Every six months I used to write a post with a list of virtual law practice updates or related items that had been “in the news.” Elawyering and virtual practice have become so mainstream these days that doing this would result in a ridiculously long list of references.
Instead, I’m going to compile a list of my top 15 predictions for the coming year that relate to virtual practice. These are based on the research I’ve done for my upcoming book as well as the presentations and consulting work that I’ve done over the past year.
1. We will continue to see the number of legal technology start-ups being introduced to the consumer legal marketplace. [For a list of these players, stay tuned for the release of my ebook: Consumer Law Revolution coming later in Jan. 2013]. These companies are going to focus their efforts on consumers, but will also attempt to cultivate strong attorney branded networks that will provide their services with the value add of licensed legal assistance.
2. Existing legal tech startups may be acquired or backed by larger legal service companies, companies catering to other industries in addition to legal services, or fail to obtain the funding necessary to scale to the next level.
3. Of the technologies introduced in these platforms we will see two interesting developments that will be a little different than the typical Q&A or forum platforms typically offered to consumers. These companies are adding better matching systems using algorithms, consumer preferences, and online behavior to match the legal needs of the individual with the appropriate legal guidance/forms and potentially with the best lawyer to handle their particular legal need. We will also see the expert systems in some of these platforms increase in sophistication as they learn and improve from user feedback.
4. The focus of these companies’ services will start to shift more from business law and startup legal services to more personal legal services for the average consumer.
5. We may see companies negotiating with other non-legal social media and networking applications for access to user data which may be used to help predict or identify consumer’s legal needs as a way to target advertising for their platforms.
6. Lawyers will become more aware of the need for online marketing that extends beyond the use of social media and focuses more on brand building online using analytical tools that focus on ROI rather than just online reach.
7. More lawyers, especially solos and small firms, will consider joining forces with one or more of these legal startups. Navigating those networks and figuring out how to convert any leads generated from them into paying clients will be a learning process for both the lawyers and the companies looking to maintain and develop strong relationships with lawyers.
8. As a result of the increased engagement by lawyers with consumers through these networks, there may be increased scrutiny of the potential ethical issues that might arise from these online interactions.
9. From the consumer perspective, we will continue to see the public turning to the Internet to look for personal legal services. (The law suit between Legal Zoom and Rocket Lawyer may provide us with some interesting information about quality, quantity, and process of massive online delivery as well as some fun conversation over the next year.)
10. More of the public will be aware of virtual law firms as an alternative online option, but the majority will still turn to the larger online brands of Legal Zoom and Rocket Lawyer when those can be used instead.
11. Lawyers with virtual law offices will learn to efficiently automate and sell basic legal documents and focus their energy on marketing their online brand and their bespoke work or niche practices to differentiate themselves online from other virtual practices and the services of the online legal service companies.
12. Clients of larger law firms by this point have realized that their firms cannot justify the traditional high billable hour and will pressure them to use more cost-effective methods of delivery which will include an emphasis on outsourcing and the use of online management and collaborative systems. More sophisticated clients will also be questioning their firm about the use of expert systems that help not only save on costs, but that can predict potential outcomes (and therefore the effectiveness of different strategies) for the client’s matter and whether the firm employs such systems.
13. Quantitative legal prediction as a resource for basic consumer needs or for use by solos or small firms will not be widely available in the next couple of years. However, larger law firms with sophisticated clients who can afford to invest in the technology may start the process of accumulating data that will build systems to predict legal outcomes and assist in decision making.
14. Only a small number of law firms will still be forward thinking enough to offer forms of online dispute resolution in their practice areas. As complementary to their traditional services, rather than ODR, some firms may integrate the use of simpler online negotiation and settlement tools, such as the use of the app PictureItSettled, or online game-theoretic bargaining systems, such as those created by FairOutcomes. See also forms of site software assisted mediation.
15. A slow moving and quiet revolution will start this year in the legal services community as the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) and state legal aids go through a major shift in thinking about how online and mobile delivery can increase access to justice. (The LSC is holding a second technology summit this January.) The collaboration with legal service companies, private practitioners, and law schools will result in a less fragmented picture of access in our country and push all of these parties out of their bubbles and into reevaluation of how working relationships between themselves and existing resources can be used to increase pro bono and self-help assistance. Years from now, this revolution and the increase in access from the innovative collaborations that result will provide empirical, results-based proof that we can use to argue for less restrictive rules on nonlawyer ownership of law firms and the removal of lawyer advertising rules that restrict innovations in delivery methods.