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The rise of the online law firm

The rise of the online law firm

By Blake Connell

Communication Legal Services Technology Workplace 


The internet is a source of simultaneous excitement and fear for Australian law firms. On one hand, firms are using the web and social media to drive recruitment and to expose themselves to new clients. On the other hand, many lawyers and firms toss and turn over posting even the most vanilla legal commentary online. Perhaps the most exciting (and most scary) opportunity presented by the internet is the prospect of a completely new business model: the firm that provides legal advice entirely online. Already Australia has a number of online law firms, and this number is growing. The online model is about more than simply providing generic legal information on a website, or allowing clients to sign their documents online. It entails completely recreating the legal ecosystem online. This means providing legal services – from the start to the finish of an engagement – virtually, and allowing clients to manage their entire lawyer-client relationship in the online world. What are the pros and cons of this new era in legal advice? Opportunities 1. Increase access to justice Many reasons – from geographical distance to disability to lack of time to fear – prevent people from reaching lawyers to get legal help. Providing legal advice online brings delivering legal services into people’s homes, empowering them to use a lawyer to help solve their legal problem. In addition, by removing the overhead costs involved in providing in person legal advice (hiring and running an office, stationary, printing etc), you can reduce the cost of providing those services and share those savings with the client. 2. Specialisation The way that the internet breaks down geographical borders has important implications for lawyers too – namely, it facilitates specialisation. In the online world where the market is bigger, a lawyer can specialise in a given sector, part of law or type of legal work, while previously there could have been insufficient work in the geographic area in which the lawyer lives or works for them to have pursued that specialisation. By freeing lawyers from the commercial imperative to structure their practice according to the needs of the community in which they live physically, you are arguably lifting the standard of legal services available. This is because lawyers can more freely choose to specialise in a practice area they are passionate about, and (assuming all other things remaining equal) the online market can efficiently allocate work to the best practitioners (versus it being allocated merely to those who live physically close to the areas of legal need). This ends up benefitting clients who get more specialised answers even if they live far away from their lawyer. 3. Make legal advice more comprehensible A commonly cited problem with legal advice is that it involves too much jargon and is not easy for the person with the problem to understand and use. A spin off advantage of providing advice online is that lawyers can take advantage of all the ways that technology can help you arrange information and present it more intuitively, such as interactive buttons/tabs/menus, videos, pop up definitions and hyperlinks (and the mix of web technology available to lawyers will only become more impressive with time as new features are created and web technology becomes cheaper to deploy, especially on a small scale). 4. Online anonymity could lead to more people seeking advice One player in the Australian online law firm space has a Q&A forum where members of the public can post legal questions anonymously and a lawyer will respond. It is arguable that people are more inclined to seek legal advice or assistance (for example, in relation to criminal and other public offences) where they can post their questions anonymously. Risks 1. The human element Perhaps the biggest risk to do with the online advice model has to do with the ‘human element’ of practicing law. This is because the practice of law not only entails offering legally sound advice, but also providing that service with empathy, understanding and assurance. The need for these human qualities is all the more acute where a client needs advice in relation to a particularly serious matter, or where they are from a particular linguistic or cultural minority. These scenarios highlight the importance of properly scoping any online legal practice, and of a lawyer’s ability to perceive when a more personal form of contact might be needed. However, we should not assume that technology will always detract from a lawyer’s ability to provide legal services in a human way. Many lawyers already feel comfortable dealing with their clients on Skype, and collecting and sending documents in a secure online dropbox. In fact, properly designed and deployed technology can help us overcome boundaries – for example, online translation tools could help a lawyer overcome linguistic or cultural barriers which could not be overcome in person. 2. Security It goes without saying that all the other normal professional and ethical requirements attached to offering legal advice apply to advice offered online. In practice, this would probably require at a minimum a secure password-protected online portal accessible only by the client and their lawyer, to protect the client’s confidentiality. Related professional and ethical requirements to do with marketing, collection of monies and disclaimers would be equally binding and law firms would have to make sure their adherence to these rules does not slip in the seemingly informal context of the internet. 3. Quality control Where advice isn’t dished out on nice paper with a letterhead, there is a risk that providing advice online might feel less formal, and in turn, this might affect the quality. This risk is easy to mitigate where lawyers make sure they staff their online firms with suitably trained, admitted and supervised lawyers. Online legal practice is not about a more casual form of law – it is about delivering the same high-quality level of advice in new and innovative ways. 4. Inadvertent retainers A related issue has to do with inadvertent retainers where an online law firm chooses to respond to queries from the public in an unpaid/public section of their site. While lawyers are allowed to contribute to general online discussions, posts which respond to specific queries posted by visitors to the law firm’s site run the risk of creating an inadvertent lawyer-client relationship with the person who posted the question. This would mean the responding lawyer becomes liable for their advice, and would have to adhere to professional and ethical standards. This scenario could have all kinds of unintended consequences – for example, the lawyer may actually have been prevented from taking on the poster of the question as a client due to a conflict of interest. Or, if the poster of the question already has legal representation, the lawyer who responded could have breached the ‘no contact’ rule. To mitigate these risks, any law firm responding to online comments, or more broadly engaging in free online legal commentary (such as blog or thought pieces), needs very clear signals that let the users of its site understand when retainers are being created, and when they are not. A key mechanism for controlling whether or not inadvertent retainers are created will be effective website disclaimers. Factors to consider when using disclaimers online include making sure that the disclaimer is prominent, written in plain English and placed so that the user will necessarily see it (for example, a disclaimer placed at the bottom of a page could remain hidden if someone does not scroll far enough). Conclusion While there are risks with providing legal advice online, they are not impossible for a law firm to mitigate through proper quality control procedures, platform features, online policies and disclaimers. Overall, the internet is one of the most powerful tools we have to combat issues to do with access to justice and so it should be applied in all aspects of legal practice with diligence and consideration – legal advice included. Blake Connell is a commercial lawyer from Melbourne.

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