted legal service brand; and (2) consumers don’t understand what they are not getting when they purchase just a form from a non-law firm.

The LegalForce idea is designed to be a counter-force to these online insurgents which are capturing market share from the legal profession.

It will be interesting to see how this LegalForce idea develops and whether Mr. Abhyanker will be successful in this venture. LegalForce is one to watch.

 Free White Paper- Virtual Law Practice: Success FActors

Get Free White Paper on
What Makes a Virtual Law Practice Work.

The Center for Computer-Assisted Legal InstructionThe Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction (CALI) is offering a free online course on digital law practice, primarily for law students and law professors, but anyone can register.

 

I don’t doubt that most law faculty will find these topics to be irrelevant, but its connecting with law students, as over 500 law students have registered nationwide.

For lawyers interested in delivering legal services online, this course would be a good introduction to the subject.

The first session is February 10 at 2-3 EST. Stephanie Kimbro is doing a session on the virtual law office.

Later in the course, Marc Lauritsen is doing a session on document automation, and I am doing a session on “unbundling legal services”.

Here are some of the other sessions:

Week 5: Online Legal Forms in Legal Aid
Friday, Mar. 9, 2-3pm ET
Ronald W. Staudt, Professor of Law, Chicago-Kent College of Law

Week 6: Contract Standardization
Friday, Mar. 16, 2-3pm ET
Kingsley Martin, President, kiiac.com & contractstandards.com

Week 7: Free Legal Research Tools
Friday, Mar. 23, 2-3pm ET
Sarah Glassmeyer, Director of Content Development / Law Librarian, CALI

Week 8: Unauthorized Practice of Law in the 21st Century
Friday, Mar. 30, 2-3pm ET
William Hornsby, Staff Counsel at American Bar Association

Week 9: Social Media for Lawyers
Friday, Apr. 6, 2-3pm ET
Ernest Svenson, Attorney at Law

Here is the course description and the registration page:

http://www.cali.org/blog/2012/01/25/free-online-course-digital-law-practice

Legal forms, without the legal advice or assistance of a lawyer, continue to decline in value. As a pure digital product, a legal form follows the price curve of other digital goods eventually approaching zero.  Several new start-ups in the legal industry will accelerate this trend.

Docracy is a new legal document start-up, founded by Matt Hall and John Watkinson, that grew out of a TechCrunch Disrupt Hackathon in New York City. The idea is to provide a free depository of legal documents that meets the needs of small business and start-ups which are crowd sourced by individuals who register for the site. The concept is to provide an open source site for legal documents in the same way that GitHub is an open source site for code. The company is venture funded First Round Capital, Vaizra Seed Fund, Quotidian Ventures and Rick Webb by a group of investors who see opportunity in disrupting the legal profession. The documents are largely flat forms (MS Word or Adobe .PDF File format), with quality control provided by the "community." It’s not clear yet what the business model for this site will be. Online signing of legal documents is coming.

A second legal document start-up has emerged out of the New York City start-up web scene called Paperlex  .  Paperlex is also targeting the small business market. This site will contain standardized legal documents that can be modified within the web browser. A user will be able to store all of their documents online in their own private and secure web space, will be able to collaborate with third parties, and will have the capacity to execute/sign documents online.

Rather than crowd sourcing the legal form content, Paperlex will provide their own libraries of standard forms. Alison Anthoine, Esq., the CEO and Founder, hopes to provide an accessible legal document portal that small business can easily use with their customers and other parties at a cost that is much less that the cost of a custom document crafted by an attorney. The business model for Paperlex is a Saas subscription service provided for a low monthly fee.

DocStoc is another document repository that includes not only collections of legal documents, but collections of documents in other categories as well, such as human resource, travel, and personal finance documents. Documents are for free or can be purchased. The site is also built on crowd sourcing principles. Users can contribute documents and sell them through the site, with DocStoc taking a cut. Most documents are not automated and are provided in either MS Word or Adobe .PDF file format. However, a new feature called "custom documents" enables the user to answer an online questionnaire which generates a more customized document. The user can view the assembled document before making a decision to purchase a monthly subscription.Monthly subscriptions range from $9.95 a month to $39.95. The site claims to have 20,000,000 users.

Docstoc, Inc., was founded by Jason Nazar (bio) and Alon Shwartz (bio). The company was selected in September of 2007 to debut its product at the prestigious TechCrunch40 Conference. The platform was subsequently launched to the public in October 2007.

Docstoc is a venture backed company (Rustic Canyon) and received funding from the co-founders/investors in MySpace, LowerMyBills, Mp3.com, PriceGrabber and Baidu.

WhichDraft.com , founded by Jason and Geoff Anderman, brothers, and both attorneys, offers free contracts that can be assembled within the web browser. Legal documents can be easily shared with third parties, and you can build your  own Question and Answer templates. A nice feature enables a user the compare any two versions to see new and deleted text in the fee legal form. 

By A Legal Forms PLan frm MyLawyer.comMyLawyer.com, our  own consumer legal document portal, also offers legal document plans that are libraries of automated legal documents that when purchased in a bundle are less than the cost of a song on iTunes*.

 

 

In the nonprofit sector, LawHelp Interactive, a unit of LawHelp.org,with funding from the Legal Services Corporation, [ See Technology Initiative Grants ] has been working with a legal aid agencies nationwide to help the automate legal forms and publish them to state-wide legal form web sites which are available to any one within the state. The program is not limited to low income people. Hundreds of thousands of free legal forms are now created annually in more than 34 states. LSC has invested millions of dollars in the development of interactive legal form sites over the past 9 years.

Courts have also jumped into the free legal forms distribution game in response to the hoards of pro-se filers looking for free legal help. See for example: Online Court Assistance Program in Utah and Maryland Family Law Forms .

These free legal form web sites raise some interesting questions about the future role of the attorney and the changing nature of law practice.  What role will the lawyer play in this changing environment?  What is the impact of these relatively new sources of free or low cost legal forms on law practice, particularly the practice of solo and small law firms? Our own research provides support for the fact that solos and small law firms will continue to loose market share to these new providers.

"Unbundling" legal services by providing legal advice and legal document review for legal forms that clients secure from another source, may be a way of expanding access to the legal system, but it is also disruptive of law firm business models,  just like iTunes* was disruptive of the bundled album approach of the music industry. Value is shifting from the lawyer to the consumer and non-lawyer providers of legal forms. I can hear the sucking sound as law firm business models collapse.

Some questions to think about:

  • What risk do consumers and small business assume when they use a legal form without the advice or review of an attorney? The answer depends on the type of form, its complexity and the complexity of the transaction. If a user represents themselves in their own relatively simple name change, and their name ge
    ts changed by the court successfully,  then one can assume that self-representation worked.
     
  • But what about a Shareholder’s Agreement, where terms have to be negotiated, and the standard document doesn’t include the particular language required by the parties to reflect their intent? Should the parties now draft their own language? Should the parties simply ignore the need to include special language that reflects their intent hoping that there will be no situation in the future that will create a conflict between the shareholders because of a failure to include the language?
     
  • Who should negotiate the terms of the Agreement? The lawyer or the principal? Who would do the better job? How much shuld be charged for a successful negotiation?
     
  • How should the lawyer price services, when the client comes to the lawyer with their own standardized form and asks the lawyer to review it?
     
  • Will the lawyer refuse to serve the client, unless the client uses the lawyer’s form or document?
     
  • How important is the insurance that a lawyer provides that the document or form is valid for the purpose intended, accurate, and reflects the intent of the parties?
     
  • Lets assume that the 85% of the legal form content in many categories of documents is identical. [ This is what Kingsley Martin from KIIAC has concluded and he should know ! ] But 15% consisted of critical variable language not susceptible to easy document automation. Should the attorney charge on a fixed price for the entire project as if she drafted the entire agreement, although she only worked on several paragraphs? If the agreement fails because the variable paragraphs are incorrect for the particular case, why shouldn’t the attorney charge as if she he worked on the entire agreement?

If you have thought about these questions, and have some ideas on the impact of free legal forms on the legal industry, please share them here.

Document Automation as  DisruptuveTechnology

 

*iTunes is a trademark of Apple, Inc.

 

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

The legal profession has witnessed the rise of new players that are disruptive of existing patterns of law practice.

First came LegalZoom, AVVO, TotalAttorneys, Rocketlawyer, MyLawyer (our company), and Law Pivot, disrupters that are having an impact on the way legal services are identified and delivered to the broad middle class.

Now comes AttorneyFee.com that holds promise of making legal fees more transparent.

For many years I have been critical of the fact that lawyers charge widely differing legal fees for the same work. In a study I was involved at the University of Maryland Law school some years ago, we discovered that for simple family law actions, such as a no-fault divorce, lawyers would charge any where from $500.00 to $3,000.00 for essentially the same work. This variation in legal fees for the same work tasks is another cause of the distrust that the average consumer has of the legal profession.

AttorneyFee.com is a welcome development for law firms that are already experimenting with fixed fee legal services delivered online. Law firms that are using online delivery technology will in fact have a competitive advantage over law firms that use higher cost productive methods. Sites like AttorneyFee.com expand the reach of these firms by giving them another channel to advertise their fee information to consumers.

I registered my Maryland virtual law firm at AttorneyFee.com yesterday. I found the interface to be clean and simple and the registration process easy.

My only criticism was that there was no field to display a law firm’s web address — only an email address and a telephone number. This means that an interested prospect will have to contact the law firm to get more information by phone or email, without the opportunity of easily clicking through to the law firm’s web site.

In my case, the page describing the pricing of my services does not provide enough information to the consumer about the scope of my services. There is no place to indicate that we offer "limited legal services" for pro se parties exclusively. For a new company that prides itself on transparency, this feature is less than transparent.

Moreover, when my firm comes up, a form also pops up that enables the prospect to ask for a free consultation. Except in our case, we don’t provide free consultations. Since we sell a legal advice service by the question for a modest flat fee, offering a "free consultation" is not consistent with our business model. 

When I asked Robert Komaiko, one of the co-founders of AttorneyFee about these issues, he said they have other features planned for the site but they felt it was important to launch the site, get feedback, learn, and revise. As a believer in the lean startup method of starting a company, which is now all the rage in Silicon Valley, I agreed with Robert that it was important to get the concept launched and to work out the kinks later. There is certainly enough benefits and features already built into the site to see if this concept gets any traction. Better to launch the service , get feedback, and revise, as opposed to waiting for a year, adding every feature imaginable, and then discovering that consumers have no interest in the service.

AttorneyFee  using a proprietary search technology,has already  listed the prices that over 20,000 law firms are charging on their web sites.  The company plans to have over 70,000 law firm sites indexed within a relatively short period of time. This information alone will provide a useful consumer resource for comparing fees charged by law firms for similar tasks.

Some lawyers are bound to be critical of this web service as it is another indication of the commercialization of the legal profession but as Beibei Que, the other co-founder of AttorneyFee, and its CEO, told me: 

We have all known that this moment was coming for a long time.  The profession can no longer limp along with one foot in the for-profit economy and another in a quasi-clergy role.  If we wish to reap the benefits of the for-profit economy, we must be prepared to comport ourselves like private market actors, and this means not retreating from conversations about price or concealing them behind closed doors.

AttorneyFee.com is a welcome addition to the family of new disrupters shaking the legal profession to its core.

download-our-whitepaper-on-virtual-lawye
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For years some law firms, but not all, have used some form of document automation in their law offices. Ranging from an MS Word macro to long standing programs such as HotDocs, as well as automated forms distributed by legal publishers such as Willmaker by Nolo, some law offices have incorporated some form of document automation in their law practices. Document automation of legal documents that are generated in high quantity by a law firm is an indispensable process for increasing law firm productivity and maintaining profit margins in an era of intense competition.

Legal Document Creation the Old Way

The manual process of cutting and pasting clauses from a master MS Word document into a new document, is a productivity process which is fast becoming out dated. It reminds me of the time before there were automated litigation support programs, and legal assistants would duplicate a set of case documents three or four times. The next step was filling one file cabinet with a set of documents in alpha order, filling another filing cabinet with a set of documents in date order, and finally, filling another filing cabinet with a set of documents in issue or subject order to enable "fast"   retrievable of relevant paper documents. It took awhile, but almost all litigation lawyers now use automated litigation support methods.. This is not true of transactional lawyers, many of whom still use out-dated methods of creating legal documents, as if each legal document were a unique novel, poem, or other work of fiction.

Barriers to Change

An obstacle to wider use of automated document assembly methods, is typically the lawyer’s insistence on crafting the words in each clause to their own satisfaction. Because most lawyer’s do not have the requisite programming skill to automate their own documents, law firms by default will opt to use their own non-automated documents, rather than risk using the legal documents automated by an independent provider, because by definition the content of the documents is "not their own." As a result, many law firms do not even use desk-top document assembly solutions when the forms are published by an independent provider or publisher, remaining stuck using more time consuming and less productive manual methods.

Typically, when a law firm does use document assembly methods, a paralegal inputs answers from a paper intake/questionnaire into a document assembly program running on a personal computer. This results in the extra time-consuming step of inputting data from the intake questionnaire to the document assembly program, but it is still more efficient than manual methods.

Web-Enabled Document Automation

Now comes, "web-enabled legal document automation" methods."  Web-enabled document automation is a process whereby the intake questionnaire is presented on-line to the client through the web browser to be completed directly.

When the client clicks the "Submit" button the document is instantly assembled, ready for the attorneys further review, analysis, revision, and customization if necessary.  The result is a further leap in productivity because the client is actually doing part of the work at no cost to the lawyer, freeing the lawyer up to focus on analysis and further customization of the document.

This is what the work flow looks like when using web-enabled document automation methods:

Client Journey- Web-Enabled Document Automation Work Flow

Unfortunately, lawyers have been slow to adapt to this process as well,  because of their reluctance to use legal documents drafted or automated by someone else. However in order to automate their own documents they must either acquire the skill to do the job, or commit the capital to have a skilled professional automate their documents for them. For solos and small law firms these two constraints create formidable obstacles to using more efficient methods.

Since neither condition is common within smaller law firms (programming skill, investment capital), the result is that the law firm gets stuck using older less productive methods of document creation.

Vendors that provide web-enabled document platforms include, our own Rapidocs, and Exari, Brightleaf, HotDocs, DealBuilder, and Wizilegal, to name only a few, all claim that their authoring systems are easy to use, but I have yet to see lawyers without any kind of programming skill create their own automated legal documents in any quantity. Thus, law firms become stuck in a negative loop of their own creation which reduces productivity (and profitability) :

"My legal documents are better than yours; I can’t automate them for the web because I don’t know how; thus I will be less productive and be required to charge you more because of my own inefficiency."

Competition

In the consumer space, now comes the non-lawyer providers to take advantage of the solo and small law firm’s competitive disadvantage. Research by companies like Kiiac provide support the conclusion that 85% of the language in transactional documents is actually the same. In more commoditized areas, where legal forms have been standardized,  the legal form content is 100% the same in all documents. Taking advantage of this consistency of legal form content,  companies like LegalZoom, Nolo, CompleteCase, SmartLegalForms, and LegacyWriter , with their superior on-line marketing and branding machines, now sell legal forms by the thousands at low cost which provide a "good enough" legal solution for consumers who would do any thing to avoid paying the higher fees to an attorney.

Its true that the consumer doesn’t get the benefit of the attorney’s legal advice and counsel, and the accountability and protection that dealing with an attorney provides, but consumers don’t seem to care.

What can be done?

The "web-based legal document automation solution" , used by non-lawyer providers, is a disruptive technology  that is eating away at the core business base of the typical solo and small law firm practitioner. 

What can solos and small law firms do to compete in this challenging competitive environment?
The American Bar Association’s Legal Technology Resource Center reported last year in their Annual Technology Survey that only 52.2% of solo practitioner’s don’t have a web site.  Even if this number is underestimated, it is shockingly low compared with web site utilization by other industries.  If you don’t even have a web site, the idea of "web-enabled document automation" is still a "light year" away.

What can be done to encourage more wide-spread use of web-enabled document automation technology by law firms, particularly solos and small law firms? A follow-up post will explore some solutions, but I
am open to ideas from anyone.

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One of the winners of TechCrunch Disrupt Hackathon is a new, yet to be launched, legal document web site called, Docracy,  The idea is that members will contribute their legal documents to an open source site so that there would be a basis for comparison between  "open source" documents and the document that the member needs for their business. The theory is that by comparing documents, with the document that the member has on hand, there would be a basis for comparison, resulting in an informed decision, without the cost or benefit of legal advice.

In this model, legal advice from an attorney is worth zero. The model is designed to eliminate the attorney from the transaction.

The idea was developed by mobile app developers Matt Hall and John Watkinson ,from Larva Labs, who were faced with signing an NDA with a client and were unsure of some of the terms and concluded that the cost of legal advice was either unnecessary or prohibitive.

This is another example of the resentment that the average consumer  and small business person has towards the legal profession resulting in the rise of non-lawyer legal form web sites such as LegalZoom.

Another example of an open source legal document repository is Docstoc which we have used as a research source. It is useful for us, because as lawyers we understand what we are reading. I think simply accessing raw documents as a consumer would be a daunting exercise, although I am sure that many consumers and small business use the site.

The problem with any  legal document web site as a source for creating binding legal documents  is that the use of a particular clause may be rooted in case law in a particular jurisdiction.

Without understanding all of the implications of using particular language in an agreement, the "non-lawyer" moves into a danger zone, because he or she has no idea what they are signing. 

A better alternative is a "self-help" book from Nolo that contains both legal forms and explanations of the implications of each clause, but that often involves reading and understanding a 300 page book, which is beyond the attention span of most consumers.

Another solution is an automated document with extensive help screens that explain the implications of choosing one clause over the other.

A third alternative, is to purchase "unbundled and limited legal services" from an on-line law firm  for a fixed price with legal advice bundled into the transaction. In that case you get a certain level of accountability and guarantee that the legal advice is correct for the user’s individual situation.

See for example the firms listed at DirectLaw’s legal document portal , where you can access legal forms for free, or forms bundled with legal advice for a fixed fee.

You don’t get legal advice from a legal forms web site or a LegalZoom for that matter, which can be a major limitation depending on the complexity of the document or the transaction. Without annotations that explain the significance of particular language in an agreement, the non-lawyer is stumbling around in the dark.
 
Nevertheless, I don’t doubt that consumers and small business will find this a popular site, despite its limitations. Caveat emptor!
 
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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.