Small Law Firms, Solo Practitioners, Technology

How Should Solos and Smalls Respond to The Rise of Automated Self-Help Services? Not Like This…

If you ask a bunch of solos and smalls of their opinion about automated legal-form fillers like LegalZoom, you’re likely to hear one of the following reactions:

Reaction #1: Legal Zoom doesn’t worry me at all. Let’s face it, consumers have always had the option of buying forms – if not from Legal Zoom, then from an office supply store or Nolo. But the clients who come to me want more than a form – they want someone to advise them on options or strategize about their business or to work through a stressful family situation or personal matter. In fact, some of my best clients simply want an ongoing relationship with a lawyer whom they can call with questions in advance of a decision to stay out of trouble to begin with. LegalZoom can’t provide those services.

Reaction #2: LegalZoom? What’s the big deal? I use it all the time. What I mean is that if I get a call from a small entrepreneur – like a mom planning to start a web design business out of her house, or a group of students running a lawn mowing service – who can’t pay for much and really only want an LLC or a basic contract, I’ll direct them to resources online where they can find free forms or contracts – and I might mention automated services like LegalZoom if clients don’t want to take the time to fill out the documents themselves. Sometimes, if clients are on the fence about using forms or hiring me, I’ll walk them through the LegalZoom site and explain that for many services, LegalZoom pricing isn’t that much less expensive when they consider the amount of time that LegalZoom requires to complete the documents, as well as the fact that the fees don’t include attorney advice, an assurance of confidentiality through attorney-client privilege or malpractice protection….

Reaction #3  Hey, when prospective clients ask me why I charge so much more than LegalZoom, I just tell ‘em, you get what you pay for. If all clients care about is price, then I don’t want ‘em.

Reaction #4  LegalZoom – that’s legal advice pure and simple. Sue the bastards for UPL!!

The first two responses are, in my view, a productive and professional way for lawyers to deal with LegalZoom. Reactions 1 and 2 educate clients on the benefits of hiring a lawyer while offering alternatives if they can’t afford the service. And while I’m not a huge fan of the blunt tone of Reaction 3, it’s straightforward and useful in that it weeds out the types of clients that the lawyer isn’t likely to get along with because of their focus on price. Reaction 4 is protectionism talking – almost a tacit admission that lawyers can’t compete with forms and self-help books, so might as well beat them instead.

But there’s a fifth reaction to Legal Zoom – something along the lines of “Hey, it’s great if clients use LegalZoom. Means more work for me to clean up the mess.” That reaction has always bugged me on a visceral level, yet I couldn’t articulate my distaste. So I was gratified to see that legal profession observer Jordan Furlong did the work for me in a recent post entitled The Incidental Lawyer, where he argues that lawyers may relegate themselves to the periphery of the legal services market if we continue to respond to them “with hostility, or with arrogance.”

I’ve  lost count of the number of lawyers who’ve chuckled at warnings about “non-lawyer” providers, saying (sometimes literally), “Ka-ching! Every time a client tries to use one of these companies, it just means more business for me when they come looking for help to straighten out the mess they made.” What a selfish, unprofessional attitude we’ve developed: comfortably serving our 15% of the market, blocking the other 85% from accessing whatever help they can get, and smugly feasting off the problems of those for whom even these efforts went wrong. And we wonder why people are looking for alternatives?

Jordan’s comment is right on the money. It’s one thing for lawyers to criticize the quality or value of automated self-help services out of genuine concern that consumers may be harmed.  But to view the inadequacies of self-help as a source of business?! That’s just shameful.

What’s your opinion of self-help services? Are they a practical if imperfect solution to lack of affordable legal services? A danger to clients? A threat to solos and smalls? Share your comments below.


Carolyn Elefant has been blogging about solo and small firm practice at MyShingle.com since 2002 and operated her firm, the Law Offices of Carolyn Elefant PLLC, even longer than that. She’s also authored a bunch of books on topics like starting a law practice, social media, and 21st century lawyer representation agreements (affiliate links). If you’re really that interested in learning more about Carolyn, just Google her. The Internet never lies, right? You can contact Carolyn by email at elefant@myshingle.com or follow her on Twitter at @carolynelefant.

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