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The 'Virtual Law Firm' That Can Rid You of Your Pesky Spouse in 20 Minutes

The confluence of law and technology is a topic of constant interest among attorneys, discussed in one form or another at almost every large professional gathering. At the ABA's 2010 Midyear Meeting, held Friday in Orlando -- because what could be more fun than a bunch of lawyers running around the Magic Kingdom? -- the Commission on Ethics 20/20 held a roundtable discussion at which Richard Granat, founder and CEO of DirectLaw, delivered a presentation (PDF) focusing on how professional responsibility rules can deter technological innovation in the delivery of legal services.

DirectLaw, from what I gather based on its Web site, is in the business of turning lawyers into "virtual law firms," whose clients, presumably after finding such a virtual firm through a search engine, can have their legal needs met without the unbearable pain of having to actually speak to an attorney. A win-win situation considering the mutual contempt that, along with privilege, is often the hallmark of lawyer-client relationships. Granat runs such a virtual firm of his own, here. Of course, where "here" is might be up for debate, since "Maryland's first virtual law firm" is actually based in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

Though Granat's firm insists that it is more than a mere "legal forms website" (see this chart), in his ABA presentation, he noted the competition that lawyers, mainly solo practitioners, are facing from companies such as Robert Shapiro's Legal Zoom. And the recurring theme around all of DirectLaw's marketing materials is one of "document assembly." This diagram, taken from the DirectLaw site (and reproduced on Granat's firm site) shows what a DirectLaw "Client Journey" is designed to look like:

Client Journey
Streamlined, no doubt. And probably not an option when the DOJ decides you've violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. The "Attorney Review" step is DirectLaw's hook, the thing that arguably makes it different than a Mad Libs-style fill-in-the-blank form. Though one could be forgiven for wondering how thorough the review could possibly be when the average time devoted to preparing divorce papers is a total of 20 minutes, with "paralegals and the digital application do[ing] most of the work." Can this model be successful? Should lawyers, or their clients, want it to succeed?

Among obstacles to the online evolution of legal services, Granat identifies unauthorized practice rules imposed by state bars, which prohibit fee-sharing with non-lawyers, and confidentiality requirements, which he worries might inhibit the use of cloud computing. He also pooh-poohs the notion that the longstanding maxim "know your client" might make delivery of legal services exclusively online a tenuous proposition.

It's an interesting concept. While Granat touts his obligation to obey ethics rules and his malpractice insurance, the firm purports to specialize in helping clients represent themselves. How much of a premium is commanded by the fact that a licensed attorney, albeit one you've never met and compensated via Paypal, theoretically eyeballs your incorporation papers? Is resorting to a virtual law firm to churn out your documents really retaining an attorney at all? What do you think?

Thankfully, Granat clearly hasn't abandoned all staid traditions of the legal profession. Any attorney who hires DirectLaw to build his virtual firm should be prepared to be billed for certain services in 15-minute increments.

Posted by Eric Lipman on February 8, 2010 at 04:26 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)

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