On the singles scene, a pick-up line like “my place or yours” isn’t likely to attract many takers. But on the shingle scene (as in hanging-a-shingle), several different companies are betting that the proposition “our platform [not] yours” will resonate with solos and smalls. In the past few months, two relatively new companies – UpCounsel and Law Pal – as well as one chestnut, Jacoby & Meyers have rolled out a variety of virtual platforms, work-flow protocols and documents to entice well-qualified solo and small firm lawyers to join their networks and represent clients as part of their brand. Below, I’ll give a run down of the platforms, followed by a discussion of what this means for solos and smalls.
UpCounsel, which launched in California 14 months ago and just raised $1.5 million seeks to help small businesses meet their legal needs with access to first rate lawyers. To lure that talent, UpCounsel promises attorneys benefits such as a “virtual law practice in 5 minutes” – essentially a profile page like this. UpCounsel handles billing by accepting and holding client credit cards, and earns a fee for each transaction. However, clients cannot hire lawyers directly from the profile page; instead, they must post the job on UpCounsel and can invite the lawyer to bid. In many respects, UpCounsel’s set-up reminds me of Elance for legal services, with its bid-based system and feedback/ratings loop (though elance doesn’t have user-specific pages).
Like UpCounsel, LawPal — a California transplant with UK origins and PayPal’s Peter Thiel as a backer — also has its eye on serving small business’ legal needs, reports Legal Futures. As described therein, LawPal users enter a description of their matter and are then offered a choice of lawyers. Once selected, LawPal sets up an online deal room along with a transaction checklist to guide the process. Participating lawyers get the benefit of these work-flow efficiencies, not to mention looking like cool kids (Lawpal is definitely making a play for the future of law crowd with these Legal Rebel Margaret Hagan styled lawgraphics).
Founded in 1972, Jacoby & Meyers is nearly old enough (at least in Internet years) to be a grandpa to UpCounsel and LawPal — but don’t count the old boy out just yet (though its website certainly could use a 21stCentury Facelift). Just yesterday, Jacoby announced that is seeking participating attorneys to help expand its network. As you might expect, membership includes old-school benefits like cooperative television advertising and lead generation but also modern amenities like “custom Jacoby & Meyers website for [members] local office / practice” (let’s hope these sites don’t look anything like the J&M mothership), e-commerce capabilities for selling services and over 85,000 legal forms over the web and access to J&M Virtual Law Office platform for serving clients via a web-based client portal.
The concept of branded networks — independent lawyers operating under a recognizable brand — is nothing new. (Disclosure – I am advisor to Legal Force which is also developing a branded network concept). Back in January, I discussed, somewhat skeptically, Legal Zoom’s and Rocket Lawyer’s likely foray into the branded network space as did my colleague Susan Cartier Liebel (more optimistically) last spring at Solo Practice University. These models in turn follow in the footsteps of QualitySolicitors, which dates back to 2008, has been backed by substantial investments, but has also faced considerable growing pains, as described in Legal Futures – in part because of difficulty in convincing participating lawyers to support the brand. My beef with some of the initial branded concepts like LZ or RL is that they had the buying power to force lawyers to deeply discount rates but did not provide anything in the way of infrastructure or support to help lawyers serve clients more efficiently.
By contrast, the new iteration of branded services, at least on the surface, seem committed to supporting lawyers who join their networks. In fact, rather than taking the approach that lawyers charge too much, LawPal even says on its website that “Lawyers bring a great deal of knowledge and expertise to any team, and they deserve to be fairly compensated.” Of course, it’s not that LawPal and UpCounsel are benevolent per se but unlike RL and LZ, they make their money off legal services, not documents. So if they can’t attract quality lawyers to work on their platforms, they can’t attract clients either. Moreover, by setting up platforms, these companies can monitor the transactions taking place between lawyers and clients to further streamline them (as UpCounsel is doing for real estate transactions). Or they can aggregate the data for other purposes (it’s the big-data as a back-end model).
What Should Solos & Smalls Do?
So the money question – should lawyers participate in Branded Networks 3.0 or not? Certainly, the promise of a platform appeals to lawyers who want, but don’t have a web presence, a virtual firm structure or the ability to accept credit card payments online. Believe it or not, there’s still a significant number of lawyers who fall into this category. In addition, a plug-and-play virtual platform would also work very well for retired, part-time or “life-style” lawyers who don’t want to go through the hassle of setting up a web presence or merchant credit card account for what might amount to a few thousand dollars of work a month.
On the other hand, lawyers can’t expect the virtual platforms and deal-rooms offered by UpCounsel, LawPal or Jacoby to substitute for the kinds of law practice management systems (Clio, MyCase, Rocket Matter, etc…) that you might use in your practice. Given the resources that these companies have to invest, I expect that the platforms will all work seamlessly – and make it easier to serve clients within the network. But if you or your clients wish to deal outside the network, you’re on your own. Moreover, while lawyers who participate in several different networks will have a shot at more cases, they’ll also have to familiarize themselves with more platforms – which can prove inefficient for the individual lawyer even if it works for the network.
Presumably, it’s the prospect of attracting more clients that drives most law firms to join platforms. So what kinds of results can they expect? With huge budgets, most of these networks have the ability to promote services. Moreover – at least with regard to UpCounsel or LawPal, they’re not law firms (Jacoby & Meyers is a firm) and so they needn’t comply with restrict attorney advertising requirements that govern other lawyers. So for example, these companies (like RocketLawyer) can list specialities on LinkedIn; something that lawyers in many other jurisdictions can’t do. [Note to bars – this discrepancy in regulation of lawyer advertising and non-lawyer advertising of legal services produces a serious disadvantage that ethics committees need to consider when they impose even more stringent regulations on lawyers.] On the other hand, network ad campaigns don’t necessarily benefit individual lawyers; once clients arrive at a network portal, lawyers still have to compete against other participants to make a sale. (Lawyers should also consider that their taste may also differ from those running the ad campaign – for example, REO Speedwagon isn’t my idea of what justice feels like but that may just be me).
Will networks confer added credibility on participating lawyers? In part, that depends on the network. A well-run network interested in supporting lawyers as opposed to extracting increased revenues can attract better lawyers and improve the network’s reputation. But does credibility matter to lawyers? That depends as well – I have enough of a brand that it will always overshadow a network, but I’ve also been practicing for nearly a quarter of a century. Credibility may matter more to newbies just starting out on a shoestring and part-timers who otherwise run the risk of appearing fly-by-night (though it’s not clear whether less experienced lawyers will qualify for participation in the network; the companies do seem to be some type of application process). Again, if a company has a poor experience with a participating lawyers, it could drive users away. In my own case, after some less than favorable experiences with bait-and-switch pricing on one of the auction/bid type sites, I’ve moved back to elance. However, I don’t hold a negative experience with one provider against another. I suspect that clients’ reactions will be similar; they won’t impute a negative experience with an individual network lawyer to another network lawyer, but a bad experience with the platform may drive clients away.
My own view? Certainly lawyers should explore and experiment with these portal options so long as they determine that there aren’t any ethics red flags. But remember, these sites need lawyers as much as lawyers need clients so don’t sell your services short or become too dependent on any one site as a source of revenues. Just as these sites provide benefits, they reap enormous rewards that a law firm can’t (due to ethics rules). A network platform can serve clients with conflicts (just assign another lawyer), doesn’t have to pay malpractice insurance or provide the types of benefits that a traditional law firm/employer needs to operate. So before jumping in, lawyers need to make sure that a networking platform works not just for the site sponsor but for lawyers and most importantly, their clients.
Back in my dating days, my college suite-mates and I always carried a $20 bill in our pocket or shoe to hail a cab and beat a hasty retreat in the event that some creepy date’s offer of “my place” turned out to be the only place. Likewise, lawyers should remember that even if you decide to camp out on someone else’s platform, it’s always a good idea to maintain a place that you call your own — a website, a portal, a blog or social media account — as a Plan B.
What say you readers? Their platform or yours? Please post in the comments below.