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Self-help legal sites: How do lawyers compete?

Stacked3This week's Daily Record column is entitled "Self-help legal sites: How do lawyers compete?" My past Daily Record articles can be accessed here.

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Self-help legal sites: How do lawyers compete?

I was recently asked to speak to a group of lawyers about the Legal Zoom phenomenon and how lawyers can compete in the age of the self-help legal consumer.

It’s an interesting issue and one worthy of discussion. And it’s an important one for many transactional lawyers these days, since the legal landscape is in the midst of dramatic change — spawned in part by globalization and technological innovation — and as a result competition for legal clients is increasingly fierce.

So what can lawyers do about low-priced legal document creation services offered by websites like Legal Zoom, Rocket Lawyer and Biz Filings? How can lawyers compete?

First and foremost, lawyers need to understand why these sites — which have been around since the late 1990s — are suddenly so appealing to 21st century legal consumers. Simply put, it’s a confluence of 3 events: widespread Internet access, the ailing economy, and legal consumers’ corresponding ability (and expectation) to access all types of information 24/7.

In other words, legal consumers now have access to all types of information, whenever they want it, with just the touch of a button. Money is tight and many consumers figure why hire a lawyer when they can do it themselves? And judging by the rising popularity of do-it-yourself sites, more and more legal consumers are going this route — and as a result these sites are siphoning off the bread and butter of many transactional lawyers’ practices.

The good news is that there are a number of things you can do to better position your law firm in this increasingly competitive legal marketplace.

First, understand that the primary difference between your services and the services offered by these websites is — at least from the legal consumer’s perspective — that do-it-yourself websites do not guarantee results. Instead, the sites include disclaimer language similar to this: “We cannot guarantee the results or outcome of your particular procedure. We do not guarantee the results or outcomes rendered by our legal plan attorneys or attorney-assisted products. Problems like these are beyond our control and are not covered by this guarantee.”

While no lawyer can guarantee an outcome, you can guarantee that, unlike do-it-yourself sites, you will use your expertise to craft a document that meets their specific needs and that you will do your best to ensure client satisfaction.

Next, market your firm as one that “fixes the mistakes” of do-it-yourself websites — and specifically list the different sites when you do so. By doing this, you indicate to potential clients that your expertise will assist them in preparing proper legal documents while implying that by using do-it-yourself sites, they run the costly risk of a “do-over.”

And, if you market your services as a firm that fixes their mistakes, not only will you convince clients to choose your services over  those of the do-it-yourself sites, you’ll undoubtedly end up with clients who need to have their do-it-yourself documents fixed, something that has already happened to many transactional lawyers with whom I’ve spoken.

Finally, understand why many legal consumers flock to these sites. It’s not just affordability — it’s convenience and 24/7 access to information. To combat this you need to change the way that your law firm delivers legal services in order to better meet the needs of 21st century legal clients. They want instant access to case-related information at any time, day or night. They want to be able to securely communicate with you at their convenience, not just via telephone calls during office hours.

In order to meet their expectations and compete with the convenience of do-it-yourself sites, you have to make your legal services and your expertise more accessible. One of the best ways to do this is to use web-based tools to collaborate with and interact with your clients. There are many different alternatives available, ranging Google Docs or Dropbox to full fledged web-based law practice management platforms with built-in client portals which facilitate secure collaboration and communication with legal clients.

The bottom line: self-help legal sites aren’t the death knell for transactional lawyers. Instead, their current popularity is simply a sign of the times and an indication that many transactional lawyers need to step up their game and tweak their law practices to keep up with the changing expectations of 21st century legal consumers. While not always an easy task, it can be done.

So seize the day! Reexamine your law practice. What can you do to bring wanna-be self-help legal clients in the door?

Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney and Director of Business Development and Community Relations at MyCase, an intuitive cloud-based law practice management platform for the modern law firm. She is also a GigaOM Pro Analyst and is the author of the ABA book Cloud Computing for Lawyers, co-authors the ABA book Social Media for Lawyers: the Next Frontier, and co-authors Criminal Law in New York, a West-Thomson treatise. She is the founder of lawtechTalk.com and speaks regularly at conferences regarding the intersection of law and technology. She publishes four legal blogs and can be reached at niki@mycase.com.