Online legal services are not going away, so traditional attorneys need to adapt to the changing marketplace, according to panelists at a San Diego Law Library event last month.
Consumers are increasingly turning to websites likes Legal Zoom and Rocket Lawyer to handle their own legal issues, partly out of convenience but mainly to limit costs.
There could be another reason as well.
"Our biggest value is taking away that intimidation factor," said Lisa Honey, a document team manager at Rocket Lawyer. "There's something nice about being at home in your living room or being at your office and just taking your time reading through some good information that's right on target to what your question is."
Procopio Cory Hargreaves & Savitch partner Dennis Doucette said certain issues lend themselves to a "do-it-yourself" approach, like a simple will or an uncontested divorce. But once a matter involves multiple parties and high stakes, it's probably best to involve a professional.
"If you're going to start your own business and it's just you — no family involved, no friends, no investors — probably online is a good source," he said. "That's not complicated. There are not a lot of issues. The biggest reason is no one's going to complain."
Honey agreed that each situation is different, and it's important to know your limits.
"There are times that you know over-the-counter medicines will work, so you can go to your pharmacy and you buy Tylenol and that will solve your problem," she said. "And there are times when you need a surgeon. You know right away there's some issue you cannot solve yourself, and I think that's applicable to legal matters.
"There are times you know you need a lawyer, like for criminal matters or mergers and acquisitions. There are times when an attorney can't be replaced."
Rocket Lawyer is an online legal document and service provider. The company helps consumers determine their options, create a legal document and gives them access to a nationwide network of attorneys.
Honey said Rocket Lawyer's referral service is a key feature, stressing that online legal providers and traditional law firms aren't mutually exclusive. The company takes consumers through a step-by-step process when filling out documents, and they have the option of reaching out to an actual attorney.
Once the consumer connects with a lawyer, the traditional attorney-client relationship begins and with it all the privileges and confidentiality, Honey said.
Just having the ability to access documents online is not enough, Procopio's Doucette said, and the ease of access can be dangerous. He has seen legal papers "cut and pasted" together that look official but are nonsensical.
"It's a disservice if you have access to documents but you don't know how to use them," he said. "My intellectual property partners will say they love when clients have gone to an online service because it gives them more work to do because they have to unwind a lot of the work."
When deciding whether to go it alone or enlist the help of a professional, it's helpful to do a cost-benefit analysis, according to Doucette. Clients may save some money by going online but are they asking the right questions?
"The value I bring is experience," he said, "because I've seen that situation before, so it's not a first impression. I think you do, in the short term, pay a little bit more for that experience than you do in getting an online form. At the end of the day it's about value more so than cost."
Honey and Doucette also said deciding which option to take is about a person's comfort level.
Doucette said it can be a generational issue, as his older clients tend to want to meet in person. It helps in building someone's trust if you can look them in the eye and shake their hand, he said.
But the Procopio attorney also realizes online legal services are the way of the future. Traditional attorneys need to adapt by reducing their overhead, lowering costs and becoming more technologically savvy.
"For lawyers out there, they need to take this seriously," Doucette said. "It is a changing world and can affect anyone over the next five years. You'll see more of this rather than less.
"If your practice was preparing low-cost wills and now you have all this online stuff that probably has better options and has a lot lower cost, you'd better either convince the client that you have a value beyond that or you'll probably have to try to do something different."
"We see the market growing and growing," she said.
Doucette isn't discouraged by the changing legal environment. In fact, he said change is good as more lawyers do flat fees on routine services.
"I think that's good for the consumer; I think that's good for the profession," he said.