Clients Prefer Web-based Legal Options, Find Non-Lawyer Vendors Fill the Bill
Witnesses at an ABA Commission on Ethics 20/20 hearing shared that consumers with legal needs are finding what they want, when they want it, on the Internet, and lawyers who cannot adapt to evolving technology will forfeit business to those who can, and to non-lawyer information sources, in ever increasing levels.
Cautionary notes were sounded by other witnesses, who acknowledged evolving standards governing legal practice around the world but urged resistance to adjusting U.S. legal ethics to accommodate the shifts. The commission held its first of what it anticipates will be many public hearings during the ABA 2010 Annual Meeting in Orlando, Fla. Among items on which it sought comment is a Preliminary Issues Outline. A calendar of commission activities, the outline, comment on it, a list of pre-registered hearing witnesses and written submissions by some of the witnesses are posted on the commission’s webpage, available by clicking here. Content is updated frequently.
Richard Granat, president of DirectLaw, Inc., profiled the future of serving the Web generation of legal consumers—those with what he called “digital DNA.” He said they want fixed prices and not hourly rates, speed of service, transparency in both process and substance relative to their own specific legal needs, the convenience of dealing with legal matters online and on their own schedules, and service providers who have and use advanced technology effectively.
Ethical rules among the states impede innovation in delivery of legal services, allowing non-lawyer information sources to siphon off business, he said. As one example, Granat cited no-fault divorce, estimating that divorce Web sites have processed more than 50,000 online divorces in the past 18 months. Estimating a “normal” legal fee for uncontested no-fault divorces of $1,500, he said approximately $75 million in legal fees “has just been drained from lawyers’ practices on a nationwide basis.”
Granat’s enterprise provides a platform for virtual law firms. He was followed as a witness by Stephanie Kimbro, a lawyer who operates a virtual firm and is co-founder of Virtual Law Office Technology, LLC, which creates and supports virtual law practices for solo and small firm lawyers.
Kimbro described a Web-practice that provides a secure area for each individual client, in which the client and the lawyer can share information and documents, calendar activities and discuss strategies. If either the client or lawyer feels a need, they can supplement Web communication with face-to-face meetings, phone conversations or Web camera meetings. Technology on the site can screen potential clients for conflicts and jurisdictional questions, she said. Some lawyers have completely embraced Web-based practices, offering bundled or unbundled services, some integrate Web service with traditional offices, and some transition in and out of Web-based practices to meet other personal and professional needs.
Virtual offices are important for the public because they increase access to justice—they are affordable and accessible, Kimbro said. They are important to lawyers by accommodating a better work/life balance, producing economies for routine work, helping prevent malpractice, reducing overhead and expanding the potential client base, she noted.
Risks to practitioners and the public are similar to those in traditional law practices, she said.
While not addressing the technology issues raised by Granat and Kimbro, Lawrence J. Fox of Philadelphia sounded a warning about changing ethics rules in the United States on such issues as law firm structure and imputation, and applying rules to lawyers differently, based on the sophistication level of individual clients. Such core values as client loyalty are “under attack” for economic reasons, he said.
“What we should be doing is exporting our values, not importing someone else’s values,” Fox said.