Times aren’t a’changin’—they already changed. The first law firm that is 100% non-lawyer-owned opened in Utah this year, within the Utah Supreme Court-mandated legal regulation “sandbox.” Arizona has done away with the ban on non-lawyer ownership in its Rule of Professional Conduct 5.4. A handful of other states—California, Oregon, Illinois, and North Carolina, for example—are looking at alternative ways of delivering legal services, through technology and other types of practitioners or delivery platforms. With all this, many believe the ship has already sailed on lawyers controlling our destiny, and protecting what used to be the hallowed practice of law from change and outside influence.
What it all comes down to is this: What do clients really want their legal services to look like? You may think that clients want you to do every part of their case, and for your representation of them to be hands-free as much as possible. But that is only one of the types of clients out there. According to research done at Sandford’s Legal Design Lab by Margaret Hagan, there are really four types of clients, two of which vary from the traditional clients who expect lawyers to handle all aspects of the matter. The new types of clients want some control and engagement in the process, and would be interested and engaged in doing some of the work themselves. Hagan also found that clients want some very specific, less lawyerly things from technology designed, to help them with their legal issues – things that are highly informative for how to reinvent your legal services. Clients want:
- To know what decisions to make and what the result will be;
- To engage a responsive system that will answer quickly and engage them;
- The technology to read their minds, to help translate problems in their heads into the right legal speak to move things along;
- To recognize the humanity in their situation. People encountering the legal system often feel shame, stress, and intimidation, even if those feelings are unwarranted. Many people also get those feelings approaching technology. Therefore, the service delivery must empathetically answer those needs and reduce those feelings as much as possible.
In other words, you have an opportunity to offer what clients really want, and to generate new client relationships that follow a new, collaborative path.
The Spectrum of Alternative
Some do-it-yourself (DIY) legal services that compete with the ever-growing market of self-help legal options such as Legal Zoom, RocketLawyer, Nolo, LawDepot, and Boundless. These services could include:
- Educational blogs or longer papers that offer a person needing legal services some knowledge and next steps in helping themselves, or help them collect and organize their evidence and thoughts.
- Training videos that teach a person how to resolve some or all of their legal issue. The possibilities are endless. What documentation to collect, how to write a demand letter or declaration, where to find evidence efficiently, how to file pro se—just a handful of ideas.
- Chatbots that answer basic questions for clients, and lead them to the training videos or tools they need most, based on what their questions and answers are and what is available in your library. This is a fantastic way to grow business and have a greater reach in the world. While you could only talk to a handful of people a day about their case and what you know about the law as it relates to it, your chatbot could replicate your knowledge and use it to talk to hundreds of thousands of people (or more) a day.
- Books/e-books about your practice area. Sure, Intellectual Property for Dummies has already been written, but maybe the Small Business Guide to Navigating a Pandemic hasn’t. Self-publishing an e-book or even a book in print takes time and energy, but it has a return on investment, pays dividends in speaking engagements and other professional connections, and shows off your credentials.
- Online websites and tools that simplify complex concepts and help clients self-assess what they qualify for or should address are powerful. See Siskind Susser’s Determine Your Eligibility for the E-2 Visa website, built on After Pattern, as an example.
- Smartphone applications can fill in where lawyers can’t or don’t want to insert themselves. See LawPilot Guardian, which has a big red button for immigrants to push when they are stopped by ICE that sends a notice to the lawyer, gives them pre-recorded English statements to play for the officers, and records the interaction with ICE. Or check out , which is a client portal that doesn’t require the client to have an email (only a phone number) and gives immediate updates and case roadmap that is mobile-centric, a client portal plus-plus, if you will.
Let’s Start Building!
Actually, you want to step back a minute and do your research with your clients and prospective clients. Survey them to find out what they want. Come up with some prototypes and get their feedback on how they work, and whether they really answer the needs identified. Don’t build until you know you are really on the right track. It’s easy to get excited and build before you get this essential information, so don’t skip this step.
Once you have your market research done, research whether you should build it yourself, or if something is out there that you can customize to do what you want. It’s generally easier to build onto something that already exists than try to build something from scratch. Really look around for products. Some wonderful, flexible products outside of legal technology can be used to solve your issue, and many inside the legal space as well. Examples of products that could fit the bill are below.
It probably goes without saying that if you pick a written product, you will be the author, but there may be great brains to collaborate with, too.
The way you build self-help tools really depends on what you’re building. You will want to consider custom development if you are building something that has high potential for ROI, either because you’re selling it for a profit, or because your clients have a substantially high lifetime value. You always want to try to buy a solution before you build one from scratch. Here are some options that might help:
So, You Want to Write A Book
The ABA published a video on how to get published through the ABA in 2019. Contact ABA Publishing for their latest book proposal form. Also check with state, local, or specialty bar associations that would be interested in your niche. Independent publishers such as Ramses House Publishing specialize in working with lawyer authors. Amazon Kindle has a self-publishing option.
Video Tools and Tips
YouTube and Facebook Live videos can be recorded and run again and again. Check out Streamyard for a professional, flexible video creation tool. Loom and Camtasia are good products for technical videos on how to do things that are show, not tell style.
Subtitles give people a quick preview of content and permit them to view your video silently. Check out the application Otter.ai as an affordable, outstandingly accurate transcription tool. Facebook and YouTube have AI subtitle tools that work for some. VEED.IO and Kapwing have free versions and get good ratings. Happyscribe offers an AI and professional subtitle price. Consider the languages your potential clients would prefer, and subtitle accordingly.
Chatbots You Could Build With
Motion.ai – According to its website: “We’re bringing chatbots to the masses and enabling businesses to better engage, convert, close and delight their customers across every channel at scale.” Motion.ai’s recent acquisition by Hubspot indicates that this idea has potential.
Chatfuel – Its tagline: “Build a Facebook bot with no coding.” Law firms have built bots to correspond with clients via Facebook messenger, which gets the conversation started even when a human is not available.
Docubot – With example bots for legal intake, expungement, and legal wellness, 1Law’s Docubot wants to help lawyers tap the estimated $45 billion legal services market for “people who have too much for pro bono work, but can’t afford private legal services”.
Form.one – Form.one is a collaborative platform to build, deploy, and monitor intelligent bots for your business.
YoTengoBot – This is an AI-driven chatbot for immigration lawyers that will scan the law firm’s website and Facebook page videos, to collect answers to immigration questions, that it turns around and delivers to visitors to the site when they ask relevant questions.
DIY Questionnaires and Document Assembly
Doc Assemble is a free, open-source expert system for guided interviews and document assembly. In addition to the web interface, it facilities collecting documents, getting electronic signatures, and even interviews via SMS text messaging.
Gravity Forms and the Gravity Perks add-ons are WordPress plugins that allow you to develop custom contact forms and payment systems with no coding skills, then leverage myriad integrations with thousands of automations with Zapier, to make the information you gathered actionable and accessible within the firm.
DraftOnce lets users take their own documents, in any format, upload them to the DraftOnce engine, and convert them to form templates. Users can then invite clients to provide information in an easy online interview format with contextual help to generate a document the attorney can review, finalize and return to the client. Typeform and Jotform are other online form creation products.
HotDocs Cloud Services You are probably familiar with HotDocs, but did you know it has added a client-facing service? HotDocs Cloud Services enables you to embed HotDocs interviews (wizard-like sequences of data-gathering forms) in your own web pages or business applications, and to generate virtually error-free transactional documents (contracts, agreements, wills, trusts, etc.) on a subscription basis.
Building a new legal services tool is an adventure. Failure is always a possibility. But, in the immortal words of Yoda, “The best teacher, failure is.” Time to get with the times and offer clients what they really want.
About the Author
Charity Anastasio is the practice and ethics counsel for the American Immigration Lawyers Association and vice-chair of the ABA Law Practice Division Professional Development Board. She can be reached on Twitter at @charityanas.