9 02 2012
A Proposal for the Optimal Law Firm
Author’s note: This was written a couple years ago as a quick assignment for a law school class. Some of the resources, references, etc. might be out of date. I’m considering expanding this to a full white paper. Please feel free to leave comments with criticism, ideas, or any thoughts you may have.
Online Law Firms – An Optimal Model
“The practice of law… today is about as modern as performing surgery in a barbershop.” Gordon D. Schaber, Late Former Dean of McGeorge School of Law.
The legal profession, being the conservative industry that it is, evolves at a truly glacial pace. The use of technology and the internet has only changed the everyday practice of law by an inch compared to the leaps and bounds other industries have advanced using e-commerce. Instead of carbon paper and typewriters, there is a paralegal typing on a template and hitting the “Print” button twice. E-Filing and Fax Filing, though increasingly common, are not the norm. It seems that a lawyer from twenty-five years ago, once she is updated on the changes in substantive law, could practice today with barely an adjustment, though she may freak out when her cell phone rings for the first time.
Though many goods and services previously thought to be the exclusive domain of brick and mortar stores are now thriving online, not all legal services can move online. Litigation, criminal matters, and other practice requiring the use of a courtroom and judge still must take place in the “real world”. However, there is currently a void left to be filled in regards to the forms of practice that require the knowledge of a lawyer yet are mostly paperwork based. Examples include the drafting of legal documents such as wills and contracts and the filing of patents, incorporation documents, and for the more common man, the uncontested divorce.
Even for practice areas that require in person service, all forms of practice can become more efficient using the most modern forms of technology. Collaborative online workspaces allow the experienced attorney in Los Angeles to make revisions to the new associate’s draft of a document that was completed in San Francisco only minutes earlier. Even better, once the revisions are made, with the associate watching and perhaps videoconferencing with their distant coworker, the document can instantly be sent to the client’s secure workspace, where they can review, ask questions, and approve the work. Meanwhile, the thousands of pages of discovery that need to be perused can be simultaneously analyzed by a dozen paralegals or contract attorneys from a third, fourth, or tenth location. The possibilities, for the bold and tech savvy, are infinite. An optimal model for a modern firm would combine basic stripped-down brick and mortar offices with a flexible data network that allows the firm to utilize human capital in the most efficient manner possible.
Current online structures
The current state of online legal practice, for most firms at least, resembles a combination of a billboard and a pamphlet. Online lawyering is stuck in a glorified marketing phase. Lawyers hire a web designer for a couple hundred dollars to create a static webpage advertising their services, which doesn’t change for years at a time. The supposed “revolutionary” attorneys are using Twitter and blogs to attempt to attract business, but is this really enough? Is a prospective client really going to care if their attorney can write a blog posting about the intricacies of the intervention of non-relatives in adoption situations involving former significant others of a biological parent that stood in loco parentis for a few years? This might impress a client or two, but most will read the first seven words, get a headache, and either call the attorney or go back to Google to find someone that has been positively reviewed on Yelp!. And for those prospective clients not familiar with such sites as Yelp!, Twitter, and Blogspot, they probably aren’t going to be reading the blog in the first place.
Most importantly, these firms, while advertising online, do little of their business or work online. Their meetings with clients usually still take place in the office, the work is done in the office, and the only thing the internet is used for is to occasionally email the documents to the client. The internet is used solely to attract customers, not to work with them.
A rare few attorneys do practice the full online experience. Using their online interface, where the data, software, forms, and everything else needed to practice is stored in a central server, the cyber firm gets the data from a questionnaire of the client, software auto-fills in a form or two, and a lawyer theoretically reviews the form. It is then sent to the client via the same encrypted technology used by online merchants such as Amazon to transfer credit card data. The setup requires virtually no human interaction and very little time per case.
The problem with this form of firm is that not only do the attorneys have to be incredibly tech savvy to deal with the new and sometimes buggy software; the client must also do the same. The client also has to have the faith to entrust their legal matters to someone they will never meet or see. The attorney also will be either confined to practice areas that don’t require appearances in court or their online client base is limited to a reasonable distance from the attorney, which defeats the purpose of an online firm. Nearly all fully online firms are currently limited to areas like Estate Planning and Contract Drafting.
Finally, there is increased competition from non-lawyers that run legal paper mills. LegalZoom is one example. They provide all of the paperwork and guidance needed for a do it yourself legal project and from a corporate standpoint, they collect all the fees without the hassles of representation. Fortunately for attorneys, most legal tasks are too confusing for the average person. Attorneys still have the benefit of being able to translate legal gibberish to their clients and give legal advice based on reasoning, experience, and judgment, whereas LegalZoom only has the paperwork.
The optimal model
A happy medium is a “spoke and wheel” brick and mortar model combined with either a secure internet connection or a private intranet, which is a miniaturized internet that connects only a handful of computers. In this model, there are still brick and mortar offices, though the size, staff, and most importantly overhead of each branch office is greatly reduced. A model practice might have a dozen branches across the state, each sparsely staffed and equipped compared to the traditional firm. The less busy offices would contain perhaps only a single attorney, and the offices in major metropolitan offices would contain three or four. A central hub, located preferably in a low-cost area, contains a few supervising attorneys, a dozen or so paralegals, the servers, and perhaps an IT specialist.
Traffic through the website would be routed to the central hub, where the case is first checked for conflicts with current or former clients. Then the client’s information is entered into the network. If the matter is routine, such as writing a will or is a form-based legal matter, the paralegal prepares the basic paperwork, it is reviewed either by an on-site attorney or one of the attorneys in a branch office that has downtime, and then it is sent to the client or court. If the matter requires a court appearance, the paralegal prepares the paperwork and then forwards everything to the closest branch office. The attorney at that office reviews the paperwork and the facts of the case and contacts the client to fill in any missing information. The filing of the case is preferably handled electronically or through support staff. The calendaring, organization of client files, billing and collections, and nearly everything but the actual lawyering is left to the central hub’s support staff. The networked calendars also allow the various offices to forward overload work to other unoccupied attorneys across the network.
A major benefit this model has over the currently ultra-rare fully online practice is the attraction and flexibility of brick and mortar offices. While these offices would be much smaller and less expensive than the traditional firm, a physical location and in-person contact would still be available for clients that are reluctant to handle their business online or that need the comfort that an in-person advocate brings. In cases such as these, the branch offices would resemble a sole practitioner on the surface, but with the support and resources of a larger firm. The intake and communication with the client can take place in the branch office while the preparation of motions, forms, and filings can be done at the hub.
The most attractive part of this model is that the technology already exists and is not very expensive. Google Applications, and competing products from Microsoft or Sun Microsystems, contain all of the office productivity software that would be necessary. Google’s offering also contains private email, instant messaging, and an internet based phone system. For a firm with less than fifty employees, it is completely free. There are also add-ons for free or low cost, such as ManyMoon which adds a familiar social networking interface to the Google Applications suite. An associate with a question can post a quick message, like a Twitter “Tweet” to the Firm’s network. A partner can assign tasks for a case to different employees, with each task appearing on the user’s homepage and calendar. An overworked attorney in Los Angeles can post a request for assistance on their clients’ files and the paralegal staff in the Hub can respond instantly. This is a drastic difference from the state of current firms, where attorneys still utilize memos and emails and where attorneys and paralegals without work to do waste time that could otherwise be utilized.
The main pitfall is that the legal industry might not be ready. If a firm were to adopt the optimal model, there would be headaches, at least initially, when dealing with such routine tasks as filing documents with the court. Some jurisdictions have adopted e-filing or fax filing, but many others still require that someone stand in line at the courthouse and file the documents in person. This limits the effectiveness of an online firm if they have to hire someone to run to the courthouse in distant jurisdictions to file cases. Third party court runner and courier services exist for this purpose but they add overhead and delay.
The optimal model is also still best used for practice areas that require little or no in court appearances. For example, an attorney stuck in a five day murder trial in Roanoke cannot handle the dozen or so uncontested divorces that they might be able to handle otherwise. And a dozen clients will likely have fees that add up to more revenue than a single criminal case. Also, the criminal defense attorney cannot shift the burden if he is overloaded like a family law or estate planning attorney can. Flexibility is reduced. However, there is a great benefit, no matter what the practice area, to having a staff of paralegals and dozens of attorneys across the state to rely upon if an attorney has an evidentiary issue or needs research on a case done.
Another possible pitfall is the potential for missed conflicts of interest. In the current predominant form of online practice, a client fills out a questionnaire which includes information that by itself might create a conflict of interest if the firm already represents the opposing party. Most lack the preliminary step of conflict checking before gathering facts about the case. A client database that checks for conflicts before the clients’ information is revealed would be pretty simple and inexpensive to design, but it would have to be kept under the tightest of security and potential clients would have to trust the firm enough to enter sufficient data to find conflicts, such as partial social security numbers, date of birth, driver’s license number, etc. Such a database would be a prime target for hackers and would require the most advanced data protection methods. For a small firm, it might not be necessary to check all of this extra data in order to check for conflicts, but if the firm becomes dominant in its practice area and develops a massive client base, client names alone won’t be enough to determine whether there is a conflict.
The next problem is the increased IT cost and data security issues of the optimal model. Centralized servers, dozens of computers in remote locations, software licenses, and fees for service providers will add up quick. Staff to repair and maintain the systems might also be required. There is also the issue of training for employees. Tech-savvy lawyers would be the optimal employees, though with the Google and ManyMoon solutions, a familiarity with basic office software and social networking applications would suffice for most employees. The other benefit to using a service provider like Google over one’s own servers is the lessened need for IT staff and equipment, as Google stores the data on their servers. This must be weighed against the risks of having sensitive client data stored in remote servers.
The requisite tech-savvy lawyers are an issue as well. Finding attorneys that are experienced enough to manage the firm while being tech savvy enough to run the day to day software, as simple as it may be, means that there is a very narrow pool of potential attorneys to hire. Most recent law school graduates would have the requisite technical skill but would lack the legal practice skills. And most experienced attorneys with the requisite legal practice skills would lack the technical skills.
Finally, there is also a limitation in the customer base. The first question that was asked by a fellow law student that heard of the optimal model was “Are you hoping that all old people die?” The initial response was, “Ummm… yes? Or they can go somewhere else.” The vast majority of clientele would probably be younger. However, the branch offices would give the firm enough flexibility to handle clients that aren’t comfortable doing the bulk of their work online, which would include the hypothetical “old people.”
Also, firms that rely on online customers typically shoot for quantity over quality. They perform brief tasks for less than a traditional firm. The average consumer doesn’t usually purchase goods online because they are too lazy to go to the store. They purchase goods online because they are cheaper and shopping online is a time saver. Legal services provided online would also have to be cheaper in order to attract customers that would otherwise be more comfortable walking into a normal law office. Since the optimal model has both an online component and brick and mortar based operations, this effect is slightly reduced, and price discrimination is an option. Online customers can get services done cheaper than customers that come into the office and require in-person time.
The optimal model’s benefits, namely the ability to shift excess work from one office to another in order to maximize the utilization of human capital provided by attorneys and support staff, as well as the ability to expand quickly and cheaply (only a small office, a computer, and an attorney is required to fully enter a new market) greatly outweigh the major detriments. Security issues can be managed by using data encryption in the connections throughout the network, as well as antivirus and firewall software. The brick and mortar offices offer the flexibility to accommodate clients not yet comfortable with their cases being handled primarily online. And the Social Productivity software and talents of dozens of attorneys and paralegals will allow firms to process cases much more efficiently, meaning less cost to the consumer and the ability to handle more cases and more revenue for the firm.
Related Online Resources
Google Applications for Small Businesses
ManyMoon Social Productivity Software
Virtual Law Practice
Virtual Law Office Technologies