Like it or not, do-it-yourself law sites like Rocket Lawyer and Legal Zoom are proliferating. An Illinois lawyer thinks fellow practitioners should respond by using technology more efficiently and by serving and billing clients in new ways - by riding the DIY wave instead of getting swamped.
When estate planning and elder law attorney Ben Neiburger hears from clients about their desire to put together their own legal documents with help from one of the many online services that offer those forms for free or cheap, he offers a tongue-in-cheek response.
"I love telling my clients: 'Please do your will over the Internet. Do a trust. Yeah, do it. Don't even come to me. Because I'm going to make so much more money later unscrewing it up than if I just did it. So go ahead,'" Neiburger said. "It's great reverse psychology."
It's also part of educating clients about the potential dangers of do-it-yourself documents and low-cost online legal services plans that he says can't provide nuanced advice or the wisdom of a lawyer's experience on how the documents and the different facets of the law work with a client's unique and often complex situation.
Many attorneys cringe at the mention of Internet services that offer do-it-yourself legal work - websites that make it easy for consumers to purchase their own divorce settlement agreements, prenuptial agreements, estate plans, affidavits of heirship, incorporation forms, bills of sales, leases, subleases, and so on.
Still, the emergence of Internet-based legal service providers like Legal Zoom, Rocket Lawyer, Docstoc.com, Docracy.com and others, and the commoditization of the practice of law, are changing the landscape for small-firm legal practice, Neiburger said.
"You take this, combined with free information, combined with smart baby boomers who can do it themselves, and what do you get? You get something different than what we think people are buying from us," Neiburger said.
More than document production
Neiburger of Elmhurst-based Generation Law, Ltd. was speaking last fall to attendees of his seminar on "Baby Boomers, the Age Wave, and Commoditization of the Practice of Law: How to Survive the Storm" during the ISBA 8th Annual Solo and Small Firm Conference in Itasca.
To survive this new and growing competition, small-firm lawyers and sole practitioners would be wise to change their paradigm to one that emphasizes value, experience, and wisdom over document production, Neiburger said.
"Think about what you can do to give them [clients] more value, how you can sell value, how you understand the value of what you do," he said.
Several online providers have expanded their offerings to include more than just a database of do-it-yourself legal forms. Rocket Lawyer, for instance, touts that it offers consumers access to a network of lawyers who can review customers' legal documents, answer questions, and provide other legal services at discounted rates.
"What's worse is because we have an oversupply of lawyers, they [can offer] free legal review of the document you create by a real lawyer," Neiburger said. "An uninformed consumer can go out there and think it's good enough to get Rocket Lawyer for 10 bucks a month for his legal forms. Or, if they need a real lawyer they can get the discount one on there. Or, there are lawyers out there selling their services for less than they're worth."
"That's what we're fighting against," he said. "We have to tell our clients and our prospective clients what value we add that makes us worth more, and why they should come to us. And if you can't convince a prospective client of that, you don't want them as a client."
Neiburger cited estimates suggesting a supply-and-demand concern. In 1950, he said, there was one lawyer for every 709 Americans; today there is one for every 257.
Considering the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics' estimate of 45,000 students graduating from law schools each year through 2020 and the number of lawyer jobs in the U.S. increasing by approximately 70,000 over that period, "we have a severe overproduction of lawyers," Neiburger said.
"What happens when there's an excess of supply? Prices go down," Neiburger said during his presentation.
And when attorneys are willing to work for little pay, he said, it cheapens the public's perception of the value of a skilled lawyer's services.
"You're not Walmart; don't be. Don't lower your prices; sell value," Neiburger said. "But realize that the price pressure is downward and you have to deal with that - outsource things or systemize things to [cut costs]."
Riding the technology wave
Neiburger pointed to British lawyer Richard Susskind's 2010 book "The End of Lawyers?" in which the author describes how technology will change the way people consume legal services and says that automated document assembly systems and free legal advice provided through open source technology will be among the most disruptive technologies for the practice of law.
Susskind says that online information is the first place people look for legal advice, Neiburger noted.
"Susskind believes that, except for the most customized, top-of-the line engagements, legal work will soon be very standardized through the use of complex document assembly programs, the use of more paralegals and nonlawyers for quasi legal work, and other innovations," Neiburger said. "He claims this will lower costs to clients and make more legal services available to the public, and possibly mark the end of the big law firm as we know it today. He believes it will also affect small law firms."
But, Neiburger stressed, "if the small firm practitioner positions herself correctly, as a value and wisdom proposition, she can fall into Susskind's 'customized, top-of-the-line, engagement.'"
Another of Susskind's predictions in "The End of Lawyers?" reflects the disruption caused by the electronic legal marketplace, including online ratings of individual lawyers, online auctions, bulk purchasing of legal services on the corporate level, and readily available price comparisons online.
"Susskind predicts that the purchase of legal services will become a buyer's market with a large push towards drastic reductions in fees," Neiburger said. "I believe that if the small firm practitioner sells value - she sells the concept that she will be there to hold the client's hand when the client needs it and provide great customer service and advice - the practitioner can overcome these Susskindesque obstacles."
Fred Ury, a Connecticut attorney who lectures around the country on the future of law practice, said online legal service providers that sell documents at one-quarter of what attorneys typically charge is only the beginning.
"The end, and where we're going, is where you take LegalZoom.com and add artificial intelligence to it. And that's a game changer," Ury said.
For instance, he said, websites like neotalogic.com and Koncision are starting to use artificial intelligence to help customers fill in the blanks, write contracts, and write the deals.
"That's the future of this commoditized practice," he said.
Then there are so-called crowd sourcing sites that allow users to pose questions and get a multitude of answers from fellow visitors of the site. Lawpivot.com is among the crowd-sourced sites that offer legal answers for businesses.
"That's pretty amazing. You've got the commoditized practice, and now you're putting out questions. Now we're getting into advice," Ury said.
Then there are sites like JDSupra.com, where firms upload commoditized products that could be downloaded for free. "Why is that? They're hoping you'll hire them," Ury said.
Another future "game-changer" example, Ury said, is the website docracy.com, a home for contracts and other legal documents socially curated by the communities that use them.
"It's free. Does this appeal to me as a consumer? It's like going to a doctor online and saying, 'Can you please diagnose this?' But for young people used to looking on the Internet, they're very comfortable with it…."
The boomer DIY influence
With the influx of baby boomers reaching retirement age, it helps to know some of the general personality characteristics of this generation and how they might consume legal services in the future, Neiburger said.
"First and foremost, baby boomers are confident, self-assured, and self-reliant," Neiburger noted in a paper accompanying his presentation. "They are smart and they like to do things themselves.…They might not want to use a lawyer for all of their legal needs when they can sidestep that and prepare legal documents themselves."
Neiburger noted that the baby boomer generation tends to question authority as well as the status quo.
"As a result, they tend to be sophisticated purchasers of legal services and also want, to a large degree, to do things themselves and only purchase enough in services to educate themselves enough to do it on their own."
That's even more of a reason for the small-firm practitioner to educate clients and potential clients about the true value of the attorney's wisdom and knowledge in applying the law while creating the forms and giving advice, Neiburger said.
For instance, with his own clients who insist on do-it-yourself documents, he may assume the role of advisor in a limited scope arrangement.
"What is happening in my practice is they're doing it themselves but they want to hire me hourly to look over their shoulders," Neiburger said. "That's what they want. If I fought it and said, 'You have to use only documents I create or nothing,' I'd lose the business."
Not all gloom and doom
Despite the heightened competition that comes with technology, Neiburger's outlook isn't all doom and gloom.
"There's plenty of opportunity," he said. "You just have to be creative and figure out what they're willing to buy....There are things you can do that provide the collateral documents so that you can do the brain stuff. That's what they're hiring you for anyway."
Neiburger offered several more tips for lawyers to take to survive - and, perhaps, flourish - in the midst of a storm of changes in the way consumers get legal information and purchase legal services.
Embrace office automation. Document automation and practice management software can help attorneys leverage their time. By implementing document assembly platforms such as Hot Docs or Pro Docs, lawyers can create a solid first draft that closely resembles the one they would create from scratch, Neiburger said.
"There are a lot of packages out there that allow you to work at a lower price level and make more money for your time," Neiburger said. "But remember that you want to be that trusted advisor.…In the future, clients will not buy documents. Don't sell them documents. When I sell my high-priced estate planning, I tell them: 'If you look at all the hours I put in at $300 an hour, the documents are free, almost. You're buying my wisdom and my time. They expect me to be on the phone a year later when they have questions because that's what they're buying. That's what you sell."
Educate clients on the value and hazards of do-it-yourself documents. "There is a saying that all the knowledge in the world is on the Internet but that knowledge does not contain wisdom," Neiburger said. "That wisdom, through advocacy and counseling, is what people will buy and what the new paradigm cannot produce without the individual lawyer.
"Just realize what they're buying. Think about what you can do to give them more value, how you can sell value, how you can make them understand the value you bring to the table," Neiburger said. "They don't know what they don't know, and they think they can download the form and do it themselves. And they're going to do it anyway. You have to help them find the holes in what they know.
"We're going to educate them and counsel them and help them, and that's where the value is in your practice," Neiburger said. "Tell them the horror stories of people doing it incorrectly. Educate them about all the issues involved."
Turn to marketing, Facebook, and social media. "Networking is going to be really important to survive in the future. Why? Because…somebody wants a recommendation from their Facebook friend, and what lawyer to use for this and that and the other thing," Neiburger said. "You have to use social media and other techniques to engage the baby boomers, to engage the people who are going to buy your services."
Neiburger recommends finding creative ways - short of giving away legal advice, of course - to engage prospective clients through law firm marketing programs or websites. For instance, Neiburger said, you might answer someone's simple question, help solve a problem, make data or some law more easily understood, provide a different perspective, create or participate in discussion, or share something new you learned. Of course, a lawyer should always be wary of the professional responsibility traps in this type of marketing.
Engage in alternative fee arrangements. Discuss with clients options that might include flat fees, value-based billing, hourly billing, or a combination of those. Or, Neiburger said, maybe the client wants a limited scope engagement to get help with a specific part of what he or she is trying to do.
Use checklists. Since practitioners are finding they have to do more with less and get work done in a shorter time, Neiburger said they should use legal procedure checklists to make sure nothing is missing from a procedure or process.
"This way if a client hires you for a limited scope engagement, you can make sure you define the exact beginning and end of a project in writing, so you don't get punished for what the client didn't hire you to do."
Consider a virtual office. If you don't need frequent face-to-face contact with your clients, a virtual office can reduce overhead, allowing you to do more with less.
Focus on responsive client service. Clients want to make sure their phone calls and emails are returned within a reasonable time and that things proceed as promised. "Focusing on customer service with each one of your clients will help you retain them and get additional referrals, too."
Delegate and outsource. If you know of someone who can do a non-legal task cheaper than you, subcontract (with the client's consent) to them so you can get the client the lowest possible cost for the services that you provide.
"There are ways to safely do this and protect client information," Neiburger said. "Get your client's permission first: 'Client, can I give a [another provider] the accounting I'm doing for this estate? They charge $20 an hour and I'm at $300. Is that okay with you?'"
Use mobile technology. With mobile technology, attorneys can limit their down time and travel and also change lifestyles to be where they want to and when, while still serving clients.
"Be creative, understand the markets, understand where the gaps are and move in. Use technology even if it causes you to break out in hives," Neiburger said during his ISBA presentation. "And remember, you are smart, you are valuable, and you are nimble. You can make the changes to get through the storm."
Maria Kantzavelos <email@example.com> is a Chicago-based freelance writer focusing on legal topics.
Ben Neiburger's passion for inline skating helped him build his practice.
With a little creativity and attention to the evolving market for legal services, elder law attorney Ben Neiburger says lawyers can take on pro bono projects that not only make a difference but also help bring in business by connecting to clients' passions.
Neiburger did just that last year, when he helped a group of baby boomers change the law to let them do what they love: Speedskating on Illinois' roadways.
Inline speed skating has been a hobby for the Elmhurst attorney in recent years as a member of Team Rainbo, a speedskating club of about 80 members who are mostly in their mid-50s and meet for exercise and training in northwestern Illinois.
"I do inline speedskating. That's what the name of the sport is. When I'm doing it there's no speed involved whatsoever," Neiburger said in a presentation last fall during the ISBA Solo and Small Firm Conference.
At any rate, when Neiburger heard the complaints of his teammates - many of whom can sustain speeds of more than 20 miles per hour during a 26-mile marathon - that some municipalities and their police departments were ticketing them for skating on the street, he put on his lawyer's hat.
Illinois law treated these skaters as pedestrians, making it unlawful under the vehicle code to use the roadway where a sidewalk is available and practicable.
The law also required skaters, like pedestrians, to travel on the shoulder and on the left side of the road, against traffic, when a sidewalk is not available.
What are the potential dangers of skating 20 miles per hour against traffic? "Ever see a bug on a windshield?" Neiburger asked.
"You can do that?" When the Elmhurst attorney suggested that the group work to change the law so members could skate outdoors, they replied: "'You can do that?'" Neiburger recalled.
He said he rolled up his sleeves, using his legal skills to help the skaters with their passion and give them a positive experience with laws and the legislative process - from gaining the support of a state senator to sponsor the legislation and attempting to draft an amendment to the bicycle code to leading the group in lobbying and negotiating with interested parties. Stakeholders included the state police, the downstate truckers' interest group, and the bicycle lobby group. The skaters drummed up support to push the legislation through the Transportation Committee, the Senate floor, the House, and to Gov. Pat Quinn's office for signature. And Neiburger provided his services pro bono.
The end result was a new law, effective Jan. 1, that considers skaters age 18 and over as "quasi-pedestrians" who can use bicycle lanes during daylight hours on roads with speed limits of 45 miles per hour or less. They are no longer required to travel against traffic on the left side of a two-way highway.
"The lesson is: I help them with their passion and, while doing that, I help them get a positive interaction with the law and with the system - something that's going to benefit them much more in the future," Neiburger said.
Purpose and meaning. In paying attention to where the buyers of legal services are going to be, the so-called baby boomer age wave is very important, Neiburger said.
"We love baby boomers. Why? Because they've got money," he said. And "baby boomers aren't going to retire."
Another general characteristic of baby boomers, Neiburger said, is that "their quest for career and material gain will be replaced by a searching for meaning and purpose in life."
"We have to think about that - on who our future clients are and how we're networking with clients," Neiburger said.
While guiding his fellow skaters in getting the law changed, Neiburger was also marketing his skills as an advocate.
"This group of baby boomers, who love to skate, got excited about the process. They called their legislators, and we got through it," Neiburger said. "I get so much estate planning business from them because I helped them with their passion.…I saw purpose and meaning. It was pro bono, of course, but I helped them get there - and I'm getting business from it.
"That's what you need to look for in your practices as they change - how to help people….[Baby boomers are] going to be purchasing purpose and meaning. And if you help them get there, it's the best form of advertising."
- Maria Kantzavelos