Online Paper Mills: Are They a Threat and How Do We Compete?

Vol. 31 No. 3


In addition to practicing estate planning, David Hiersekorn runs and helps attorneys become master marketers. In 2012 he was named by Infusionsoft as a “Top 10 Ultimate Marketer” and the professional services “Industry Innovator.”

Technology can be a lawyer’s greatest friend, and it can be our worst enemy. After all, we have wonderful document automation software that makes it possible to prepare legal documents much faster than before. And the Internet makes it possible to communicate with large groups of people at little or no cost.

We can do our job more efficiently and for more people. Times should be great, right?

Well, not exactly. See, non-lawyers can use that same document automation technology to prepare documents that seem similar to those prepared by a lawyer. And they can use the Internet to sell those services, just like we can.

But it’s worse than that. Lawyers are restricted by ethical rules and malpractice liability. Our non-lawyer competition can say things we can’t. They can promise smooth, easy sailing without fear of client-specific complications. They can use testimonials in ways that no lawyer could consider. And the largest online document services command enormous marketing budgets that no individual lawyer could ever match.

Most importantly, the general public lacks the sophistication to distinguish between our services and those offered by LegalZoom and its non-lawyer online cousins. In the eyes of the public, dot-com document pushers appear to offer the same thing that we do: legal documents.

Sure, their documents are the legal version of Mad Libs—fill-in-the-blank forms, completed without guidance or understanding of what the final product should look like. Except, unlike Mad Libs, the results aren’t so funny. In fact, they could be tragic. But the public doesn’t know that, and that’s the problem.

So, as lawyers who presumably would like to maintain our noble profession well into the future, we have to ask ourselves, what should we make of this threat? Will people figure out the risk? Are the dot-coms a threat to our industry, or not?

Bird’s-Eye View

I’ve seen a variety of responses. Some lawyers act like gray-feathered ostriches with their heads buried in the sands of denial. According to the ostrich crowd, online services only attract people who weren’t going to hire a lawyer anyway. They claim that the online document purchaser is either too cheap to hire an attorney or too uninterested to care about quality. The ostriches don’t think they need to worry about the online threat, because those people were never going to become our clients anyway.

I believe that viewpoint is wrong. Very wrong. First, it is logically a tautology: The folks who don’t hire us are the ones who weren’t going to hire us. (Gee, with that kind of logic, who can fail?) More importantly, it grossly overstates the public’s trust in lawyers.

Let’s be frank. The public does not trust lawyers. According to a recent Pew Research Center poll (, attorneys were the least trusted professionals, with just 18 percent of the public believing that lawyers contribute a lot to society. So, if our success depends on telling the public that we are better than our non-lawyer counterparts, we are on shaky ground at best. It’s betting on a level of trust that just isn’t there.

Simply put, we aren’t going to be able to tell the public that our quality is worth the increase in price and then ask them to trust us. That is playing the wrong hand, in the weakest possible way.

This is not a contest between our quality and their price. I find it strange that the loudest voices touting the “quality-versus-price” argument are the same people insisting that lawyer services are not a commodity. Well, I’ve got news for you. By definition, a commodity is a product that is measured only in terms of quality and price. So, framing the argument in terms of quality versus price forces the consumer to treat lawyers as a commodity.

Another group of lawyers argues that the online services are only creating messes that we will get paid to clean up. Although this is true, at least in part, it is also extremely callous and cynical. Could you imagine a doctor dismissing a harmful pseudo-medicine on the basis that it will only lead to profitable stays in the intensive care unit? Seriously, that’s not the argument we should be making—and it only plays into the public’s low opinion of our profession.

Even worse than the vultures or the ostriches are those lawyers who pull the Chicken Little routine, running around crying “the sky is falling.” Out of panic, they reduce prices in order to compete directly with the online document providers. But reducing prices results in cutting corners, and that only serves to narrow the distinction between lawyers and non-lawyers.

Casting the ’Net

So, what is a poor lawyer to do? If we can’t tout our quality, can’t use “pay me now or pay me later,” and can’t cut our prices, what is left?

Well, it turns out that in order to understand the answer to that question, you have to understand the game that the online providers are really playing. See, LegalZoom is competing with lawyers by changing the process that people use to buy legal services. And, candidly, their process is better than ours. That’s because they take better advantage of the way people actually use the Internet to make decisions. Just ask comedian George Carlin.

He may seem like an odd source for business wisdom, but Carlin told us the most important thing we need to know about the Internet: “When people say ‘It’s always in the last place you look.’ Of course it is. Why the [expletive] would you keep looking after you’ve found it?”


See, online document services succeed because they make people believe they have found the solution to their problem. Consumers go searching for information about making a will or a trust, forming a corporation, and so on. They fire up a search engine and start poking around the Internet. Eventually, they are going to end up visiting a paper pusher’s website.

The non-lawyer sites are not creepy, scary places filled with warnings and disclaimers. Instead, they are typically well-designed, useful websites that take advantage of every marketing trick in the book. Consumer visitors find pictures of happy customers offering glowing testimonials. This is what marketers call “social proof.” Like it or not, people use “lemming logic.” They follow the crowd. And the online document companies have done a fantastic job of providing social proof. Their sites literally scream “you are safe and will be happy.”

That gives these sites credibility. And, bluntly, that credibility is likely stronger in the consumer’s mind than the credibility of us lawyers and our 18 percent favorability score.

With that kind of social proof, even skeptical consumers are more inclined to look into the process.

And then these sites make it seem brain-dead simple for customers to complete the process. Sure, people might have some doubts, but by that point they aren’t terribly interested in searching for a more expensive and more complicated solution from an attorney.

In other words, the low price isn’t there to attract customers. It’s there to keep them from leaving.

Using LegalZoom as an example, a consumer goes to the website and sees testimonials from smiling customers. Then they go through the online questionnaire, never encountering a question that they can’t answer. And soon they find that they are just a credit card number away from having the document they went looking for.

The magic of the LegalZoom system is its ability to make consumers believe that they have found a complete solution and that they don’t need to look further. If a question is difficult or requires legal advice, then it doesn’t make its way into the process.

Think of it this way. If a consumer completes the process and doesn’t have any unanswered questions, what exactly is he or she going to go ask an attorney? In Carlin’s terms, consumers stop looking for additional solutions because they think they’ve already found one.

Compete from a Position of Strength

But the online paper mills have a couple of significant weaknesses, and we can beat them at their own game. We just need to compete from a position of strength, not weakness. And we need to do it without being negative or pitting our credibility against that of the online services—this will only look like self-interested protectionism.

Remember, usefulness is the currency of the Internet. People flock to the most useful websites. They don’t care whether you’re an expert or how much experience you have. The web isn’t about you. It’s about them. Put yourself in their shoes, assume that they have just learned that they have a problem that you solve, and then walk them through the process of solving it.

Lawyers have a huge advantage in this regard. The non-lawyer services can’t give legal advice and they can’t promise results or suitability. We can.

Please stop and ponder that for a moment. They can’t actually promise that consumers will get the results that they’re looking for. And we can. Now, many lawyers have pushed back, claiming that we can’t ethically promise results to a random online audience. While there is some truth to that, it misses the point. We don’t need to promise specific outcomes because our competition can’t promise any outcome.

Consider this statement: “This trust is appropriate for a young family with children from a prior marriage.”

I challenge you to tell me how that statement is unethical. And yet the non-lawyer services are not legally allowed to make that claim. That claim is inherently tied to the practice of law. Heck, they can’t even claim that their documents are valid.

Can you see where I’m going with this? It’s possible to create a marketing message that effectively inoculates a consumer against being condemned to cookie-cutter LegalDoom hell. [And no, I didn’t make that term up. LegalZoom actually felt the need to register, which points to their main site. And if it’s good enough for them. . . .]

Six and A Half Tips to Get You Started

So, how do you put all this into practice on your website? Consider the following suggestions:

1. Be the most useful resource they can find on the Internet. This will help you with the search engines, and it will keep visitors glued to your site. You might want to consider making a list of the questions that people are likely to have before they hire you. Write a blog post or shoot a video about each and every question on the list. You want your website visitors to find everything they are looking for without leaving your site.

2. Make your content about your visitors, not about you. Tell them how they will benefit from your services. Put it in terms of the results that they hope to achieve. For example, “this is how we help small business owners who are looking to retire in the next five years.”

If you make this kind of statement on your website, there is no way that a pre-retirement business owner is going to buy anything from a non-lawyer website. In fact, this is just good marketing advice in general—most lawyers screw this up.

3. Capture their information in exchange for even better content. There have been whole books written on this subject. But the “Twitter version” is: Create something that your prospects would value and then offer to send it to them in exchange for their e-mail address. Then blow their minds with how useful you can be. Send them information and keep sending them information that compels them to want to work with you. Don’t hold back.

4. Always have a clearly defined next step. Know what you want your potential clients to do next. Have a clearly defined path that starts with every way that a person can come into contact with you or your marketing. The path should end with every way that a person can retain you to perform services, and it should include every step in between. Have a strategy for moving people through this process.

4.5. Explain your process from the beginning. Let your potential clients know how you will move them from where they are now to where they want to go. Remember, compared to the online services, our process is long and complicated. They need to understand where they’re going and why. Every step in your process should be tied to a specific benefit that they will receive.

The magic words here are “so that.” You need to be able to put “so that” at the end of every statement. For example, “When you get started, we gather all of your financial information so that we can make sure that your entire estate is protected and that nothing is missed.” Or, “We will schedule your next appointment three weeks later so that we have enough time to thoroughly review your information and craft a recommendation that gives you the best results.”

The first part of the sentence is about you. The second part is about them. And that’s the important part.

5. Keep them engaged until they’re engaged. It’s about follow-up, baby. The number-one reason why people don’t hire a professional is simply that they forgot about the professional. And the easiest way to ensure they forget about you is for you to forget about them. Have a contact strategy in place that maps out every contact you will make in order to move them through the process.

6. Think of your marketing as a prep course for hiring you. Take your process and automate it as much as possible. In a perfect world, by the time prospects arrive for an initial consultation, they should know (to the extent possible) what you can accomplish for them, what information you need, how long it will take, and how much it will cost.

This is good for the attorney and good for the prospect. The attorney doesn’t waste time with people who aren’t a good fit, and the prospect can explore those matters in private and at his or her own pace.

However you put all this together, the main point is to educate the consumer about the range of possible solutions so that the online paper mills are no longer an option. It isn’t about saying we are “better” than the non-lawyer copycats. Instead, we simply need to communicate the benefits that we can deliver to our clients. Once prospective clients learn about the benefits you can deliver, they will never again be satisfied with a generic document from a non-lawyer website.

That is how we win.


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