Web and Mobile Legal Applications from Law Firms

Vic Peterson, CIO, Stinson Leonard Street
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Vic Peterson, CIO, Stinson Leonard Street

Vic Peterson, CIO, Stinson Leonard Street

A new wave is emerging in legal services based on technology. A crop of web-based and mobile applications puts access to sophisticated legal insight for the corporate market at the users' fingertips. Some of these products provide substantial legal information without the need to interact directly with an attorney, at least not immediately. The trend is easy to deduce. Slowly, information that previously might have been provided by junior attorneys or paralegals is being made available through automated methods. Access might be as easy as a swipe on your iPhone.

Why is this Different Than the Past?

Readers of this article may have heard of online services, such as RocketLawyer, which provide basic consumer legal information for personal or small business use. The premise of these platforms is to provide basic service at a low cost to a commoditized market. Offerings include personal family estate planning documents, divorce forms, landlord agreements, and home ownership and bankruptcy forms for frequent individual or family needs.  Like TurboTax in the financial field, RocketLawyer wants to provide a "do-it-yourself" platform for a big, underserved commercial market. What these platforms sacrifice in depth of knowledge or sophistication, they emphatically make up for in breadth appeal to the relatively limited needs of the common user.

The difference between consumer services and the mobile and web apps that are emerging among AmLaw 200 firms is significant.  Large complex law firms provide individualized service based on their professional assets:  attorney education, experience, and deep familiarly with aspects of law unique to large business needs.  From high end real estate deals to high stakes litigation, large law firms have owned the market for legal service delivery for a century.  They have also employed methods that have changed little in the last hundred years.

 The American Bar Association late last year announced a partnership with RocketLawyer to provide a lawyer-finding service to small businesses  

Why Now? The legal service industry is undergoing a sea of change. In decades past, law firms could maintain a "black box" approach to how they produced and delivered services. Legal services were provided almost exclusively in the form of advice and documents.  Advice was often conveyed over the phone, and written work was couriered; judgement and specialized training were hallmarks of the "white shoe" service.  Prestige was a proxy for quality.   But, clients of large law firms have become much more sophisticated, demanding, and pennywise.  It is no longer acceptable to send an invoice with one line item for "legal services," a practice that was not unusual up until the financial crisis of 2008.  Since then, corporate legal buyers have sought better, faster, and more predictable outcomes from their legal providers.

One of the most intriguing developments resulting from changing market expectations is that the more routine aspects of legal work can be delivered in ways that speed the process and simplify access.  That means automating tasks, creating workflows, and leveraging the large amounts of data that law firms have at their fingertips.  It also means exercising a level of creativity that law firms have traditionally shied away from, often under the omnibus concern of malpractice.  Too much innovation could lead attorneys to interpret the law inappropriately, even unethically.

Yet, times have changed, and modern technology allows for clearer, more defensible delivery methods than what prior generations knew. Technology now promises a rich new era of legal service offerings. Below are some "bright spot" examples of emerging tools, where form and function have blended well.  These examples are not endorsements of a firm or the quality of legal advice, but rather provide insight from a technical, end-user experience on emerging products.

Reading Tea Leaves

The stakes for success in apps and web platforms are not small.  Over the last few years, the top fifty of the AmLaw 200 hundred firms have achieved more growth and greater profitability than the majority of the top two hundred firms.  There has also been a marked uptick in major law firm mergers since 2008. Arguably, the legal services market is consolidating.

This has led to retrenchment from traditionalists in the industry. The American Bar Association late last year announced a partnership with RocketLawyer to provide a lawyer-finding service to small businesses. However, under pressure from state and local bar groups, in February, the ABA dropped those plans.  The state and local groups cited the loss of revenue for their groups as the reason for ending the partnership, but the claim seems disingenuous.  Local interests appear to have trumped market innovation.

Recidivism invites skepticism.  In a consolidating market, competitive advantages become acute, especially when they are technological advantages. Ease of use can make or break an application, as it had broken the back of many an internet startup.  While large law firms are not internet startups, and their services can be automated and simplified, they are not appealing to the same customer base as consumer products. But ease of use, speed, and accessibility are not identical to commoditization.  Not recognizing this distinction, some lawyers react negatively to the implied threat to the traditional ways. The best apps from a user experience standpoint will not be pioneered by traditionalist law firms; but in time, very large firms could scoop up less visionary competitors leveraging technological innovations, wherever they originate.

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