Small firms learn to co-exist with online legal services

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As certain legal services have become increasingly commoditized by do-it-yourself websites like LegalZoom.com and RocketLawyer.com, some small and solo practitioners have wondered whether the phenomenon is just one more thing they must contend with in an already difficult market.

But attorneys across Pennsylvania said they’ve come to find that lawyers and online legal services companies can peacefully co-exist — and, in some cases, even benefit from one another — because lawyers offer something those websites can’t: real-world experience.

When Kim R. Smith took over as managing partner of Lancaster-based Hartman Underhill & Brubaker on Jan. 1, she announced that one of her main initiatives would be to look at how legal services companies are affecting the firm’s business and map out a strategy to compete with them.

“Our own clients will come to us and say, ‘I have this agreement or this power of attorney or this will. Would you review it?’” she said. “We also have clients who have said, ‘I don’t want to spend a whole lot of money, so can you send me some links to [legal services] websites that are good and reputable?’”

And it’s not just individual trusts and estates clients who have begun turning to so-called “canned” legal documents.

Ms. Smith said some of her firm’s small business clients have started using online services to draft their own employment documents, as have many of the firm’s public sector clients, who have taken to those services in an effort to save taxpayer funds.

According to Ms. Smith, one of the ways Hartman Underhill has sought to combat losing work to those companies has been to offer more inexpensive options.

She said that when clients come to the firm with very simple needs, Hartman Underhill attorneys generally don’t try to discourage them from going the DIY route and will often help direct them to the right place.

“But what we also will do is let them know we have template documents we can provide that we’ve already reviewed, at a much lower cost” than having an attorney draft one from scratch, Ms. Smith said.

The firm has also begun pushing certain, less complex work to paralegals and younger associates in an effort to provide clients with more savings, while still offering quality work product.

Even if a client does choose to fill out a downloaded document on his or her own, Ms. Smith added, her firm will often suggest bringing the completed document in for review by one of its attorneys.

Still, while it may theoretically be more cost-effective for a client to download a file, fill in the blanks and have a lawyer look it over than it would be to have a lawyer draft the document from scratch, that’s not always the case in practice, Ms. Smith said.

This is particularly true with regard to employer clients who rely on downloaded templates to draft complex documents like social media policies, which often need to be tailored specifically to each company and can quickly become outdated as technology evolves and the National Labor Relations Board continues to issue new guidelines.

“We’ve had instances where companies will bring in a canned policy manual or handbook and, depending on the source, it can sometimes be more time-consuming to review it than it would have been to draft it,” Ms. Smith said.

Robert B. Wolf — a trusts and estates attorney at Tener, Van Kirk, Wolf and Moore in Pittsburgh — said it’s for precisely this reason that the value of live legal counsel cannot be underestimated in the age of downloadable documents.

Mr. Wolf said DIY legal services sites actually may end up generating more work for attorneys, as people attempt to navigate complicated legal issues using one-size-fits-all documents they found on the Internet.

Still, he acknowledged that there is a “tremendous unfulfilled need” for quality, inexpensive legal services and said there is a way to offer certain basic legal documents at low or no cost to the consumer.

He pointed to a recent initiative he helped orchestrate between the Allegheny County Bar Association and the Allegheny County Medical Society, in which the two entities came together to draft a free, downloadable health care power of attorney and living will form that has been vetted, and is kept up-to-date, by a cadre of legal and medical professionals.

While Mr. Wolf said he doesn’t view the commoditization of certain legal services as a threat to his business because most of what’s offered online is relatively unsophisticated, he acknowledged that the quality of those services will likely improve in the future, forcing lawyers to take a hard look at the value they’re providing to their own clients.

If a website or consumer product does come along “that does it cheaper and just as well as you do, you better figure out how to adapt to that,” Mr. Wolf said, adding that lawyers can stay competitive by continuing to utilize technology “to do a better job more efficiently.”

Zack Needles: zneedles@alm.com or 1-215-557-2493. Follow him on Twitter @ZNeedlesTLI. To read more articles like this, visit www.thelegalintelligencer.com.


Zack Needles: zneedles@alm.com or 1-215-557-2493. Follow him on Twitter @ZNeedlesTLI. To read more articles like this, visit www.thelegalintelligencer.com.


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