Last week I finished the first draft of a report for The Ark Group tentatively titled “Online Legal Services for the Client-Centric Law Firm.” This report gave me the opportunity to review the current state of online delivery internationally by private practitioners and law firms. It was a great way to update the material I had written in my earlier book on virtual law practice.
To set some reasonable parameters for this report, I limited it to a review of only private practitioners and law firms. I did not include the many other forms of online delivery that we are seeing by for-profit companies, branded networks, and other exciting new ventures around the globe. I also excluded firms that only provide clients with online self-help tech tools, such as those for compliance, online libraries of articles, or web calculators or advisers that clients would use on their own. The focus here was on the engagement online between the lawyer and the clients to solve their specific legal need.
Overall, I was a little surprised and disappointed by the slow growth of online delivery since I started operating my virtual law office back in 2006 and wrote the book on the topic in 2010 – not just the lack of adoption by practitioners but also by the lack of truly new innovative technology solutions for delivery. This strikes me as odd given the fast pace of change in delivery of legal services from the consumer perspective. Consumers have more online options for unbundled, online, self-help legal services than ever before. They also are able to connect with lawyers online through branded networks and use these companies’ tools to receive assistance from licensed lawyers. But lawyers and firms independently don’t seem to be doing much at all. There were the few case studies of virtual law firms and those integrating document automation and assembly tools, client portals, video conferencing and real-time chat to their websites for clients. However, this has been going on for years and those firms seem to find limited success in using these online offerings to generate significant revenue to sustain a completely online practice without the core traditional, in-person services.
In this report, I analyzed why law firms have been slow to adopt online legal services and why those that did have not been as successful as they might have hoped. Not surprisingly, my conclusions were not that the clients did not want online legal service delivery (we have the LegalZoom and others’ numbers to prove this isn’t the case as well). The problems have been related to both marketing and branding problems as well as successful integration of the model with the processes and procedures of the firm’s traditional operations. (I provide a sample policy and procedures manual for online delivery in the report.) I reviewed a couple firms, including Slater & Gordon in Australia, where they have figured out the right combination of marketing, technology, and procedure to successfully deliver services online.
There are other reasons why the evolution and adoption of online delivery seems to be going slowly. The most interesting for me is the lack of online engagement by prospective clients which is a question of both user experience and design of the online offerings. And these are fixable in my opinion. I also discuss briefly in this report my new project, Game On Law, which explores the use of video and mobile games to engage the public to both learn if and when they have legal needs and point them to the correct services.
The report provides some case studies of firms both small and large that are providing online legal services to clients. Some of these firms are doing more than providing their clients with client extranets and emailing documents back and forth. I also provide updated information on how to setup, manage and grow online delivery in a traditional firm structure. Ethics and best practices are reviewed. It was interesting to make comparisons between the regulations we have here in the states and the how the profession has perhaps more freedom to innovate in other countries.
With the recent announcement in the Wall Street Journal about Jacoby and Meyers expanding into Europe with offerings that include online service delivery, I suspect that more lawyers and law firms will have an interest in stepping up their game.