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Legal services sites cater to a universal crowd

People can now carry a lawyer in their pocket, thanks to Rocket Lawyer’s new mobile app that lets smartphone users ask a lawyer a pressing question or draft legal documents on the go.

Buying legal services online is nothing new, but some of the top players in the space are expanding their offerings to stay competitive and help people craft wills, trusts or trademarks without having to hire a high-priced attorney.

Among the latest additions includes mobile apps and access to a network of live lawyers.

“Everyone needs basic legal services multiple times in their life,” said Charley Moore, founder of San Francisco-based Rocket Lawyer, which has emerged as a $28 million-a-year business since launching in 2008.

Its niche market of families and small businesses use the one-stop shopping website for an array of legal services, including marriage, bankruptcy, estate plans, legal health diagnostics and legal document review.

Its month-old free mobile app for Android and iOS tablets and phones, called Rocket Lawyer On Call, lets registered users find a local attorney in its network using a smartphone’s geo-location.

“It’s built around being able to ask a question anytime, anywhere. An attorney responds to you,” Moore said. “There’s not a lot out there for people on the go who need legal help.”

Rocket Lawyer also wants to boost the number of people with wills.

The majority of Americans, or 61 percent, don’t have one, according to a new Harris Interactive survey. Some 34 percent of people over age 55 are still procrastinating.

“People know they need it, he said. "It helps to protect a family. They say it’s too expensive or out of reach because of the complexity."

Rocket Lawyer dubbed April as “Make-A-Will Month” to raise awareness about estate planning and is offering a free last will during the entire month. More than 100,000 people make a will every month with Rocket Lawyer, he added.

Rocket Lawyer’s affordability and ease of use may be appealing from an individual’s perspective, but some law firms disagree.

San Diego Law Firm signed up one of its eight attorneys to become part of the Rocket Lawyer network last year.

“It didn’t work out for us as a law firm, because no one really wanted to hire an attorney. They just wanted free legal services,” said William Simon Jr., managing partner at San Diego Law Firm.

The firm offers free initial consultations to prospective clients from its North Park office, but 90 percent of the people contacting their attorney through Rocket Lawyer weren’t looking to form a relationship with an attorney, Simon said.

“They wanted answers to question at no charge. That’s not a sustainable model for us if we did that all day,” he said.

Larger online legal services firms are able to refer more business, due to their sheer size and network of licensed attorneys from coast to coast.

A titan in the space is Glendale, Calif.-based LegalZoom, which pulled in $200 million in 2011 and has helped more than two million Americans become protected with binding legal documents.

“People find that, ‘yeah, I like the documents, but I want people to talk to,’” said Stephen Harrick, general partner at Silicon Valley’s Institutional Venture Partners, which has dumped $42 million into LegalZoom to date.

LegalZoom started marketing its “attorney services division” last year. Sites like LegalZoom can’t give legal advice because they aren’t law firms, so more are attempting to lure lawyers into their network of offerings.

“Smaller competitors are doing it and copied LegalZoom, but much smaller businesses don’t have the market presence or selectivity we think LegalZoom has,” Harrick said.

As part of a monthly fee, legal documents are delivered electronically to an attorney. The equivalent of what a user gets out of LegalZoom for $200 would cost thousands of dollars to bill an attorney in the real world.

“You still save a huge amount of money,” Harrick said.

LegalZoom’s deep-pocketed media campaigns feature its co-founder and celebrity lawyer, Robert Shapiro, spitting out the company’s tag line of “starting your business is easier with LegalZoom because it puts the law on your side.”

“A lot of people enjoy doing things themselves, whether it’s fixing a car or drafting a trust. LegalZoom satisfies that segment of the market,” Simon said.

LegalZoom also satisfies some law firms’ needs. Simon helped a client set up an LLC last month with a LegalZoom form.

“It was real simple and made sense to do it that way,” he said, explaining that the client wasn’t going to have employees or other members of the LLC.

“It proved to be more efficient than had we done it from scratch in the office.”

Other legal documents can be a bit more complicated to craft.

“You go in and buy a template, but if you’re forming a corporation, who is going to be the shareholders, directors, the officers? What state should you be incorporated in? Should you be an S Corporation?” Simon said. “There are so many different what-ifs.”

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