Gary Munneke, Chair of the Law Practice Management Committee, at the New York State Bar Association has written a thought-provoking article entitled “Dueling Sanctions . . . And More” in a recent NYSBA publication. He refers to an incident reported by the ABA Journal about a law firm that came under heat from another firm for providing unbundled, self-help legal documents to individuals through the firm’s website.
By now our profession should be able to admit that we know consumers are going online in large numbers seeking out online legal services. Typically they end up at an online legal service company that provides state-specific legal forms without attorney review. In the worst cases, they are attempting to Google their legal needs and cut and paste together documents that they can’t afford an attorney to help them with.
Wouldn’t it be better if the public knew they had an alternative to these options and could actually obtain unbundled legal services from a licensed professional?
Realizing that self-help legal forms and other free, educational legal content can be used both for the benefit of the public and as a marketing tool for the law firm, some attorneys are beginning to offer self-help services and resources through their website. This gives them a competitive advantage over law firms that do not offer this online.
In many cases, the pro se individuals discover after downloading the forms that they could really use an attorney’s help in proceeding. They end up going back to the firm that was willing to provide them with the DIY method first without charging them a $200 hour consultation first. The attorneys posting these self-help documents on their websites realize the current availability of legal forms online and have identified the public’s interest in DIY legal assistance.
While firms some offer these forms for free, the attorney in the case discussed by Munneke charged $19.95 for the unbundled legal forms. That has the potential to pull in a little extra revenue for the firm in addition to some potential prospective clients. Not a bad marketing strategy that keeps that firm in the running with the online legal service companies. Law firms that do not offer unbundled legal services, online or off, should reconsider how their firm is adapting to changes in the legal marketplace.
As Mr. Munneke writes in his review of this trend:
Many services, some run by lawyers and law firms, and some not, make available a cornucopia of information, forms, and interactive advice. Although many law firms have eschewed online legal services delivery systems, and use their websites as online billboards, the trend in practice is for more firms to provide more services online. These online services will siphon legal work from pure bricks and mortar law firms in coming years.
There are two trends here that should be closely watched in 2011:
1) The delivery of unbundled legal services is gaining renewed popularity, and
2) Elawyering methods, such as the use of a virtual law office and client portals, are growing as lawyers recognize their ability to use the technology to meet a consumer need and create a more efficient and cost-effective delivery of services.