As people have adjusted to the new normal of social distancing, face masks and hand sanitizer, most are still being careful with their personal interactions. Yet, despite these limitations and the fears that cause them, people need to go about their daily lives. People still need stuff done, and that includes help with legal problems. In Clio’s COVID-19 Impact Research Briefing, data indicates that the demand for legal services has, in fact, fallen, with 49 percent indicating that if they had a legal issue they would very likely delay reaching out for legal help until after the coronavirus pandemic has subsided. Yet 60 percent of consumers report they would rather seek legal services from a lawyer than deal with it in some other way, and 13 percent say they anticipate having legal issues directly related to coronavirus.
There is an important nuance in these answers—they are predicated on legal work being done face-to-face, as it has been done in a more or less unchanged manner for hundreds of years. But what if the work can be done remotely or with little or no personal intervention? Most consumers are now far more accepting of online services in most aspects of life, so why not their legal services? In addition to the convenience of not visiting a law office, many now state they want to avoid the risk of infection. Online legal services offer the consumer experience people want.
The COVID-19 pandemic changed the status quo overnight. Suddenly lawyers were scrambling to serve their clients at a distance. Clients in COVID quarantine or government lockdown could no longer visit a law office. Lawyers by the thousands were exploring working from home and remotely accessing their offices, testing videoconference apps, scanning and creating digital documents and investigating electronic signature solutions—many for the first time. Traditional lawyers around the globe needed to become e-lawyers almost overnight.
In searching for virtual solutions, many lawyers found solutions that allowed them to replicate their current processes while working from home. At the end of the day, most lawyers didn’t really change the way they are delivering legal services, and most of the virtual accommodations they adopted were not terribly innovative and have been available in the marketplace for years.
After its creation in 2000, the Law Practice Division’s eLawyering Task Force began to encourage lawyers to take legal services online. While relatively few lawyers moved into the online legal services space, others did so quite successfully. LegalZoom launched, fought multiple unauthorized practice of law complaints and succeeded in creating a huge legal services company.
Fast-forward almost 20 years and we’ve seen some growthin online legal services, but it remains a small part of the overall legal services market. Pioneers such as Richard Granat (DirectLaw), Charley Moore (Rocket Lawyer) and more recent entrants like Immigration Advocates Network (pro bono legal services) and Erin Levine of Hello Divorce have created a solid presence in the online legal services space, while most other lawyers have ignored this trend and kept practicing as we have for a century and more.
While it’s hard to change directions while going 85 miles per hour, the pandemic has slowed things down and given an opportunity to reimagine how you deliver legal services. Now is the time to analyze your practice and change the way you operate and deliver legal services. Cater to the way clients want their legal services, not the way you want to provide them.
Is that harsh medicine or a prescription for a more viable future? Only time will tell, but know there are other lawyers taking this same medicine.
Natalie Elisha Gold founded her trusts and estates law firm in 2014, recently adding an online component to her firm. In addition to her traditional firm, this online portal allows her to interact with new clients exclusively in a virtual environment, delivering wills and simple estate plans at a lower price point.
The number of people seeking wills has skyrocketed. As a New Yorker, she recently offered free wills for some health-care workers via her online portal. She had 200 people take her up on the offer in a matter of days. “The blend of technology and law is the future—there’s no going back,” says Gold. “I’m thrilled about making estate planning more accessible and more affordable for more people.”
Silicon Valley-based Wilson Sonsini has launched a new company to make law more accessible to people. SixFifty is merging old-fashioned legal analysis with leading-edge technology to create online tools to make the law easier and cheaper to navigate for smaller companies and individuals.
According to its website, “SixFifty is a group of lawyers and engineers that believe the law should be easier to navigate. Other industries have adopted technology to make life easier for users, often to great effect. The law shouldn’t be any different. It’s time to put technology to use to make the law easier for everyone.”
Currently SixFifty offers data privacy law compliance solutions for businesses and pro bono legal solutions for rental tenants. While it is “powered by Wilson Sonsini,” SixFifty is led by Kimball Parker, director of the LawX legal design lab of Brigham Young University Law School.
Boundless Immigration provides an online platform for consumers to complete various U.S. immigration petitions and applications with the assistance of an independent attorney network. While new business since February has declined somewhat, the number of those completing their online paperwork continues at about the same high pace this year. What has increased significantly is the number of emails, chat messages and calls from users who seem more anxious about the process but relieved they can get answers 24/7 from a combination of digital and human resources.
“We’ve been building the workflow and operations tools for three years now, so given the increased expectation for faster answers and greater availability, we’re adjusting our mindset to add additional communication tools to meet those new expectations,” according to CEO and co-founder Xiao Wang.
Wang also notes that in response to the current climate, Boundless has adjusted its marketing message to focus on how its service is something customers can do safely from their homes rather than in person.
Regardless of our progress against COVID-19, the demand for e-lawyering will remain. When it comes to buying groceries, filling prescriptions or having dinner delivered from a favorite restaurant, consumers are far more comfortable and willing to use other online services. To remain relevant, the legal profession needs to make sure it improves the availability of legal services. As long as consumers need legal stuff done, lawyers need to evolve their business models to make sure we can meet that demand. That’s more than just an Office 365 subscription and a new Zoom account.