I just returned from the 2013 Western States Bar Conference where I participated in some of the very best CLE I’ve attended in a long time. The speakers engaged the audience’s minds, and the topics tied nicely to the theme of practicing law today and tomorrow (my description, not the program title). We discussed lawyers’ roles in the environmental debate, the future of the profession as we know it, the impact of Internet self-help sites, the potential role of legal technicians in the delivery of legal services, the future of legal education, mandated clinical programs before law graduates can be licensed to practice, programs connecting under-employed lawyers with an underserved citizenry of modest means, and lastly, programs to connect new lawyers with cost-effective rural legal opportunities. That’s one long sentence but we covered a lot of material in a very short time. All in all, I left the conference excited about the opportunities for people with legal training and a reinvigorated enthusiasm for the challenges the organized Bar and legal educators face as they try to transition from the needs of less techno aging membership to a totally connected younger membership and their respective consumer demographics.
One of the big “takeaways” from the conference came in the form of a realization that one way or another legal services as we know them will unbundle around us if we don’t engage in the process and at least attempt to provide some direction. Several Bars, Washington State taking the lead, have actually begun the process of authorizing it by establishing rules to define, restrict and regulate how lawyers can unbundle, provide for appropriate confidentiality, and deliver legal services for a piece, but not all, of a transaction.
This issue ties nicely into delivering legal services to those of modest means. Take for example a pro se litigant faced with a mandatory mediation. A lawyer might be asked to just advise the client (a couple of consultations) on the ins and outs of the mediation process, or even to a limited representation (attend the mediation only), but have no further involvement in the process. I agree that this is not the ideal situation and that the client will get much better service and likely results by hiring the lawyer to do the whole thing. Reality has already proven that a certain segment of the population, especially younger people, will utilize Internet resources and attempt the process themselves. They feel that they are able and that full legal representation will cost more than they can afford.
To a degree lawyers have been unbundling legal services for years by associating outside lawyers to initially prepare briefs and pleadings. Heck, there are now Internet sites that for $10.00 anybody, not just a lawyer, can upload a brief or legal memorandum and it will cite check the document and provide a list of all the cases that have followed, overruled, or distinguish the cases cited in the document. I remember the time I spent with Shepherd’s® cite checking and looking for subsequent materials. For $10.00 I can’t even get to the local law library. So now I can get someone else to do my writing, get a computer to check it for accuracy and spend a whole lot less time getting a quality product for my client for a lot less cost. Now the dilemma, do I charge full price and make a bigger profit or do I pass the savings on to the client. Option one helps me pay the bills and option two makes my services more affordable and potentially will help me generate more clients. Right now we have no rules but disclosure and general ethics rules to guide us. With the actual authorization of unbundled legal services, hopefully we will have the additional guidance that makes it clear that these items are costs not subcontracted fees subject to unreasonable markups.
We looked at the website for LegalZoom® during the conference. It’s quite a site that can substantially reduce the cost of preparing all sorts of simple common legal documents. To the non-lawyer it represents a really inexpensive way to prepare a bill of sale or a simple will. However, it adds no value to the process because it doesn’t provide any expertise to help the lay user understand which of the ten or twelve forms best fits his or her needs. I see LegalZoom® as a great opportunity for lawyers in solo and small firm practices. We all know that it is much easier to edit an existing form than to create one from whole cloth. We also know that lawyers can look at a block of forms and select the best one with more ease than a lay person. With the cost being $7.95 per month for unlimited access to their forms, it’s a real steal. In addition it is really simple for an attorney to become a LegalZoom® affiliate and receive referrals from consumers living in your jurisdiction that go to LegalZoom® directly. Accordingly, by using a resource like LegalZoom® to help get cost effective document to clients, a lawyer will add a significant intellectual value to a cost-effective form that creates real consumer value. In the process lawyer utilization of these resources goes a long way to protecting the rule of law and the integrity of our civil legal system.
While many other websites exist (and I make no editorial comment about the quality of any of them), I have chosen LegalZoom® as an example of one that recognizes the value lawyers add and makes every effort to get them involved in the process of document preparation.
I am going to take a little space to demonstrate the simplicity of the process. Go to their website: www.legalzoom.com; at the top click on My Account (don’t worry it costs you nothing and is quite unobtrusive); provide your email and create a password then click Sign In.
In the Get Started box select Legal Forms at the very bottom and click Go.
Here you can play but for an example click on “Amendment of Agreement” under the Nondisclosure section and it takes you to pricing. You can get the single document for $14.95, unlimited forms access for $7.99 per month, or get attorney consultation for $29.99 per month.
If you want to be part of that referral pool you simply need to go to the banner at the bottom of the page and click on Affiliate and this will take you to a page about the program. If you click on the Sign up today button at the bottom it takes you to the beginning of the process. Or a more direct way is to click here. They have two classes of lawyers. Members of the pool who take direct calls and referral attorneys who have more specialized skills and get called for more complicated issues. They use the same application process for both and if you choose to become part of their program the sign-up process lets you elect which way you want to go.
I offer the tour of LegalZoom® not as an endorsement, but as an example of how lawyers can utilize some of what appears as Internet competition to their advantage and potentially help build a practice. The Internet presents ways that ordinary folks can help themselves with their legal issues and will not go away anytime soon if at all, so the challenge becomes how does a practicing lawyer use them to their advantage. LegalZoom ® offers a single example. If you spend some time searching the Internet you will find many more creative ways to enhance your practice and do it to the highest ethical standards by using outside (Internet or otherwise) resources that enable you to become more cost-effective and valuable to your clients.
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