Byte of Prevention Blog

by Camille Stell |

Is Avvo a Magic Bullet for Building a 21st Century Law Practice? NC State Bar Proposed Ethics Opinion Allows Participation

This continues to be a time of disruption and transition in the legal field. As an example of the changes, we can look no further than the North Carolina State Bar’s (State Bar) on-again, off-again relationship with LegalZoom and the resulting legal action.

Next, consider the State Bar’s recent response to Avvo. In late 2016, a few members of the bar asked whether it was ethical for a lawyer to participate in an online platform for accessing legal services. Even though other states were declaring an ethical war with Avvo, the State Bar established a subcommittee of the Ethics Committee to study the inquiry. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say almost everyone who agreed to serve on the subcommittee was certain of their position – an opinion allowing lawyers to participate was a bad idea.

Following eight months of study and discussion, the subcommittee was unanimous in their decision to publish a proposed opinion that allowed lawyers to participate in such a platform. At the July 27, 2017 quarterly Ethics Committee meeting, the Ethics Committee voted to publish the opinion and seek comments from the members of the bar. Look for the opinion in the upcoming issue of the State Bar Journal, as well as online at the State Bar’s website, www.ncbar.gov.

Future of Professions

Every profession has experienced great turmoil and disruption in the 21st century. Consider your local accountant and the impact on their practice by tax preparation software such as Turbo Tax, the medical profession with online diagnosis sites such as WebMD and remote diagnosis and treatment via telemedicine. All of us have seen the impact on journalists and newspapers. Does Rupert Murdoch own all of the news?

Challenges

There are many challenges facing lawyers today: increased cost, increased competition, business development and marketing, administrative burden, outdated delivery of services, outdated practices, information overload, generational differences, changing business model and alternative legal service providers.

I believe today’s clients will drive a revolution in the delivery of legal services. Clients are empowered with information, harder to engage, want to do-it-themselves, and are more connected and have more options than ever before. Clients will demand transparency (in pricing and process), innovative problem solving and client teams that can deliver timely results at appropriate pricing.

Clients also desire an “effortless experience”. Banks provides this via ATMs available to us 24 hours, 7 days a week. Amazon provides this via online shopping 24 hours a day from the comfort of our homes with free two –day delivery.

I saw this post by Alberto Brea on social media:

· Amazon didn’t kill the retail industry. They did it to themselves with bad customer service.

· Netflix did not kill Blockbuster. They did it to themselves with ridiculous late fees.

· Uber did not kill the taxi business. They did it to themselves by limiting the number of taxis and fare control.

· Apple did not kill the music industry. They did it to themselves by forcing people to buy full-length albums.

· Air B&B did not kill the hotel industry. They did it to themselves by limited availability and pricing options.

· Technology by itself is not the real disrupter, being non-customer centric is the biggest threat to any business.

Market Conditions

Law school debt is at an all-time high. Depending on whether you graduate from a public versus a private law school, you may be looking at $160k-$250k in debt. According to a recent US News & World Report, UNC-Chapel Hill Law School 2016 graduates had an average debt of $95k among the 75% of their students graduating with debt.

Lawyers are also unemployed and underemployed at extremely high rates. A few years ago, there was one job for every three lawyers. My law school colleagues tell me the numbers are better today. However, many lawyers are underemployed, working jobs that do not require a J.D., working contract positions and running solo practices that barely make the rent.

I talk with experienced lawyers who are struggling. Many practices have never recovered from the Great Recession, their client base is dwindling, their practice area has been hit by tort reform or new regulations. While many of these lawyers would benefit from modernizing their law practices, they don’t know how, they are afraid of ethical and malpractice risks or they are resistant to change.

Yet many young lawyers and young practices are thriving. These lawyers tend to have one thing in common, the use of technology to run very lean law practices. Many of these firms do not employ any employees, they use virtual staff, the lawyers are “do-it-yourself-ers” and they are heavy adapters of technology.

I am in front of lawyers almost daily. I talk to many lawyers who entered law school knowing the high likelihood that they would start their own firm. While they are not afraid of entrepreneurship, they do need modern ways to allow modern clients to find them. This is why in recent years the Ethics Committee has seen inquiries from lawyers asking permission to send text advertising or to offer iPads to potential clients. These are not only “new” advertising ideas to attract potential clients, but these also offer a common means of communication with clients.

Bad Apples

Some lawyers question whether online platforms are presenting an opportunity for only the bad apples to participate. This argument assumes there is some vetting process in place when people hire a lawyer

in person rather than online. I think the combined experience of Lawyers Mutual and the State Bar is that there will be lawyers who make mistakes and lawyers who will behave unethically. However, that happens whether the lawyer is hired online or whether the client goes to the local lawyer across from the courthouse. In some instances, it will be easier for the online bad apple to be exposed and the client protected because of online reviews and consumer friendly reimbursement policies.

Conclusion

My desire is not to see online legal provider platforms take over consumer-based or small business- serving law practices. However, I do believe we need to level the playing field for lawyers who are trying to build 21st century practices for 21st century clients.

I believe the clients who are attracted to online platforms are ordinary people in your community who would hire their local lawyer if the lawyer would do four simple things:

· educate potential clients about their legal needs

· show potential clients how you can provide solutions to those needs

· market yourself so that potential clients can find you

· present potential clients with pricing they can understand – not necessarily discount pricing but rather transparency in pricing

Most online platforms offer these benefits to their clients. My hope is that more lawyers will design their own 21st century offices. In the meantime, I am pleased with the proposed ethics opinion and I hope you will carefully study the issue and make your voice heard to the State Bar. And please, work towards building your own 21st century law firm.

Invite Lawyers Mutual to present “Building a 21st Century Law Firm” CLE for your local bar or law firm presentation. Continue this conversation by contacting Camille Stell at 800.662.8843 or camille@lawyersmutualnc.com.

About the Author

Camille Stell

Camille Stell is the Vice President of Client Services for Lawyers Mutual. In 2011, Camille was recognized by North Carolina Lawyers Weekly as a member of the inaugural class of “Leaders in the Law.” In 2016, Camille was recognized by the Triangle Business Journal as a “Women in Business” award winner. Continue this conversation by contacting Camille at camille@lawyersmutualnc.com or 800.662.8843.

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