Jay Fleischman in a blog post entitled: “Is the Virtual Law Firm Model Coming up Short?” states:
"The ABA elawyering Task Force tells us that, “[t]o be successful in the coming era, lawyers will need to know how to practice over the Web, manage client relationships in cyberspace, and ethically offer “unbundled” services.”
Jay also states:
"Email doesn’t substitute for a phone call. A phone call isn’t the replacement for a handshake."
"Those who offer the virtual law firm are selling something most people don’t want. People want to be able to make a personal connection with other people, to build trust in a lawyer’s expertise. They don’t want to be met with a password-encrypted firewall and triple-redundant backup systems.".
Unfortunately, like some commentators of a well known news network that make up facts and then offers opinions based on those false assumptions, Jay makes up facts to support his point of view.
Jay is entitled to opinion, but not to his own set of facts.
Here are some of the facts:
1. The ABA/LPM’s eLawyering Task Force
The eLawyering Task Force , of which I am co-chair (with Marc Lauritsen), through it’s web site, publications, and statements has never made the claim that delivering legal services online was the only way that law firms should connect with clients. The value of an online platform depends on the kind of law practice and the kind of clients served. Clients obviously have preferences that lawyers who serve those clients must respect.
Many firms will have a "virtual component" incorporated into a traditional practice. As Marc Lauritsen puts it, there will be:
" a shared online environment that is persistent across the life of a matter. For instance, providing interactive questionnaires on their web sites to gather information from prospects and clients, or supplying do-it-yourself document generators, checklists, or calculators.Or opening up a shared space for collaborative deliberation about a particular decision, using interactive visualizations like I ‘ve been promoting under by ‘choiceboxing" idea."
In fact, the firms that are getting the most successful results from the addition of a client portal are those that have a traditional practice and who add an interactive online component.
We know this from the analysis that we have done from observing over 200 law firms that have subscribed to our DirectLaw virtual law firm service during the past two years. We have also learned why some law firms fail to successfully implement an online strategy. We also know that some lawyers have an unrealistic expectation of what it takes to be successful as a "pure play" virtual law firm.
To read the results of our analysis download our White Paper on Virtual Law Firms: Success Factors.
Also see these blog posts on this topic: Online Legal Services: Is it Hype or a New Way of Delivering Legal Services?; Framing the Discussion About Virtual Law Firm Practice; and Defining the Virtual Law Firm .
2. Affordable Legal Service and Access to the Legal System
The work of the eLawyering Task Force has always focused on identifying ways in which lawyers can become more productive and efficient by using the Internet as platform for the delivery of legal services and ways in which clients can benefit from the use of Internet technologies in terms of the fees they pay for legal services.
President Bill Paul of the American Bar Association, who created the Task Force, had the idea that through the use of Internet technologies it would be possible to lower the cost of legal fees to make the legal system more accessible to those who cannot afford typical attorney fees.
Instead, rather than the legal profession responding to this challenge, we see the emergence of companies like LegalZoom, SmartLegalForms, CompleteCase, LegacyWriter, Nolo, and the dozens of other non-lawyer internet-based legal solution providers who are responding to the need of consumers for a ":good enough" legal result at the lowest possible cost. For millions of moderate and middle class consumers the purchasing of traditional high cost legal services delivered on a one to one basis is no longer an option. Their choice is to do the best they can with a legal solution provided by a non-lawyer provider, (which now may be a court or an online legal aid provider).
Jay seems to imply that if a client can’t afford the profession’s legal fees, then so be it. Who cares?
My opinion is that it will be harder to justify the profession’s monopoly on the delivering of legal services when it only serves a tiny portion of the US population.
The reality is that many of us didn’t become lawyers just for the money. We want to serve people and help them with resolve their legal problems. Now there are technologies that can help us do that in a cost effective way and expand the market for legal services. We shouldn’t ignore these technologies, just because we are not practicing law like the last generation of lawyers.
3. The "Secure Client Portal" Concept":
Examples of Internet based applications range from web enabled document automation, to paying legal bills online, to the provision of written legal advice online, to simply storing the clients legal documents online so they can be referenced later. All of these functions require that the client have access to a secure client portal within which these functions can take place.
It is indisputable that a secure client portal is necessary for secure and confidential activities and tasks between to take place between lawyer and client. This doesn’t mean that a lawyer should not use email to provide confidential legal advice which I am sure happens all of the time, at whatever the risks.
On the other hand, it is not possible to pay your legal fee by credit card using email, and I have yet to see a web enabled document assembly solution being delivered through email. For legal work to be done securely online requires a secure client portal.
It us for this reason that the eLawyering Task Force included, as part of the definition of what constitutes a virtual law practice, that the firm make available to its clients a secure client portal. This seems very obvious to us. Communicating with clients using a mobile phone and by email, is not the same thing as using legal applications online that do legal tasks.
Most people use some form of a secure portal everyday. We do our banking online, our stock brokerage online, buy insurance online, book travel online. It’s not rocket science. Except that right now the legal profession is lagging behind every other service industry in the economy in its use of interactive web technology. According to Jay, we should stay where we are and eschew these web technologies. In my opinion, we do so at our peril.
4. Web-Enabled Document Automaton.
Jay seems to think that the use of a web enabled document automation application is not in a clients interest and has little value, or that client’s don’ t want "just forms." (It is hard to really know what he believes because of the confused logic that is used to support his argument).
I think he is wrong about this. He can read our White Paper on Web-Enabled Document Automation as A Disruptive Technology and these blog posts: Document Automaton as a Disruptive Technology and What Every Lawyer Should Know About Document Assembly.
5 The Legal Profession is Losing Market Share.
Solos and small law firms, with existing methods of delivering legal services, are pricing themselves out of the middle class marketplace. This is the real reason that LegalZoom is rumored to be generating more than 100 million in revenues this year. LegalZoom and other non-lawyer providers continue to increase their market share at the expense of solos and small law firms. The assertion that lawyers don’t need the people as clients that purchase forms from non-lawyer providers is a misrepresentation of what is really happening in the solo and small law firm marketplace. The clients that are turning away from law firms are clients that law firms need and who they previously served in an earlier, pre-Internet era.
6. eLawyering Applications are Not Just Tools.
It is not accurate to see state that eLawyering applications are just "tools". In fact they are can be disruptive of the typical law firm business model. If a consumer can get the result that they want by using a Internet-based legal solution, or "digital legal application" at a fraction of the cost of using an attorney, many will opt for that "good enough" solution. What is important to the consumer, is the legal result, not the fact that they have to go to an attorney to get it.
7. A New Generation of Clients is Coming Who Don’t Like to Talk on the Phone or Shake Hands With Their Lawyers.
It’s is true that many clients are not interested in working with their lawyers online, but we think that as a connected generation comes of age and they have legal problems that they will prefer to deal with their lawyers online and prefer to text rather than even talk on the telephone, much less meet with their attorney face-to-face, unless it is unavoidable. For facts to support this assertion, see books like New Rules of Engagement: Understanding on How to Connect With Generation Y. and the work of Christine Hassler.
In a study conducted last year by YouGov, a UK-based research and opinion firm, on consumer preferences for legal services, one of the conclusions was that:
"34% of respondents said they would be more likely to choose a law firm that offered the convenience of online access to legal documents over one that had no online capability; 22% disagreed and 37% neither agreed nor disagreed."
Younger males were the most likely to choose a law firm with online services and access: 44% of 25-to-39 year-old males (and 40% of such women), along with 40% of 16-to-24 year-old males, would choose a law firm offering online access to documents over another law firm."
There is obviously a generational shift happening. As a younger generation matures to the age where they have legal problems, their desire to deal with lawyers online becomes a requirement, not a preference.
These are serious issues for the legal profession. The American Bar Association Legal Technology Resource Center reported last year in one of its technology surveys of the legal profession that only 52% of solo practitioners have a web site. That means that almost half of solo practitioners don’t even have a web site. Is it that these practitioners are making so much money that they don’t have to even have a presence on the web? Or are we as a profession so out of touch with contemporary trends, that we will have to race even faster to catch up?
So where are we on this spectrum of evolution? Are we still stuck in Web 1.0 with brochure web sites, or are we evolving to interactive web sites that connect with clients who will want to work with their lawyers online or are we still stuck in Internet circa 2002?
Let’s expand this discussion, so that lawyers, particularly solos and small law firms, can figure out how to utilize these new technologies to expand and sustain their law practices in an environment that will become increasing competitive.
Disruptive web legal services such as AttorneyFee.com, Law Pivot, LegalZoom, are not going away. They will expand and proliferate. The "new normal" is here.