I Want to Be the Next LegalZoom

Ex-Bitter Advice from an Ex-Bitter, Columns, Lawyer 8 Comments

QI’m completing my 2L year at a top school and having trouble finding work. Or appropriate work, as in paid work that is actually law-related. I have a background in software development and want to use it somehow in my legal career but I’m actually not that interested in patent work, which is what everyone tells me to do.

Recently I came across LegalZoom and, to be honest, I thought it was one of the coolest things around. It serves the low-end client, has set prices for people, and from what I can tell delivers a decent product. Probably not the best product but likely good enough. And good enough seems to be the new standard for legal services for regular people, like people I know and grew up with.

What do you think of my prospects of developing an online business that delivers attorney-reviewed forms like LegalZoom? Every lawyer I talk to says it’s a waste of time and that it’s teetering on the edge of unauthorized practice of law. A lot of folks—law students and professors included—think I’m nuts and basically going to the dark side. Would I be wasting my time and my degree pursuing something like this?

AHaters gonna hate. That’s my reaction to the whole online LegalZoom phenomenon. It’s amusing to hear the tired tirades against LegalZoom and the like. Typically it goes something like this: LegalZoom is a soulless corporation that cannot offer confidentiality and thinks all people fit into the same legal peg hole. Then, for emotional impact, they say it represents the end of lawyers and the legal profession as we know it because it is allowed to practice law without a license.

Bah, humbug. It works. And it works for a couple of reasons: 1) it’s inexpensive and efficient at a time when attorneys are too expensive and inefficient; and 2) it’s good enough. For millions of people. Lawyers just don’t like the idea of clients as consumers—which they are—and there is nothing wrong with that so long as you also recognize the limitations of delivering legal service via logic-based form generation (e.g., I wouldn’t go near criminal defense work, complex litigation, class actions, etc.).

As to your question. No, you are not wasting your time or your JD. You may actually have a leg up on the outfits that don’t have attorneys at the back end.

But you will be wasting your time and intellectual energy if you think working in BigLaw or some other more traditional legal job is what you “should” be doing. If you are pursuing something that you feel matches what you have to offer, find it interesting, and can possibly pay the bills with it, then all the power to you. Who cares if it resembles LegalZoom? Maybe you’ll actually create the right product mix where an attorney is involved in form choice, form creation, and form review. Y’know, practicing law. Imagine that. Hell, LegalZoom already captured the public sentiment in its slogan “Law That Just Makes Sense.” Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

Haters gonna hate, Darth. Remember that when people keep telling you that you are going to the dark side. They are full of shit.

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  • http://www.brianmurphylawfirm.com Brian Murphy

    Creating just another Legalzoom would be futile, but more of a niche business may not be. Even if one could raise the capital to create and market another Legalzoom, what is the perceived value proposition? Why would I use your site rather than the established one? It seems to be a saturated market already. The internet delivery model, however, may be useful for other purposes. In order to have what Warren Buffet would call a “durable, competitive advantage,” you need to focus it and establish credibility in that space. What about a legalzoom just for landlords? Or small companies with sales transactions? Or musicians? Or landscapers? I have no idea if these are viable financially, but I can’t see how just creating another general site would work.

  • southern bitter

    i think for starting right out of law school, it’s bordering on malpractice. why don’t you get a few years under your belt at an all-encompassing boutique firm?

    plus, if you can afford to do this, you must not have student loans to pay off. that makes me hate you.

  • r. dernister

    Let me comment on the “unauthorized practice” aspect. The future of law seems to me to be more self-help, more unbundling of services, and a movement away from the concept that lawyers somehow “own” the law simply because they endured three years of law school. Big Law is for Big Corporations and Big Litigation (e.g., class actions). The ordinary consumer has been largely ignored in the past, and the nay-sayers (warnings of unauthorized practice, malpractice) are going to be left behind and, frankly, they should be. The purpose of law is to serve the consumer, not the courts, and not the lawyers. My suggestion is, therefore, that you simply do what you feel is the right thing to do. Life is too short to worry about other people’s B.S.

  • http://www.vickstromlaw.com Kristina Vickstrom

    Among others, there are three major issues with web delivered legal services through sites like Legal Zoom. I can, of course, only speak to estate planning documents drafted using these services, as that is my particular area of practice.

    First, sites like Legal Zoom don’t counsel the consumer on what their options are and why they should/shouldn’t choose a particular set of documents to accomplish their estate planning. Any attempts are inadequate. This leaves consumers to choose to do less estate planning that is actually necessary, or more than was needed in the first place. These sites also do not properly communicate options within specific estate planning documents. For example, many clients need advise on whom to choose to make their health care decisions and financial decisions should they become incapacitated. They may feel obligated to name their children in birth order, or use some other obligatory method, but may not understand the practical ramifications of choosing one over the other.

    Second, online legal document preparation sites try ” to fit a round peg in a square hole,” by misleading the consumer into thinking that their document is valid in their particular state, or valid in another state were they to relocate. Time and time again I have seen clients come in with these documents that are lacking important items/provisions that are necessary, or beneficial, in Massachusetts (where I practice). If a client is worried enough to come in for an estate plan review, we almost always need to re-draft many of the documents. However, since Legal Zoom has lulled them into a false sense of security, they may never think to come in and sit down with an actual attorney. For example, Client A may come in with a Will, drafted by Legal Zoom, that does not speak to waiving a surety bond or waiving the requirement of the Personal Representative (Executor) to obtain a license to sell the real estate. Assuming that the Will is even allowed in Massachusetts, if even just one of these items is missing from the Will, it can cost the estate thousands in extra legal and court fees. All of a sudden the $200 you saved getting your Will drafted by Legal Zoom, instead of an experienced estate planning attorney, doesn’t sound like such a good deal.

    Lastly, who is accountable for mistakes/omissions? Whom to you sue if your estate plan blew up in your face? Local attorneys (should) carry professional liability insurance and can be held accountable for any errors. How likely is it that Attorney Robert Shapiro, founder of Legal Zoom, will pay your estate damages when your documents don’t work the way you intended them? Not going to happen.

    • Guano Dubango

      Christina, you seem smart. Are you fertile? If so, do you want to date, and bear issue?

  • Nonyo Beeswax

    With your engineering background (I share the same trait, but my engineering background is maritime) a web-based legal service seems like a natural extension. Just remember the basic rules of any business- find a need, fill it. Or, create a need, then fill it. But don’t forget that your programming background can be used inside a law firm managing large research projects, doing product liability research, and many, many other things. If you don’t like patents, and the web based business doesn’t pan, don’t sweat it too much. Uber-tech savvy + any other degree = advantage and options.

  • http://smartwills.us Scott Pesetsky

    Hey “next legalzoom”, give me a holler, as I have a few projects we can work on together. scott@smartwills.us

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