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LegalForce: Forcing Law to Be Accessible

by Carolyn Elefant on February 7, 2013 · 12 comments

in MyShingle Solo, Solo Trends, Trends

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photo1_cap

For me, the above LegalForce  brand concept — a scales of justice anthropomorphized — encapsulates all that excites me about the launch of the exciting new LegalForce business model conceived by lawyer/entrepreneur Raj Abhyanker that I attended last night in Palo Alto, California.

photo3_capFor so long, images of the scales of justices have served as mindless shorthand on lawyer logos, signage, websites, business cards and stationary to convey the concept of legal services. So much so, that the scales of justice – and the lawyers’ power to deliver it – has been reduced to meaningless and frequently laughable cliche.  But with one sweeping yellow arc, the LegalForce logo reclaims the scales of justice, transforming it from a stale, hollow concept to one that’s welcoming and accessible.

Therein lies the force behind LegalForce: a multi-faceted concept to make not just the law – but also  lawyers — accessible to consumers.   Inspired in part by the AppleStore concept, LegalForce makes the law user friendly just as Apple has made technology user-friendly for the past decades.  The LegalForce store functions as the physical hub for a variety of law-related services for consumers and small businesses, offering law and business books, tablets loaded with law resources and access to computer-based forms.  After all, many times consumers may not need a lawyer at all.

But for me, what sets the LegalForce model apart from other 21st century  law startup schemes  is that rather than take lawyers out of the equation or view them as an after-thought; the value-add tail that wags the dog, LegalForce places lawyers as a central focus of its access model in a variety of ways.  First, LegalForce’s Chattorney feature (short consults with lawyers) allows consumers to chat with a lawyer in person (in a private area in the store) or online via video and provides a central spot where lawyers can offer educational programs to the community.  By enabling easy access to a lawyer, LegalForce can help consumers determine whether they need a lawyer at all or if a self-help form might suffice (that’s the biggest problem with many of the automated nonlawyer providers, as Eric Ridley discusses here; it’s not that these company’s forms are necessarily poor quality; rather, there’s no reliable system for determining whether a particular form or service is necessary to begin with. Even with a perfect form, inaccuracy in = poor outcome out).  In addition, rather than forcing lawyers to cut corners  or costs to serve the platform’s business model, LegalForce helps member firms to improve the quality of service they deliver. Among other things, the LegalForce branded lawyer network will provides backend support and practice management processes and serve as a legal brand for member firms. By assuming these functions, LegalForce helps these firms control costs and while freeing their time to focus on serving clients.  Admittedly, the LegalForce network may not be the right fit for all lawyers or all practices, but for others, it many lawyers, it promises to offer a sound and far preferable law firm model to the slim pickings available now (auction services, bargain basement fee caps, pay-per-click, pricey SEO, marketers-gone-wild, etc…)

Moreover, as client interactions with LegalForce – online or in person increase, these interactions will produce valuable data that can help lawyers better serve clients as well as to better understand the lawyer-client relationship (as I’ve written here, we’re not there yet).  Analyzing trends in consumer need can also drive innovation in the law by identifying needs consumers never knew they had and fostering niche practice areas or new models to address those needs.

In many ways, LegalForce takes us back to the future. After all, back in the days of Atticus Finch, lawyers acted as pillars of the community readily available not just to bill hours, but to answer questions or   informally resolve a dispute between neighbors in exchange for a few chickens or a home-cooked meal.  By setting up on Main Street in the center of the community, a modernistic store housed in a renovated historic building, LegalForce marries the best of our profession’s past with the brightest of our future by reminding us that lawyers continue to play a vital, civic role in society – not just to litigate and churn hours or scare people –  but to answer questions, alleviate fears and help.

photo2_cap Last night, I was honored to attend the LegalForce launch; I serve as one of the company’s strategic advisors along with  Richard Granat, Michigan State University’s Reinvent Law Lab founders, Professors Renee Knacke and Dan Katz and two others.  As is the case with so many other things (past blogging for American Law Media and past Nolo affiliation or the  Rakofsky lawsuit), my introduction to Raj Abhyanker, LegalForce founder started here at MyShingle, with this post where I described how rather than rely on pricey (and not always effective) pay per click solutions, Raj created his own client feeder system by building a trademark search engine, Trademarkia. After my post, our paths crossed on Twitter, we interacted on email and this opportunity came my way.

Of the LegalForce advisors, I believe that I’m the only one who still actively practices law.  Because in spite of the alluring siren’s song of new business models and the progressive-on-the-surface call to  eliminate lawyers to reduce costs, I am still (mostly) drawn to (most) of work that I do.  And after more than ten years of blogging at the MyShingle beat, I still believe  (foolishly, even romantically) that what lawyers, particularly solo and small firm lawyers do matters  so long as we value what we offer rather than cannibalize it. LegalForce gets that, Raj himself gets that and now, all of us get to see where this exciting new venture goes.

Note – there’s a lot more to Legal Force than what I’ve written here. I’ll post  or link to the presentation from last night when it’s available on line, so stay tuned…

Editor’s Note – This is not an objective post. I am a strategic advisor to the company, a limited role but one which deserves prominent disclosure. At the same time, the reason that I’m doing this is because I really like the idea. But it’s a work in progress, so skepticism is both justified. For my part, my credibility as a blogger of 10 years is, honestly, more important than anything to me –  and as with my prior affiliation with Nolo (which ended when it sold out to marketers), I’ll be transparent about my potential biases.

  • shg

    It takes more than a cute logo, even when it has a smiley face, and a theoretically viable  construct, to make a concept good or bad. It takes the capacity to execute.

    I have a hard time imagining that a 15 minute consult is sufficient to offer meaningful legal advice. It takes more time than that to get beyond the client saying what they want to say to the point where the client provides salient information upon which a lawyer can analyze their situation and offer an opinion.

    I understand that the lawyers who will be available are there on a “volunteer” basis, hoping that the clients will need more significant legal help. Aside from this compromising their judgment, this opens the question of what type of lawyers are willing to sit there all day in the hope of getting a case? Young ones? Inexperienced ones? Desperate ones?  Just because they have a license doesn’t make them competent, and even if they are competent, are they sufficiently competent in the area needed?

    There aren’t too many experienced lawyers who will volunteer in the hope of someone walking in and needing their particular skillset.There will likely be plenty of new lawyers who can’t find jobs and have never actually practiced. Will they inform clients that they’ve never actually practiced law before advising them under the smiley face sign?

    And at $45 per 15 minute consult (or $180 per hour), it’s really not a particularly good deal price-wise for clients.

    A lot of questions remain.  I realize you are on board as advisor, but that compromises your view. I’m frankly a little surprised that you’re offering such a rosey opinion given that you have a horse in this race.

  • myshingle

    I like the idea. I think it aspires to have lawyers play a central role but it’s a work in progress and I am curious to see where it goes. You are right that because of being an advisor I have an interest but at the same time, I wouldn’t have participated if I didn’t see some promise I wouldn’t have gotten involved (and to further disclaim, my participation has been very much Advisory; haven’t proposed or developed strategy) But I should be clearer about any conflict and I will be clear about that here and in subsequent posts

  • Pingback: May The LegalForce Be With You | Josh Blackman's Blog

  • shg

    I just saw that the attorneys who will be staffing the brick & mortar will not be volunteers, but will be IP lawyers currently working for Raj.  Because I bet there is a huge call for walk-in IP lawyer advice.

    I sure hope nobody needs a will, wants a divorce or needs to know whether to incorporate (and I won’t even mention someone accused of a crime).

  • Raj Abhyanker

    Hello,

    Thanks for sharing your further feedback. Over the last 6 months, we have taken large steps in improving the quality of life for our internal attorneys. All internal attorneys are now salaried at market rate or better ($42k entry level to $150k+), and have new benefits including gym membership, car benefits, and health insurance. Furthermore, we strive to have the best attorneys possible, and encourage training of them.

    With respect to non IP related issues and questions, we are creating a network of co counsel attorneys in the Bay Area sharing our brand. These include criminal attorneys, wills/trusts attorneys, immigration attorneys, and more. Our store attorneys will not give advice on these issues beyond what they confidently know. They will not profess to be experts. However, the vast majority of questions we have seen so far are quite simple for most attorneys to answer. We are referring more complicated ones to specialized attorneys in our network. See:

    http://sfbay.craigslist.org/pen/bus/3554962536.html
    Raj Abhyanker, CEO of LegalForce

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_63HBP3A3IRQRXKQSCCCRFCKOIU Mr

    Here are some interesting facts about Trademarkia CEO Raj Abhyanker that anyone doing business with him should know:

    He has a history of breaking the law. Indeed, he pled to several
    counts of dishonest election-fraud type acts and was fined by California
    for $15,000!

    Just google “raj abhyanker fppc”

    Second: He has a history of being just straight up crazypants!

    He has actually sued Facebook claiming that they copied him! Yes, he
    is that much of a megalomaniac with no connection to reality. Of
    course, the case was dismissed and Abhyanker lost. What a fool!

    Just google “Raj Abhyanker Facebook lawsuit Liz Gannes” for the article.

     

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_63HBP3A3IRQRXKQSCCCRFCKOIU Mr

     The store looks like a Scientology front.  Do you provide e-meter auditing?

  • Raj Abhyanker

    Hello,
    Thanks for sharing your further feedback. Over the last 6 months, we have taken large steps in improving the quality of life for our internal attorneys. All internal attorneys are now salaried at market rate or better ($42k entry level to $150k+), and have new benefits including gym membership, car benefits, and health insurance. Furthermore, we strive to have the best attorneys possible, and encourage training of them.
    With respect to non IP related issues and questions, we are creating a network of co counsel attorneys in the Bay Area sharing our brand. These include criminal attorneys, wills/trusts attorneys, immigration attorneys, and more. Our store attorneys will not give advice on these issues beyond what they confidently know. They will not profess to be experts. However, the vast majority of questions we have seen so far are quite simple for most attorneys to answer. We are referring more complicated ones to specialized attorneys in our network. See:
    http://sfbay.craigslist.org/pen/bus/3554962536.html
    Raj Abhyanker, CEO of LegalForce

  • Raj Abhyanker

    Mr.
    This is Raj Abhyanker and you are writing about me.   Thank you for sharing your viewpoint.   I have provided responses to your views on the IP Watchdog blog, which speak for themselves.   Nonetheless, I will restate them here.

    Your comment of ‘dishonest/election’ refers to a negative mailer that was sent against an opposing candidate during a local City Council campaign in which I was a candidate.  Specifically, your comment relates to a mailer sent against an opposing candidate building a large home in the hillsides of Cupertino which required the removal of large trees.   I am not ashamed of this issue or the FPPC matter.   The group that sent the mailer never formed its committee.    There was nothing intrinsically wrong with the mailer, and nothing dishonest about its content.   

    The group that sent the mailer never registered itself, and my campaign took responsibility for its mailing for having supported its message.   There were dozens of people helping in my campaign, and I cannot control the actions of each of them.   This being said, I am not ashamed of not wanting to cut down old growth trees which take hundreds of years to grow in Northern California just to build larger homes in the otherwise beautiful hillsides or supporting this mailer.

    In case the poster forgets, there is a strong 1st Amendment freedom of speech right and political speech is protected by the U.S. Constitution.  I am proud to have helped resolve this matter for the FPPC.  I believe that there are many technologies that can applied to make government run more smoothly and efficiently at a local level, and I would like to see our country continue leading the world in innovation and creativity.     
    With respect to the Facebook suit, we dropped it without prejudice after discovering new facts.   We currently have a related dispute pending in the federal district court of San Francisco.    

    Best of luck to you.
    Respectfully,
    Raj Abhyanker

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_63HBP3A3IRQRXKQSCCCRFCKOIU Mr

    I would just encourage anyone reading this to refer the actual documents Raj signed and FPPC findings when he plead to the election commission.  That document can be found here:

    http://www.fppc.ca.gov/agendas/08-10/AbhyankerEx.pdf

    The FPPC investigators found that this group didn’t exist.  I quote: “The mailer included sender identification information for a non-existent group, Residents for Quality of Life in Cupertino, and an address that was a post office box owned by a third party, Winnie Liu. The sender identification on the mailer said, “Residents for Quality of Life in Cupertino, P.O. Box 153, Cupertino, CA 95814.””    I’ll repeat that key phrase “non-existant group”, just so that the ring of Raj’s above falsehood will really resonate. 

    Raj, did Winnie Liu (a “third party” who wasn’t involved), send this mailer?  Or was it you as you admitted to the FPPC?  In front of the FPPC you signed the order and agreed that the group never existed.  Were you lying to them or are you lying now?

    The FPPC findings go on to state that Raj (i.e. the respondents) paid $2,406.  It is unbelievable that you would not be aware of expenditures of over $2k in a city council campaign in  a small city.  Plus, the FPPC investigation found out from the printer that it was you and you admitted to them that is was you and not someone else like you now claim.  And I quote from the FPPC’s summary of facts :

     “Records obtained from the printer, Direct Mail Center, establish that Respondents [Raj] arranged to have paid approximately $2,406.23 for the printing of 4,000 of these mailers in cash and that Respondents [Raj] sent 2,750 mailers during the weeks before the election.”

    You admitted to all this when you signed this order http://www.fppc.ca.gov/agendas/08-10/AbhyankerOrder.pdf

    Are you just that mentally sick that you have to continue making up bullsh%$ about saving some trees?

    Btw, does the First Amendment protect fraud-type speech like this?  Nope, and any attorney worth his salt would be aware of that.   If you really believed it did, why didn’t you raise it as a defense before the FPPC instead of pleading to it? 

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_63HBP3A3IRQRXKQSCCCRFCKOIU Mr

     Just out of curiosity, what new information did you find out after you initiated the law suit against Facebook?  Did it have anything to do with the fact that you could have ended up paying their monstrous attorney fees for making up a delusional fantasy and filing a frivolous law suit? 

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_63HBP3A3IRQRXKQSCCCRFCKOIU Mr

    The FPPC incident just shows how slick this Raj guy is.  He gets caught making up fake groups and using fake addresses that belong to someone else.  The summary of findings show that he paid $2k and emailed the printer about the order- but then he just blithely pulls a new excuse for it all (saving trees?) out of the thin air when confronted by the facts he admitted to in previous legal proceeding. The fact that the FPPC had him pay $15,000 in fines after investigating him shows just how serious they thought his actions were.  This incident and his problematic response serve as a fair warning to all those working with him. 

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