By: Harrison Lebov
Every lawyer in every practice area would like to believe that the work they do and the services they provide to their clients are bespoke. However, in today’s legal landscape, technology is revolutionizing the way legal services are delivered to the client, as individualized attention is not necessarily required. As legal scholars like the esteemed Richard Susskind will profess, the pyramid-shaped legal hierarchy is archaic and in desperate need of remodeling. When there is a plethora of modernized firms and other alternatives to turn to for the run-of-the-mill legal problem, sustainability becomes a serious concern for the traditional law firm.
For starters, the compensation scheme in a traditional law firm is, quite frankly, broken. The traditional law firm bills out the client based on time spent on their case. This becomes an issue for the client when the traditional lawyer commands hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars per hour. This all but incentivizes that same lawyer to take his or her time to maximize billable hours. If this is indeed the situation, this story will not have a happy ending for either the firm or the client. At the conclusion of the case, absent the client with bottomless pockets, the average client will be displeased with the bottom line on the bill. Thus, the client will be unlikely to retain the firm, and as such, will look to other options in the future.
It is at this point in the discussion where the old-fashioned lawyer will scoff at alternatives to traditional legal services. Unfortunately for that lawyer, legal technologies and innovations are gaining traction, steadily improving, and exponentially growing. No longer does the practicing attorney require a lofty, corner office in a high-rise commercial building in downtown Boston. A client’s routine legal request, such as drafting a will or preparing a motion, can be performed by an equally qualified attorney for a fraction of the price.
Without further ado, please welcome the virtual legal practice. Technology-savvy sole proprietors and online legal conglomerates alike can use their presence on the internet to deliver legal services to clients in ways never before imaginable. Take Richard Granat, J.D. for example; he established Granat Legal Services, P.C., owns the domain name www.MDFamilyLawyer.com, and offers fixed fee legal services to Maryland residents seeking resolution of their rudimentary family law issues. Mr. Granat works almost exclusively as a quasi-retiree from his cushy, Floridian abode. Using document automation software, a la the technological innovation sweeping the legal profession, Mr. Granat’s clients can easily and efficiently answer a questionnaire, fill out text fields, and essentially pass that information on to Granat Legal Services, P.C., who will then generate the client’s desired document. Through his website, Mr. Granat offers everything from a marital separation agreement for a one-time fee of $349, to a name change for $149, and will even offer a phone call or web-cam conversation for $50. Through the wonders of document automation, Mr. Granat and other sole proprietors can work predominately through online avenues to best serve the client with competitive, affordable pricing. At the same time, the attorney can better utilize and maximize his or her time, and take on more work than a similarly situated, less technologically advanced attorney otherwise could.
The discussion does not end there, however, as the virtual legal practice is not only for the entrepreneurial spirited sole proprietor. This model has also evolved into perhaps the most dominant web-based, legal service provider, LegalZoom. Companies like LegalZoom, or the often-overlooked Rocket Lawyer, corner the legal document production market and offer nearly unbeatable prices for the procurement of almost any document. Using these services, a person can do almost anything from legally incorporate a business to formulate a document to entrust someone with ownership of their dog. LegalZoom and the like perform basically the same tasks and offer relatively the same services as the aforementioned sole proprietor, Mr. Granat, who also operates a virtual legal practice. The choice between using the services of LegalZoom or someone like Mr. Granat is somewhat analogous to a consumer deciding whether to shop at WalMart or the local mom-and-pop shop. Neither is “better” than the other, per se, but rather it is like any other decision a consumer would make in any other marketplace, with the one exception being that both of these options still have to compete with brick-and-mortar firms. With that being said, in either instance, the choice a prospective client makes does not detract from the advantages of virtual legal practices as a whole, especially ones employing the use of document automation software.
With all the talk about accessibility, affordability, and ease of use regarding virtual legal practices, it should be noted and reinforced that document automation is the driver behind many of these advantages. However, that is not to say that document automation is the only driver of this legal revolution. The housing market collapse of 2008 sparked a recession, and since then the legal field as a whole has seen a sort of transformation, where consumers are seeking cheaper legal alternatives in lieu of the traditional, hardline legal experience. For those prospective clients with a tight budget and a can-do attitude, limited assistance representation might just be the appropriate legal avenue to solve their legal problem. Now, although this method of delivering legal services is a bit unorthodox in comparison to the traditional practice of law, it has proved both cost effective and functionally effective as well. The idea behind limited assistance representation is that the attorney will delegate simple duties to the client, and under the attorney’s guidance, direct the client in undertaking feasible tasks such as obtaining a copy of a police report from their local police station, or filing a motion at the courthouse. In turn, this type of service will be significantly cheaper for the client, as he or she will not have to pay the attorney exorbitant amounts of money in billable hours for tasks that they can easily do themselves. As a result, the attorney will have more time, in theory, to potentially take on more work. Under this model, the client saves money and will still have representation at all critical stages in their legal battle (i.e., during negotiations or trial).
With all the change occurring in the legal marketplace, to compete with virtual legal practices and attorneys equipped with limited assistance representation certifications, the average, traditional law firm has to adjust. As of a few years ago, not all law firms even had a website, not to mention a significant online presence. If the old-school attorney thinks Facebook and Twitter is strictly a platform for teenagers to share “selfies,” then that attorney will be sadly mistaken. Social media is much more than just a Millennial’s platform to connect with friends. It is a free marketing tool that can be used to gain notoriety and build a brand through the most accessible, informational source on the planet; the internet! For those nonbelievers, look no further than successful criminal defense attorney, Brian Wilson, who is better known by his pseudonym, “The Texas Law Hawk.” Mr. Wilson has thousands of likes on Facebook, millions of views on YouTube, and his technological prowess even earned him an appearance in Taco Bell’s Super Bowl 50 commercial.
To survive in today’s legal environment, a lawyer needs more than just a website and some level of social media aptitude. Rather, tomorrow’s lawyer needs the understanding that the landscape is changing, and the realization that they can either change with the times or get left behind. That is not to say that in the future there won’t be a niche for the high priced law firm, but that’s exactly what it could become; a niche. As long as there are wealthy individuals/corporate entities with legal troubles, there will be business to be had for large firms. For the rest of the civilized world, affordability may someday trump prestige. So, to keep prices competitive, traditional firms will look for ways to reduce costs, both for themselves and the client. This is where legal process outsourcing makes its way to center stage. Legal process outsourcing takes the redundant, non-technical work traditionally preformed by a firm’s lower-level employees, and subcontracts that work to another company or trusted service. This work is often shipped overseas, in which case it may be more analogous to offshoring than outsourcing but the idea remains the same: why pay high priced legal professionals to do non-technical grunt work? The premise is that it is economically inefficient for a firm and/or its client to pay a legal professional when they could pay a layman significantly less to preform mundane tasks that take no legal background. The allocated work is of no legal substance, such as making sure two copies of a contract match or sorting through discovery documents to find one in particular. As of recently, many reputable law firms are adopting the use of legal process outsourcing, as well as implementing some or all of the aforementioned recommendations in an effort to stay relevant and competitive. In the changing landscape of the legal practice, now more than ever, adapt and survive or get left behind.
Harrison Lebov is a Staff Member on the Journal of High Technology Law. He is currently a 2L at Suffolk Law, and pursuing a concentration in Legal Technology and Innovation. He holds a B.S. in Business Management with a minor in Legal Studies from Suffolk University. Harrison is currently the Vice President of the Suffolk Law Intramural Basketball Association and the Captain of a men’s recreational basketball team in Cambridge.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are the views of the author alone and do not represent the views of JHTL or Suffolk University Law School.