Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Lawyers Better Get On Board, Or Die, Again.

Recently I wrote about the self-fulfilling prophecy of lawyers and marketers trying to convince other lawyers that things need to be done differently.

It shouldn't be lost on the lawyers out there that those that sell blogs, will type all day about the importance of blogs. Those that are in social media marketing, will type all day about the importance of social media to lawyers. There is scant self-criticism, as it doesn't bring in the snake oil dollars.

So the ABA (motto: if you can't beat social media and tech lawyers, join 'em), never too far from capitalizing on the trend of flip-flop wearing Starbucks lawyers, recently hosted a panel at their mid-year meeting on the topic of "change or die." Change with the times, or find another line of business.

Cue the Jaws theme:

Law practice is changing so fast and so dramatically that wholesale groups of lawyers either need to change how they operate or face finding another line of business.

Fast. Dramatic.

A tidal wave is hitting the legal profession,” former Texas State Bar president and American Bar Foundation immediate past president Richard Pena, who moderated told a packed conference room. “The question is, are we ready?

Yes, I'm ready, where's the courtroom?

Here's the key:

The bottom line, they agreed, is that technology and globalization have caused a massive shift in how potential clients get legal information. Lawyers and law schools are not keeping up.

Tech, tech, tech, tech.

To those who practice law in an office, in a courtroom, with a telephone and desktop - be warned:

If you think nostalgically about the practice of law and how it used to be, then you are on the train tracks and not on the train,” said former Connecticut Bar President Frederic Ury, who is the president–elect of the National Conference of Bar Presidents. “The development of artificial intelligence along with increased Internet search capabilities is making access to answers for complex legal questions easier and cheaper.

Easier. Cheaper.

And here's what they are really talking about:

Ury pointed to Web-based legal information and document sites such as LegalZoom, cybersettle, CompleteCase.com, and Google Scholar that are providing basic legal information that lawyers once provided for a fee.

Buying documents. (Cue the applause from the virtual law firm Bar)

Why is someone going to pay $700 to have a lawyer prepare a will when they can get it for $49 online,” said Ury. “We have had a monopoly on answering legal questions about the law. But the consumer–our former clients–can now get that information for free on Google.

“Virtual law firms are here,” he said, “and there are now thousands of small town and small firm lawyers who once depended on those consumers who may not make it.

And the ingenious solution:

...lawyers must provide services that are a value-add to their clients. The value-add, they said, is knowing your client’s business better and helping them solve problems that they couldn’t figure out.

OK, gather round.

First, I'm comforted to see that for once, the ABA isn't cheerleading for the social media marketers. This issue is not about social media.

Second, this is not about every area of law (a notion that the internet gurus disagree with, only because it hurts their bottom line).

This is about the value we provide to clients.

No matter what information is available on the internet, people will still require a real attorney client relationship for various types of disputes - litigation is not going the way of Legal Zoom.

People in business with disputes will want to go to a lawyer and have them review the relevant documents and talk to the players in the dispute. Obviously, those arrested will always see the need to talk to a real lawyer, in person, and before they go to court - with that lawyer. People getting divorced, who own homes, have children, and significant assets, will not be buying legal documents through a virtual lawyer.

The concern is solely with lawyers who provide basic legal services - wills, corporation documents, and basic contracts.

Having recently gone through an estate administration for a family member, where the initial documents were faulty, I can tell you I would much rather pay a lawyer $700 than buy a will for a Florida resident from a virtual lawyer.

So while some legal services are available via keyboard and internet connection, there will always be clients who for some crazy reason, would rather actually talk to a lawyer, in person, before having documents prepared for signature that will affect some aspect of their future.

If you want to compete with the $70 virtual lawyer, become a virtual lawyer and charge $67.50. Lawyers today well know the tactics that comprise the race to the bottom.

I, am off the train, and I'm not getting on, no matter how many train riders scream for me to jump on board.

Located in Miami, Florida, Brian Tannebaum practices Bar Admission and Discipline and Criminal Defense. He is the author of I Got A Bar Complaint.Share/Save/Bookmark


Johnny B said...

People will continue to pay lawyers to draft wills and such for the same reason that people still pay accountants to prepare their tax forms. While I could go down to one of those seasonal tax prep places and pay $49 to have my tax forms filled out by a guy who took a four-hour training course, I'd rather pay the accountant $300, because he actually knows the tax laws, will ask questions about them and call the financial planner for more information and to make recommendations. And if I get audited, he'll show up at the audit. Yes, a lot of people go to those places, but it certainly hasn't put tax accountants (or attorneys) out of business.

Cathy Moran said...

The availability of information, correct or incorrect, to the client changes the tenor of the relationship between client and attorney where time has to be spent reeducating the client, before any useful work is done.

The information age is going to be with us. Perhaps one of our challenges is whether we contribute sound information to the stream, or just stand on the shore and watch it flow past.

Bret Moore said...

What's a "wholesale group of lawyers" that would be a'needin' to change? Can I pick them up at Costco? I wonder how much they eat. Nyuk nyuk nyuk.

The ABA seems pretty damn amateur/worthless. I think I'll stop paying them money for a membership that does nothing for me.

shg said...

After reading this post, I want you to know how much I respect you. No really, I do.

In fact, I'm going to bookmark this post for later reading. I really mean it. No really, I do.


Did I mention I respect you?

Brian Tannebaum said...


But do you love me?

David Fuller said...

I've contacted an eminent member of the bar, who has asked me to post this for him . . .

Technology has already changed my criminal defense practice.

I've taught my iPad to say "Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury, I respectfully submit to you that my client is not guilty because defense counsel wearing flip flops and has a better 'smart' phone than the prosecutor;"

Or in a client consult on a tough felony case, "Well Mr. Jones, I've checked Google and a couple of blogs. Either you're getting 25 years or you've just won a Starbucks gift card. It's one or the other, I can't be sure."

Jonathan (I eat Irish Babies) Swift, Esq.

David Shulman said...

I've done a complete 180 when it comes to Legal Zoom and DIY wills. I used to be one of those who screamed from the rooftops that they were always bad, for all people, all of the time.

I'm not sure if I ever actually believed that, or just saw the DIYers are a threat to my bottom line. The truth is that there are a large number of people out there for which DIY wills - or even no wills at all - are fine. People with no minor children and minimal assets.

Also, I've come to learn that I want clients who understand the value that I'm providing them. The documents themselves are only the final product. The real work is sitting down with the clients on more than one occasion and getting to know them and providing them with something that they didn't even realize that they needed (because I have the training and they don't). If you're the type of person who just wants the cheapest fill in the blank form, then I really don't want to be working with you anyway.

Besides, I can make a hell of a lot more money fixing your fucked up DIY Will after you're dead than I could if you would have paid me to do it correctly to begin with.

Chris Guest said...

I am right there with David S. on this one. Legal Zoom has its place in the world and a cheap will by LZ is certainly fine for many people and I have even directed a potential client or two there when they didn't have anything of real value to protect.

All people really need to drive around is a cheap car...like a Yugo but lots of people buy more expensive cars - why protection, luxury, and reliability along with a host of other reasons. That is where a good estate planner comes in to provide value to his/her client. Some people will be cheap regardless, I am not after those people because they just want a cheap will that will probably not do what they want anyway. Me, I'll continue to work with smart clients that know you get what you pay for.

L. said...

I'm an estate planning attorney so you think I'd be threatened by legal zoom or Suze Orman's $13.95 Trust Plan (with free plastic briefcase.) But I have no interest in competing for people who go the DIY route, I just wait until their wife realizes that maybe writing your own trust out of the back of a book on avoiding probate wasn't the best way to do things.

Also, Legal Zoom won't listen as they recount the story of their marriage in 1942 in Italy, and Suze Orman isn't going to go to the hospital to visit them when they've had a stroke and their friend can't find the health care proxy.

That's what the people who come to me want. And the couple of people who wondered why I charge so much for "filling names in on forms" have been shown the door.

And as far as giving away information for free - I do that on my blog. People read it, get to know me, figure that I know what I'm talking about and then they hire me. So I'm not all worried that Legal Zoom is giving that information away for free too.

Like David (and many tattoo artists) I make more money off the DIY folks who screwed it up before calling me.

The day I decide to charge $67.50 for a Will is the day I pack it in and go work at Eastern Mountain Sports and Starbucks.