“Open the pod doors, Hal.”
“I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”
- 2001: A Space Odyssey
The thing about computers is that they never sleep, and they keep getting better.
For a long time that was good news for lawyers. No need to worry about whether the receptionist sent the fax, or if it went through – emails and scans solved that. If you charge by the hour, you don’t have to pay someone to prepare bills anymore – PCLaw, Amicus, Timeslips and others take care of that. Even the pedestrian task of scheduling meetings is now solved by a few clicks (See Tungle, Doodle, ScheduleOnce, etc.).
Life is good for lawyers using technology. But maybe not so much anymore.
Now that software developers (many of whom are lawyers) have simplified and cut the costs of the administrative part of the practice of law, they have turned their sights on the practice itself. For many lawyers the computer, more specifically, the internet, has become a real threat to their practice.
Right now LegalZoom is leading the charge. It offers “the help you need, at a price you can afford.” If you want to create a limited liability corporation, all you do is answer some questions online. LegalZoom creates the necessary documents; it files the documents; it receives your Articles of Incorporation; it mails them to you. Prices start at only $99.
If you need to talk to a “real” lawyer, LegalZoom can do that too. For a flat monthly rate you can subscribe to several different plans. “Business” plans start at $23.99. “Personal” Legal Plans begin at $11.99. Of course there are limits to how many consults you can have and how long they last. Also, there is that small print disclaimer indicating that LegalZoom makes no judgments as to the expertise of participating lawyers. But it is quick and easy and you can do it without leaving your chair.
It must be a successful industry. There are a lot of similar services. RocketLawyer, Med Law Plus, Legal HelpMate, US Legal, MegaDox, PublicLegal... the options are endless. AllLaw.com offers child support calculators and “online” wills, not to mention legal articles that have embedded lists of lawyers who are touted as having expertise in the subject matter of the publication. JustAnswer.com has a section for legal questions. You type your question in; it is referred to a lawyer (whose picture is provided, but whose last name is not), and you get your answer. $39 each.
It is easy to mock these services, and to criticize them as preying on the unsophisticated and poor. Certainly they will never replace the quality and confidence that traditional legal work provides. But good or bad, these companies are making money. In the lingo of real estate agents, the market is speaking; and it is telling us that the way we ply our trade no longer works for many of our potential clients. Consider LegalZoom’s lead advertising slogan: “No hourly fees and no surprises.” That line resonates with many people (and businesses) who need lawyers but can’t or won’t buy their services as currently offered.
Our profession has shown a remarkable ability to assimilate change when technology makes our work easier and better. Hopefully we have the same capacity now that it has become our competitor.