Michele Berdinis is President and Senior Attorney at Beeline Legal. The company provides trademark registration legal services through a web-based expert system designed and backed by an experienced trademark attorney.
It’s boring and barely worth mentioning that we’ve seen a revolution in the way we buy everything from movies to mattresses. It’s equally boring to point out that the changes have increased availability and reduced the cost of everything from banking to Brussel sprouts.
And, yet, the business model for the delivery of legal services remains mired in the 20th century, even though it’s desperately needed. Better access to less expensive legal services would be a huge boon to:
- an entrepreneur starting their business on a shoestring;
- a debtor behind on their payments and getting threatening phone calls;
- anyone being discriminated against at work.
Legal aid and pro bono legal services don’t even begin to scratch the surface of the need for more accessibility to legal services at lower prices.
Existing online services aren’t really filling the need.
Companies like LegalZoom® have streamlined the mechanical aspects of some business law services, but even in that narrow niche of legal services, they don’t deliver what people really need. For example, LegalZoom will file a certificate of incorporation with the Delaware secretary of state in order to form a Delaware corporation, but they can’t:
- tell you whether you should be forming a limited liability instead of a corporation;
- tell you whether you should form your entity in your home state because the benefits of a Delaware entity aren’t worth the cost given your circumstances;
- tell you whether there are other steps you have to take to achieve your goal of limiting your personal liability.
The obvious answer is for LegalZoom to bump up its level of service but it can’t. That would mean it was “practicing law,” which it’s not allowed to do. State law only allows lawyers to deliver legal advice and counsel. LegalZoom will hook you up with a lawyer, but that’s just a fancier path to the traditional means of delivering legal services.
Lawyers are not well suited to disrupt the industry.
“Okay,” I hear you say, “if companies like LegalZoom can’t do it, surely the lawyers will see the opportunity and jump on it.” Don’t hold your breath.
- Lawyers are invested in the status quo. They think it’s working pretty well for them. (They’re wrong.)
- Lawyers focus on day-to-day billable hours. They rarely look up from the dashboard to see the horizon rushing toward them.
- The level of risk entrepreneurs deal with every single day is well beyond the risk profile of most lawyers. Future lawyers arrive at law school with a mild aversion to risk. They then spend three years reading cases where everything went wrong in the worst possible way. That’s followed by years hearing from clients only when something bad happened. A client has never called me to tell me that the custom software they contracted for was finished on time, on budget, and with all the functionality promised. Being a lawyer means being paid to sit in a chair and be paranoid.
- Investors and normal disrupters can’t participate. Lawyers can deliver legal services through professional entities (PC; PLLC; PLP; etc.) but no one is allowed to own an interest in those entities except the lawyers who are actually practicing law through the entity. That means no outside investors. The lawyers would have to put their own money on the line to build the tools, which brings us back to that risk-aversion thing.
How bad is it?
Before I left the firm where I had practiced for almost 20 years, I was put in charge of working with a website developer to redo the firm’s website. The website was and would remain an electronic brochure. It had no functionality. Clients could not use the website to access their files, pay their bills, or even make an appointment. It was a series of pages with pretty pictures and copy. The firm had fewer than 20 lawyers.
It took a year. One entire year to create a small online brochure.
I don’t have specific data that shows my experience is typical, but I’ve certainly not spoken to a lawyer who says that my experience isn’t the norm.
The tools built by lawyers are unlikely to be user-friendly.
I first had the idea for online delivery of trademark registration legal service while I was at my old firm. I never even suggested it. If a simple electronic brochure took a year, building a functional website that delivers legal services would have taken a decade.
Beyond that, the resulting site would have been unusable because it would have been covered with warnings and disclaimers. Don’t believe me? Here’s the first page of the electronic filing system of the U.S. Trademark Office.
There are 1,631 words on this page, only 30 of which are functional. The other 1,601 words are warnings, instructions, caveats, and CYAs.
If I had tried to build Beeline while at my old firm, this is what every page of my website would look like.
Removing the barriers to entry is unlikely.
The obvious answer is to remove the barriers to entry.
Look at the trouble Tesla® is having removing or amending statutes that protect car dealerships. Deregulating the delivery of legal services will be harder because legislators are often lawyers, who are very disinclined to deregulate their own profession.
If you still think deregulation is the answer, I know this awesome bridge across the East River that might interest you.
Apart from removing barriers to entry to the legal profession, is there a path to delivering robust legal services with the seamlessness of Seamless®?
What will work?
Changing the way that legal services are delivered would bring all the benefits to that industry, as have been achieved by other industries: lower cost, faster delivery, greater accessibility, and fairer administration of justice.
It would also benefit lawyers. Lawyers are essentially brain whores: we sell off access to our brain in quarter hour increments. Unfortunately, only one client can use our brains at a time and we have only so many brain-hours to sell.
When I built Beeline, I turned my twenty years of experience into an online expert system The result is that multiple people can use my brain at the same time. That means lower prices for clients and higher incomes for lawyers.
What’s required is for just one lawyer in each area of expertise to decide to make it happen:
- One lawyer with a deep and broad expertise in an area of law: knowing from experience what questions people ask; knowing how to balance competing client needs in order to choose from different available solutions; knowing what confuses people the most and how to explain and guide a client past the difficult bits.
- One lawyer willing to take input and advice from others on non-legal aspects of the website: design, flow, usability, etc.
- One lawyer willing to risk her own capital to build the tool and launch and grow the practice.
I took me four months of 11-hour workdays to create the documentation for the Beeline website. It took over 1,000 person-hours to code the documentation. It continues to take many hours of marketing and promotion to build the business.
I’m not really that different from other lawyers. I was just privileged enough to be in a position to make it happen in one small corner of the legal world. I encourage others in my profession to take the plunge.