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Innovative Law Practice: Say Hello to Family Law Attorney Erin Levine of Hello Divorce

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Family law is one of those practice areas that everyone loves to hate. Clients complain not only about their partners or spouses but about the high cost of divorce, and the often protracted contentious proceedings can take a toll on family law attorneys who practice in the field.  In short, family law is a practice area ripe for change – and Erin Levine, a family law attorney has done just that. A little over a year ago, Erin launched Hello Divorce, a slickly designed and intuitive website which provides divorce legal assistance in the form of an extensive library and personal consultations to individuals in California. Clients can obtain different levels of service, from complete DIY to engaging a lawyer or legal assistant to assist with divorce documents. Today, Erin’s new business model has garnered national attention and interest from other attorneys across the country. I’ve watched Erin’s meteoric rise and her experience is a reminder that even in the legal profession, change can happen quickly if you find your passion and purpose. You can follow Erin on Twitter at @hellodivorce.  

 

Tell our readers a little about law practice.

 In 2009 I opened Levine Family Law Group in Emeryville, California (just across the San Francisco Bay Bridge). Today we have 5 full-time Family lawyers and provide full representation to local clients.  My passion project is Hello Divorce, founded in March, 2017. Hello Divorce provides divorce legal assistance and wellness support to individuals throughout California.  Users have access to curated resources, divorce tools and worksheets and affordable, on demand legal help.

I am currently launching Love & Real Life with my best friend and fellow Certified Family Law Specialist, Ashley Schuh. Love&RL will empower women with the tools they need to plan for some of the what if’s that come with marriage and relationships through marital planning and carefully crafted prenuptial / cohabitation agreements.

 

What is your background? Where did you work before you started your firm, and what is the total amount of time you’ve been practicing law?

I was admitted to the bar in 2005. My first legal mentor was my father, who owned and operated a law firm in Los Angeles. He’s since retired but we spent many nights around the dinner table discussing his cases. My first job as a lawyer was with an experienced family law attorney (John Coyle) in Fairfield, California. In 2009, I put out my shingle. It was just me and my assistant (we still work together today!)  In 2014, I became a Certified Family Law Specialist, Certified by the State Bar of California, Board of Legal Specialization. I have always practiced in family law, although have enjoyed handling not just divorce, but issues that impact the modern family as well – third parent law actions, same sex relationship dissolutions (marital and nonmarital) and preparing cohabitation / prenuptial agreements.

 

What gave you the idea for starting Hello Divorce? Did you take any steps to vet the idea, or did you just dive right in? 

I am a survivor of physical and sexual abuse, perpetrated by my gymnastics coach throughout most of my childhood. In my late teens I was a witness in his criminal action and a plaintiff in a civil action. It was awful. I was frightened, confused, stressed and intimidated. A lot of the time it felt as though procedure triumphed over substance. I never wanted anyone I worked with to feel that way. As such, I knew that at some point I wanted to reach far more people than we could at Levine Law (who were limited by location or finances) – I just didn’t know how initially and I didn’t know if there would be a market for it.

That’s when I started volunteering in local courts (which led to the VLSC Probono Leadership Award) and spending a lot of time with clients before, during and after their divorce learning about what their (human) experience was like, what we were doing right, what we could improve on and what types of services they wanted to see. At the sametime, legaltech, unbundled services and document preparers were on the rise – so it felt safe to assume that law was certainly headed in a new direction and there were opportunities to explore life beyond a traditional law firm.

To vet the idea I initially hired Yeti, an app development and user experience team. I had hoped to hire them to design and implement the site but I was limited by funding and, as a law firm, had an ethical bar from seeking outside (non lawyer) investment. That being said, Yeti took a really refreshingly (non legal) approach. They did tons of user interviews with former clients, people thinking about divorce and people who were just getting started or in the throes of divorce. What came out of those interviews was the most surprising to me of all – while people were interested in a clean, smart, modern experience – the tech itself was only a small part of what they wanted. They wanted a human interaction, an inspiring and empowering experience and a “one stop shop” as opposed to a lead generator type platform that refers you to an outside attorney if the divorce ends up being more than just filling out forms. They also wanted a positive focus – empowering – not loaded with negative or fearful imagery (like the kid being pulled in two different directions by each parent).

I next partnered with my friend and local designer/developer, Jennifer Heller of Artsy Geek. We entered the planning phase and I don’t think either of us realized how complicated, challenging and exhausting it would be. Especially in light that we are mothers (she actually had her son just before the launch!) too and had separate businesses, employees and relationships to attend to. I was really lucky because my husband was also an entrepreneur and knew what I’d be going through even before I did and my best friend, Ashley, really carried Levine Law over the last year.

 

Please walk us through the process of what happens when a user signs up to use Hello Divorce.

Sure! When a user signs up to use Hello Divorce they receive a welcome email with a link to schedule a 15 minute meeting with a lawyer on our team (usually me). During that call we get to know the user and his or her experience, where they are at in the process and whether or not they will be a good candidate for our services. Surprisingly, most are so we must have done something right – attracting the demographic of uncontested and/or moderately contested divorces. After the meeting they are emailed a personalized plan (with the understanding that plans sometimes change, and that’s ok) to get started. We recommend whether or not it makes sense to upgrade to a paid membership, retain an attorney for full representation (outside the scope of HD), or stick with our divorce navigator to begin the forms process and access a la carte services as or if they need it. Some clients decide to go through mediation and pay for 30 minutes or a chunk of time with us to help them strategize.

Once they have signed up for a free membership they can access our curated legal and wellness tools + resources – most of which I created but many have been created by leaders in (or related to the) industry such as a Judge, CDFA, wellness experts, Forensic Accountants etc. Our tools include support calculators, a legalease glossary, property division spreadsheets, divorce worksheets etc. Our resources include information on various legal issues that come up in divorce. Finally, our Divorce Navigator gives step by step instructions through the divorce process. Through it, users can access instructional templates and videos, divorce flow chart, relevant resources and a la carte services such as document preparation/filing, document review and legal coaching.

All of our services are fixed fee and/or subscription based (with an end date regardless of how long the divorce goes for). So, as an example, our most popular service is the paralegal assisted divorce (Divorce + is $2,500 or $500/month until $3,000). Our paralegals prepare, process and file all of the documents through the divorce. We also guide the user through the negotiation process. If a user gets “stuck” and needs some legal advice, they can schedule an appointment with one of our lawyers – who will help them).

 

The Hello Divorce site has so many features.  Can you tell us about the process of designing the site?  Do you have a technical background?

We designed and redesigned twice. We have made less intensive tweeks on the regular. I don’t have a tech background but Jen and someone on her team does. First, she had to learn everything there is to know about a moderately complex divorce. I’d say she could navigate a divorce better than most second year associates! What was most challenging was handling all the variables that come up in divorce and the ethical issues. I’ve had an amazing ethics attorney since day one, Megan Zavieh, who has had to be the bearer of bad news so many times but has always found a creative solution to meet our objectives.

 

What types of clients does Hello Divorce attract, and what is their motive for seeking the service (e.g, lower cost, more convenient, other factors?) It’s still early on but we seem to be attracting a lot of creatives (designers, hairdressers, marketing folks etc), executives who travel a lot or have limited time, stay at home parents and a range of millennials. So really, the whole gamut – even teachers, doctors/nurses, admins and other lawyers! More men have been our early adopters but our female clients are often especially complementary and grateful for our wellness support and empowering tone – we are currently building out a more robust wellness platform with Allie Stark. You’re absolutely correct – people are looking for a lower cost, more convenient option. They also want something that looks pretty and feels good. Anything to help offset the range of emotions that come with divorce – even if there’s a full agreement on the family reorg.

We are not cheap – but definitely a lot less expensive than the average lawyer and comparably priced  to many non-lawyer options. We’ve leveraged tech to cut out a lot of the expenses and will continue to improve on that and slash prices – to the extent I can afford the development costs. After all, I’ve still got two (very little) kiddos at home.

We are also attracting people who want legal help but are afraid true “lawyering up” will off put their spouse and lead to more conflict. Some of our users tell their spouse they are working with us and invite them to check out the site – to see that our goal is not to screw over any spouse and that we believe divorce should not be a zero sum game. They say that’s been helpful.

 

What kind of reaction have you gotten from other family law attorneys in California and nationwide?

My community at TBD Law (now Lab Pro) through Lawyerist have been phenomenal and so encouraging. I’ve also joined the century and have started a twitter account which has helped to expand my community of like minded lawyers. Many local lawyers think I’m nuts. Or that it’s just not sustainable. Or that I’m giving away too much information. Mediators don’t really know about me yet (although I’m working to change that). I think we’d be a great resource for them since we offer mediation consulting and our $99/mo option provides unlimited help on forms. I’m kind of in that weird space where it’s hard to get the attention of legaltech experts (so thank you!) because I’m not solving big problems for lawyers or VC funded and it’s hard to get support from lawyers because they feel I’m taking business from them. The truth is, there will always be a need for lawyers. It’s just people are getting fed up with lawyers being the keeper of ALL the information. People (who can afford) lawyers will always pay for the stuff they expect lawyers to do – problem solve and advocate/ litigate.

 

Have you gotten any reaction from the courts which are struggling with the problem of pro se representation? Well, ethically speaking, I (and they) have to be careful. Private judges (usually retired from the bench) have been beyond supportive although a couple think I’m crazy. We are still working on visibility – since we are still new.

 

What’s been the impact of Hello Divorce on your practice? Has it grown since you began to offer this service?

My practice has remained in a good space. We’ve had even more people since a few of the HD users did in fact end up needing traditional representation and then were transitioned to our LFLG team. I think some of the press we’ve garnered has helped with our reputation within the community as well.

 

How do you market Hello Divorce to consumers and explain what the service provides?

Ugh it’s so tricky since we are still technically a law firm. Plus, we have little money for marketing so a lot of focus is on earned media. Messaging is so challenging. We’re really working on it and always open to ideas. We also try to differentiate ourselves from the traditional retained lawyer and then other non-legal divorce services. Essentially – we want people to know we are a tour guide of sorts. We want people to know they have options and we will show them the way. Originally, we had too many options and people were overwhelmed. We have a few new ideas up our sleeve but that would mean we would create a non-law firm parent entity for Hello Divorce. In the meantime, I spend some time on Social Media – Instagram, Pinterest and Facebook. Primarily trying to shift the image of lawyers, empower people, inspire clients and remind them – they are not their divorce. Divorce is just where they are in the moment.  I spend a lot of time networking with CDFA’s, divorce coaches, wellness professionals and therapists – collaborating with them on blogs and such. That has been helpful. But so far, most of our clientele has been word of mouth or after hearing me on a podcast or interview.

 

I know that California has a certified document preparer program. How does Hello Divorce compare to document preparer programs, both cost-wise and service-wise? Cost wise I believe we are very similar. So our cheapest (paid) model is instructional and DIy web videos and templates. When we created them, we tried to not only ensure people were correctly procedurally completing but that they are understanding why they are filling out the forms the way they are – so they have a better shot of being prepared and not hurting their chances of succeeding if the action becomes contested and/or litigated and that their docs have more of a chance of being enforceable. We also offer lots of attorney services. So if a user runs into an issue or just wants to gather more information, they don’t have to start over and  explain their story or pay for an intake – we already know them and where they are in the process and can jump in pretty seamlessly.

One thing I want to make clear is that we are not lead generators. We don’t bring users in only to farm them out to big lawyers and take a cut. We expect that the majority people who use our service will remain with us start to finish.

 

Do you think that a  Hello Divorce model could succeed in other parts of the country where clients may not be as sophisticated or tech savvy as in California? Yes, I do. If you have access to internet, you would be able to use the service. Our tech is really easy to use. I guess it really depends on how comfortable people are with using the internet and speaking via Skype or Zoom instead of in person.

 

Eight years ago, I published this blog post which discussed Lee Rosen’s (another family law innovator) opinion that there’s little consumer demand for virtual law firms. Do you consider your practice virtual and with the passage of time, do you think that Lee’s position is still valid? Lee was one of the first thought  leaders I embraced. I have been to his training and used to read his blogs vigorously. I definitely remain inspired by him. I think his point about investing substantial resources for development and marketing still rings true. It’s not easy convincing the public that there is a new, viable alternative to the legal status quo. At this point, I’m self funded and it has not been easy. I do think more traditional virtual firms have seen incredible success!

 

What are your future plans for Hello Divorce? Where do you see the firm three years from now? Definitely building out the wellness component is huge. That, and adding a more robust and integrated account page. I’d love to ‘conquer’ California not just with divorce but with unmarried child custody/ parentage cases. Expanding nationally is my dream but right now I’m just learning about the ethical and business components to make that a reality.

 

Final thoughts?

I really love the work you do and admire you greatly. Thank you for thinking of me! I just want people to know – I am an advocate for lawyers – not the anti-lawyer or someone who will take their business away. Law is changing – slowly – but changing – from a seller’s market to a buyer’s one. If we don’t modify our practices, we will become more and more irrelevant. I love lawyers – I’m one – I want to help good, kind, “human” lawyers continue into the next decade earning a good living without sacrificing their professional integrity or quality of services. I have made a million mistakes along the way and expect that will continue indefinitely – but I love what I do and am compelled to do it – it’s my soul’s work.

 

Thank you.

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