Law is broken. That’s the
common refrain among legal entrepreneurs and open law visionaries looking to
“disrupt” how law is accessed and practiced. Two conferences – ReInvent
Law Silicon Valley and Stanford’s CodeX FutureLaw 2013 –
brought together students, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, lawyers, and
academics to look at how innovation in the practice of law could make legal
services cheaper, faster, better, and more accessible. Like the $6 million
dollar man, we have the technology. Following are some of the areas where law
students will likely encounter it:
Drafting & Attorney Referral. With
the web it’s now possible for your uncle to draft a simple will for $99 instead
of paying an attorney much, much more.
& Analytics. More computing
power, more data, better decisions…? “Big data” is here and there are legions
of companies generating and sorting bits and bytes to help firms improve
Dispute Resolution (ODR). Cheap, fast and
extra-judicial. ODR already resolve tens of millions of disputes a year and
they’re looking for more.
Design is all the rage these days, and
well-crafted legal visualization distills data and informs users. Part art,
part science, often cool — the ways in which users interact with legal data
are being re-examined and re-built.
Today’s post explores disruptions in law with
respect to document drafting and attorney referral. Future posts will cover
developments in data & analytics, ODR and visualization.
Law Disrupted, Part 1: Document Drafting &
There’s a common pitch among legal
entrepreneurs that everyone should have access to legal services, not just
those with deep pockets. LegalZoom and RocketLawyer attempt to do just
that. Both allow the average person to
draft simple legal documents for a fraction of the cost of an attorney. If
desired, consultations with a lawyer can be had for a modest fee. These sites
also have attorney referral components for trickier situations. The DIY
document-drafting concept isn’t new (Nolo Press has been
publishing self-help books for more than 40 years) but the
web has made access easier and a blitz of TV commercials has increased awareness.
Even so, while the pitch is perfect, not everyone cares for the tune.
In theory, fast, cheap, and widespread access
to legal services sounds good but in practice it’s made waves with both lawyers
and consumers. There are murmurs that the lower cost, while a boon for
consumers, has also “destroyed the small estate planning practices” in parts of
the country or at least interfered with the will-drafting-to-probate pipeline
that some attorneys take for granted. LegalZoom has also run afoul of laws on
the unauthorized practice of law in Missouri (see Janson v. LegalZoom.com, Inc.,
802 F. Supp. 2d 1053 (W.D. Mo. 2011). With several bar associations joining the fray, more fights are
expected in other states. Finally, there are claims of attorneys having to undo
the damage that boilerplate legal documents have caused. Even with the best
decision trees, one size does not always fit all.
Regardless of which side of the debate you take
it’s clear that consumers are hungry for simple, affordable legal services. LegalZoom
and RocketLawyer are companies whose technological innovations meet Clayton Christensen’s
criteria for “disruptive” (see Clayton
M. Christensen, The Innovator’s Dilemma (1997)). They are tapping one of the cheapest markets in legal services
and it will be interesting to see if they start to move “upmarket” over time.