The Misunderstood Virtual Law Office

In case you missed it there has been a very lively discussion between two faculty members, Jay Fleischman and Richard Granat, on their respective professional blogs. (For purposes of clarity I am going to use the phrase ‘online offices’ in lieu of Virtual Law Office). Jay threw down the gauntlet and Richard quickly accepted the challenge. Jay asked the question, ‘Is the Virtual Law Model Coming Up Short?

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.”

Bulls–t.

Richard ,who co-chairs the ABA ELawyering Task Force with Marc Lauritsen, wrote a powerful rejoinder.

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.

For the most part, I’m in Richard’s camp on this one. Lawyers growing their practices today and into the future will very much need this technological tool – an online office – as part of their practice or, in some cases, functioning completely on line in order to compete. What Jay does say and which I agree is the online office, as defined by the ABA ELawyering Task Force in the above quote, is just another method of working with clients. It does not displace human interaction. Anyone who tries to build a law practice model which relies exclusively on putting up a website billboard and marketing through social media in the hopes of attracting clients but never ‘connecting’ with them, is most likely going to fail. (Connecting does not necessarily mean ‘in the flesh’ but connecting as in talking via other technological tools such as SKYPE).

What was also discounted heavily by Jay (although he does suggest otherwise in the comments) is that there is a significant and ever- growing population of potential clients that is very comfortable doing their business on line. Being a lawyer who desires connection with clients and then projecting upon clients that they must want to have a significant in-person relationship with you may go against a growing body of evidence highlighted by Richard Granat.

It’s 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.

But you don’t even need these statistics. Just look at yourself. What is your number one method of communication? How much do you (dis)like voice mails and having to get back to a client on the phone? How much are your kids actually ‘talking’ to you or their peers yet their communication with peers and even yourself has actually increased due to texting? How much socializing do you do on the web versus in person? When you want a document isn’t it easier to request it be scanned and sent as a .pdf? Of course, this is a sad commentary on social interaction in this country but that doesn’t change the facts.

What also got confused in the post and the comments is the assumption that an online law office equals unbundled legal services. As I noted in a comment on Jay’s post, an online office does not mean the lawyer is or must offer unbundled legal services. A desire to offer unbundled legal services does not mean one must have an online office. An online office does not mean there is no human interaction. And having a brick and mortar law office does not mean a client will automatically have meaningful human interaction with lawyers.

What struck me most of all, and it should you, is that if there is this type of misunderstanding about what an online office is and what unbundled legal services are amongst lawyers who are fairly progressive, how confusing must it be to clients? Clients remain torn between their idea of how lawyers interact with clients and at what cost and what they perceive as the only alternative to this idea - the LegalZooms of the world. The gap between these two perceptions is vast and this is where the majority of your clients will fall – wanting and needing a lawyer but believing they are unable to afford one who will work with them the way they need and want to work. Potential clients need to know they can have the benefit of a lawyer who will work with them in the way they can afford and need to due to time constraints or other issues which preclude them from constant physical interaction unless absolutely required. Otherwise, they go pro se or shop on price or try the LegalZooms and their ilk, hope for the best and…. systematically put you out of business.

(I must add one caveat. It’s my opinion that those who practice in areas which do generate a lot of forms feel threatened by this model as the average consumer has not been successfully educated they need experienced lawyers to walk them through the land mines. They are on the defensive. Other practice areas will never have to worry about forms or lack of human interaction such as criminal. It is a high touch practice area. So in many ways criminal lawyers have no dog in this fight. But the rest need to stay on their toes)

This is the biggest opportunity in the history of the legal profession to educate potential clients that there are alternatives to going pro se or utilizing the growing legion of LegalZoom-type companies. It is incumbent upon lawyers to disabuse clients of the idea they can’t afford to hire a lawyer. It is critical to educate clients they can afford a lawyer and why they can. It is critical to educate clients that you understand what they want and what they can afford and the answer is not to go pro se or to use forms companies. They must see that there are significant benefits that can flow to them as a result of you utilizing this platform for their convenience but not sacrificing the expertise that you can offer in the highly personalized way you wish.

Having an online office as a component of your practice or using it for your entire practice does not mean loss of human interaction if that is how you want to build your practice. If you want to incorporate unbundled legal services to catch that crowd caught between what they believe a law office is and the DIY services you MUST educate them on the benefits. Those who start now will be the leaders in their practice area and in the communities they serve because they will stand out for having addressed the growing need of clients today.

But before you can educate them on the benefits, you need to be clear about what an online office practice actually is. If you’d like to learn you can do so with Stephanie Kimbro and Richard Granat right here at Solo Practice University®.

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5 comments on “The Misunderstood Virtual Law Office

  • Susan, Thanks for the excellent article. The DIY services are forcing traditional firms to become more user friendly which is a good thing. I agree that the challenge is educating consumers that there are affordable alternatives to going pro se. I see many solos and small firms stepping up to this challenge with consumer-oriented blogs. They are on the right path. I hope others will follow.

    • Misty, I’d take issue with your point that DIY services are forcing traditional firms to become more “user friendly.” I believe that technology makes it easier to establish a personal relationship in connection with rendering advice premised on expertise – that’s different.

      DIY services make it easy to point and click, but don’t mistake that for “user friendly.” In fact, those services sacrifice personalization for ease-of-use.

      My challenge is for lawyers to do both – make it easier for people to do business with out, yet do so in a way that doesn’t compromise your ability to render a professional opinion.

      I think LegalZoom forces lawyers to reconsider the way in which they treat their clients. Amp up the service level and act like a human being. That’s a sea change for the profession, don’t you think?

  • I think we are actually making the same point Jay. By “user-friendly” I mean attorneys becoming more accessible to their clients through the use of technology. I believe this more personalized approach is a positive byproduct of the new competition in the market. Yes, it is a sea of change – a very good one.

  • Great points! I think it is both an issue of (a) educating the public that personalized legal services will, in many cases, better serve them and be more cost-effective in the long run than the online DIY sites and (b) for lawyers to provide great affordable personalized service, which technology certainly helps us do more efficiently.

    I think there is a place for LegalZoom, et.al. but I don’t feel it can or should replace the small firm or solo. The appeal of low cost DIY legal forms is obvious, but the truth is they work best only for the true DIYer who has time and intelligence to use them and a truly straightforward matter. In reality, the majority of people are like me — in theory, I’d like to do my own plumbing and save money but I don’t really have the time to do it, probably don’t want to put in the time and effort to do things right and have a bad feeling that I’ll end up doing it wrong and needing to call in the professional in the end to fix my mess. If small to mid-sized companies and middle class individuals knew they could have a great personal relationship with a reasonably priced attorney who took the time to understand their situation and customize legal solutions for their specific needs,most of them would not hesitate to choose that over an interrnet chinese menu. So the question becomes why is that message not getting out there effecively?

  • Joan, well said. To answer our last question, the message isn’t getting out there yet because lawyers have to transition. They can’t transition until they are fully on board with the concept. As the concept is still muddled and there is still misinformation out there (as well as a lingering concern about confidentiality protections) it is hard to educate the consumer. And this lag is what is going to give the Legal Zooms of this world a chance to break out so far ahead lawyers will be fighting to regain lost ground. Again, this is just my opinion but in this particular situation I’m not sure lawyers have the luxury anymore of waiting it out until it’s completely mainstream. Again, just my two cents.

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