Last week I was interviewed by the Wall Street Journal for an article that was published today regarding companies that deliver basic legal services online and how this impacts both the public and legal professionals.
I used to write a post every six months compiling developments in virtual law practice. It has become so mainstream now that I think my list that started out a couple years ago with about twenty items would far exceed a reasonable blog post length. The online delivery of legal services is now something larger firms and the media are finally paying attention to. The recent law suit filed by Legal Zoom against Rocket Lawyer has brought the online delivery model on the radar of the legal profession and business world. Why? There is clearly a latent market for online services coupled with a legal profession at a cross roads.
From today’s WSJ article:
…demand for high-end legal services fell after the recession, as deals slowed and big companies pushed back on legal bills, and it has yet to recover.
Meanwhile, some legal entrepreneurs are looking for gold in a largely untapped vein: ordinary people seeking affordable alternatives to traditional lawyers. The idea is to provide access to legal services online, the same way many now look for jobs, pick restaurants and shop.
Given this recent interest in the space, I’m anxious to get my latest book out there. It will hopefully be published by the spring. I keep having to update the manuscript as more legal tech start-ups enter the market with interesting new models of delivery.
Here is an excerpt from the draft of my book explaining the concept of lawyer collaboration with companies delivering basic online legal services:
There are unique online marketing opportunities for lawyers who are able to collaborate with the growing number of nonlawyer legal service companies. These companies operate on a direct to consumer model (sometimes written as D2C) and provide some form of unbundled legal assistance online, such as legal forms or legal document assembly. Another term for the services these companies provide is a “branded network concept.” This means that the company is focusing their marketing on a specific brand or image for their services that directly and consistently targets the consumer and builds a significant reputation and consumer recognition behind that single brand. More often these companies when focused on the legal services market are designed
For example, some platforms will connect consumers to lawyers online for the purposes of unbundled video consultation or real-time chat with a lawyer. The idea is that the lawyer may then be able to convert the limited online communication with the consumer into full-service representation in a virtual law firm or more traditional law office setting. Other branded network companies are not focusing on the lawyer component at all and are not interested in providing a marketing platform for lawyers. For example, Legal Zoom may have added an additional service to consumers of lawyer review their documents, but those lawyers are working for Legal Zoom rather than independent lawyers marketing their additional review services to a network’s customers.
Responding to the criticism from the profession and the public regarding the lack of a licensed lawyer actually reviewing the legal work delivered to the consumer online, these companies have begun adding lawyer review and consultation services though their systems. The online consumer might register with the company and fill out an online questionnaire that populates the desired legal form through a document automation and assembly program. The consumer may purchase that document outright along with instructions for filing or execution. Or the consumer may choose to purchase additional legal assistance related to the matter or to choose a lawyer to work with.
Lawyers are able to join the company’s network of lawyers in each jurisdiction and may be provided with an online profile and other information that the consumer will see when selecting this enhanced option. If the consumer decides they would like to speak to a licensee lawyer regarding their matter, the document they purchased is then transferred to the lawyer who has joined the company and who is in that consumer’s jurisdiction. From that point, the lawyer may work with the consumer online through a secure client portal to provide unbundled or limited scope guidance and consultation or if the consumer may schedule an appointment to meet with the lawyer in-person for full service representation.
Through association with the nonlawyer legal service company, the lawyer is provided with a potential stream of leads that may turn into unbundled or full-service clients. Rather than pay for the marketing direct to consumer, the lawyer is relying on the company’s larger marketing budget and brand recognition to pull in those leads. Depending on the model, the lawyer may have to pay to be a part of the network or he or she may have different profile levels depending on whether he or she has a free listing in the network or has paid a premium. This collaborative model appears to be growing as it benefits both the credibility of these companies and provides a potential stream of leads to the lawyers.
Of course the fun part comes in discussing how to ethically collaborate with these companies and use their platforms to interact with prospective clients while complying with the Rules of Professional Conduct and any state-based rules and ethics opinions.