No, Avvo Bro: Solution to Legal Access Gap Isn’t Dropping Unauthorized Practice of Law Restrictions

Alright. I have yet another reason to dislike Avvo.

Earlier this week, at some LegalTech conference (it really seems like there is another one every week, doesn’t it), the Avvo founder Mark Britton got on stage and set forth the solution to all of the legal access to justice issues out there: drop unauthorized practice of law rules!

What would this mean to the everyday Joe? Instead of having lawyers practice law, there would be lawyers, legal technicians, paralegals, and your Aunt Sally all portraying themselves as legal experts. Or, in (I’m predicting here) Avvo’s case, a new legal services delivery model that they can profit off of: selling legal services at cut rate prices delivered by non-lawyers.

The Problem: Access to Justice

One of the panelists at the LegalTech conference was a Los Angeles Superior Court judge — Presiding Judge Carolyn Kuhl. Judge Kuhl told the all-too-familiar tales of pro per woe: lines around the block, 80 percent self-representation rate in Family Law, etc.

Let’s repeat that in bold: eight out of ten family law litigants in Los Angeles don’t have a lawyer.

These are problems. Big ones. On a scale of 1 to 10, I’d personally place any legal issues involving family or children near the top, right next to death. (A wee bit ironic that Family Law litigants and death row inmates are two of the most underserved populations, no?) If we should be prioritizing access to justice, family and life should come first.

Why do these people not have lawyers? They can’t afford them. It really is that simple. People don’t wake up and go, “Hmm … DIY law just seems like the right route to take. After all, we’re only talking about custody and support here … NBD!”

No, they call a few lawyers, hear the prevailing rates, and think, “Feed child or feed lawyer? Child.”

The Proposed Solution: UPL by Layfolks

I get the temptation here by Avvo and Mark Britton. I’m a geek. I think tech is the solution to a lot of our problems. And as much as the word disruption is becoming the new “synergy” or “thought leader” in the pantheon of annoyingly overused words, the legal system could use a little bit of it — we can’t even e-file in California yet.

(SIDE RANT: WHAT THE HELL, CALIFORNIA? YOU HAVE SILICON FREAKING VALLEY! HEY AVVO, FIX THE E-FILING PROBLEM. PAPER FILING AND LONG LINES NEED DISRUPTING.)

The thought is this: allow corporations and better trained paralegals to help out the poor folks who can’t afford a real lawyer. Maybe then they’ll get some legal advice, which is better than nothing.

The obstacle to such a solution are the restrictions found in every state against the unauthorized practice of law. (Some states are experimenting with legal technicians — non-lawyers trained in one subspecialty for this exact purpose.) The reason for these restrictions is two-fold: it keeps us lawyers employed in our happy monopoly AND (far more importantly) it provides some level of protection for clients against unlicensed nobodies who have no idea what they are doing from screwing clients out of their money and running. Plus, lawyers have training and generally are better at this whole practicing law thing than non-lawyers. It’s true. It’s kind of like how a doctor is better at doing a triple bypass than the dude at Jiffy Lube.

You know what you’ll get if you drop UPL restrictions? A few months back, we had a client come into our office and ask for help with a custody dispute with her ex-husband. Except, as we discovered an hour later, she wasn’t divorced. You see, she went to a legal doc prep joint, which filled out the crappiest template paperwork I’ve ever seen, then she tried to self-file it. Eventually the case was dropped for failing to see it through. Meanwhile, the drug-addicted ex-husband, who allegedly liked to beat his women, had gone on to get remarried and divorced, all while calling and threatening the crying woman in our waiting room — a woman who thought she was divorced, but instead, was still married to her worst nightmare.

Yes, that’s one story. But ask around and you’ll hear stories of “immigration consultants” who prey on recent immigrants. Or doc prep mills. Or even the occasional bad apple lawyer who fleeces clients.

At least in that last instance, there’s a state bar to complain to and maybe, just maybe, a malpractice insurance carrier.

The Real Solution: Make Practicing Cheaper

I don’t think anyone can argue, with a straight face, that were the cost equal or close to it, that it would be better to go pro per/DIY over having a lawyer. But therein lies the problem: we cost too damn much.

Here is just a sampling of why I cost so much: $2k to get my California bar license. $150k sticker cost for a law degree. (I got boned by my undergrad on student loans, not law school, but in the end, I’m still paying somebody.). Malpractice insurance at $3k/yr for most folks. Legal research platform at $300 to $500/month. Office space. Incidentals. The cost of rehab after you get your first student loan repayment bill and go on a bender. (Kidding.)

(Another side rant: I just took the Missouri Bar. It was somewhere in the ballpark of $2k as well, after background checks, test, etc. If I pass, my Uniform Bar Exam score is transferrable. Yay. Except Kansas would want $1,200 just to transfer the score and admit me. No test. Just a ***-load of money. And yes, if you’re practicing in Kansas City, you pretty much always need both bar licenses. So much for the UBE providing portability. If I have to pay $1.2k per state, plus maintain CLE requirements in each state, that bar test isn’t very portable, now is it?)

And that’s the bare minimum. If you want the luxuries, like a practice management platform ($50/month), document generation software ($500/year), etc., the additional overhead just piles on.

Marketing? Don’t even get me started on the cost of marketing. And notice I haven’t mentioned a paralegal, phone system, office equipment, or any of those frills.

This is why solos charge a few hundred per hour. This is why it costs so much to retain a lawyer. This is why there is an access to justice gap and 80% self-representation rate.

Is the goal to close the access to justice gap? Start by shrinking the cost to be an actual lawyer. Lower our overhead and we’ll lower our rates. Take California for example: CEB is the state-owned publisher. It has practice guides, caselaw, document generation, and damn near everything you’d need to practice. It also costs hundreds, if not thousands, to get the materials — just as much as the private legal publishing companies. Or Georgia — those dicks actually copyrighted their annotated statutes so that other companies besides LexisNexis can’t publish them.

We have a large mass of unemployed and underemployed recent graduates. When law schools charge less and the state bars start lowering the cost of their own CLE programs, legal research tools, and if they want to get really crazy — make their own low-cost malpractice coverage, they’ll close that access to justice gap and lawyers will charge $50 to $100 an hour.

Of course, we know that won’t happen. But if it doesn’t, and UPL rules get eliminated instead, then where will we be? An overpriced industry without a monopoly. Which is pretty much no industry at all.

Avvo won’t mind though. They’ll be pushing documents and $10/hr online advice to the masses. That’s probably good enough for run-of-the-mill divorce cases. But give ’em a complicated case — one with a breach of fiduciary duties or a self-employed spouse who hides income — and we’ll see how what the UPL legal technicians stand up.

Never Do What I Am Doing: Let the Blog Lapse

I’ve heard the question many times, from many lawyers: “Should I blog?”

The answer is not simple. Can you write? Do you have something interesting to say? Or is your plan to simply regurgitate boring legal crap in hopes of bumping up your SEO juice? If it’s the latter, that’s not enough motivation to keep a blog running and nobody is going to read it.

What should you write? Highlight issues that you see in practice — especially common issues that trip up clients, like breach of fiduciary duty in a divorce case. Take complicated legal topics and make them as approachable as possible. And have a little fun — clients need to be comfortable with you, and a fun, engaging blog is a way to reach them before they even come in the door.

The other question I always follow up with is this: “Will you keep up with it?” And the answer, for most people, is “no.” Just like any other resolution, they start out well, with a few posts here and there. Then life gets in the way and …. [crickets].

Imagine for a second that you are the prospective client. You look up the lawyer’s site and see a blog that hasn’t been updated in years. It’s not a deal-breaker. But it does show a certain lack of attention to detail.

What’s the point of all this? I’ve been naughty. See my posts here: three or four quickies, followed by silence. Or see my law firm site: one quick post on that glorious landmark marriage equality decision, with little else before or since.

Why? I can only plead busy: I’m taking a second bar exam in my home state of Missouri (the uniform bar — whoop!), while starting a law firm, while working contract work to keep the lights on. Oh, and I have a crazy little idea for a legal startup that I’m writing a business plan for in hopes of getting funding.

That’s life though, and it’s why most people shouldn’t blog. Because an abandoned blog is a sad and lazy blog. I’ll try to be better.

I Need a Buzzword for “Be Yourself” in Marketing Materials

I hate buzzwords. I hate corporate speak. I’m not going “leverage modular inclusion of work already completed” (yes, someone actually wrote those words in an email in my old office) or “synergize” (a word which invokes memories of Star Trek episodes) or whatever the heck else.

“Integrated marketing” is a corporate buzzword. But it’s one that stuck with me, and it’s a lot more descriptive and handy than “stay true” and a bit less cliche than “be yourself!” But that’s partly what it means. (The old bosses say that it means a lot more than that — consistency in branding across mediums, an eye on specific goals, complementary tactics to get there, etc. All good points, but I’m going to stick with branding here.)

To me, the most important part of marketing your practice is consistency. Send a consistent message across all of your advertising platforms: radio, television, online, billboards, whatever. Keep your brand consistent. Use similar imagery, logos, and colors across all mediums so that you build brand recognition. You don’t want to be the edgy guy on the radio, the boring billboard guy on the streets, and trustworthy experienced stuffy guy in person. You can’t be the budget DUI lawyer in the television advertisements and the high-end white collar guy on your website. And pretending to be seven different lawyers can be exhausting. And from a more practical standpoint: consistent branding means each time they see your ads, they’ll recognize you. (And when they need your services, you’ll hopefully be one of the first names to pop into their heads.)

I say: be yourself.

For me, personally, it’s as simple as that. My lawyer bio has a few of my interests, a picture of my puppy (along with a warning that he is sometimes at the office), and some rambling about my passion for family and family law. And throughout my website, I’ve put a little bit of my personality into everything — my blog posts, ads, and even the discussion on fees.

Why? Two reasons: (a) I’d rather be myself at all times and (b) if I were the client, I’d rather find a human being that I can connect with than a diploma in a suit. I’m not the only one who feels that the traditional lawyer bio is a little stuffy either.

For you, consider this: how many graduates has the legal education system pumped out in the last ten years? How many of those have started their own practices because they couldn’t find a paid gig? Competition is heating up and nearly all of us have shiny diplomas and padded resumes. But are you someone a client wants to lean on in a crisis?

 

 

My Love/Hate Relationship With Avvo

I never wanted a relationship with Avvo. Maybe it was because I worked for the “other guys” for a bit, or maybe it was because they created a profile in my name without my permission and slapped an inescapable score of mediocrity upon my name without knowing anything about my practice or professional skills, but I disliked Avvo from the start.

As the greatest artist of our time would say, “I knew you were trouble when you walked in … so shame on you now-ow.”

But, alas, when I started my full-time practice, there it was: that damned mediocre score, plaguing my search results. So I claimed my profile. A few months later, this is where we stand:

I Actually Like the Q&A Section

I’ve answered a few questions. And the response from other attorneys has been positive. But even more helpful are the other answers that come in after I’ve posted — attorneys thinking of something to add to my answer. It’s interesting and educational to see what other lawyers think about the same problem, especially when their advice is a mix of law and the real world.

And the Reviews and Peer Endorsements

Unlike many others out there, I actually like review sites. Maybe it’s because I’ve never gotten a bad review, but I figure that the more feedback I get, the more I can learn. And most clients are smart enough to ignore the raving loonies who write a 500 word rant about how you wouldn’t take their case on for free. (A friend still has that review stuck to his Yelp page. Ridiculous.)

Peer endorsements are a good idea, in theory, but let’s be honest: it’s basically a quid-pro-quo, friends patting friends on the back, sort of practice. I’d hope that no client would say, “he has 57 other lawyers who like him! He must be good!” Except, peer endorsements seem to affect Avvo ratings, so it does seem to work, at least to an extent.

But I Despise Arbitrary Scores

So, I played their game: four 5-star client reviews, one peer endorsement, and a handful of answered questions. How much has my score gone up? I don’t believe that it has. At all.

But if I really wanted a score boost (which matters to clients, if the cold calls my suite mates are getting are any indication), apparently changing my photo to a goat and puffing my profile with made up awards and publications might do the trick. I’d rather be honest and underrated, however.

I know lawyers who are awful. They have 10s. I know lawyers who are great. They refuse to play the game and have a five or a six.

Also, that shady SEO trick is still rubbing me the wrong way.

TL;DR: Avvo forced me to claim a profile created in my name. I’m still a bit bitter, especially since I can’t get my Avvo rating to go up. But props on the Q&A section, which is helpful for free riders and fellow lawyers alike.

EDIT: Also, I hate the cold calls for advertising and the other lawyers’ faces and ratings plastered across my profile. Kind of a dick move to create a profile in my name, then put a bunch of other people with their shiny Avvo ratings on it.

Today’s Favorite Toy: Canva.com

Graphic design is not one of my talents. My logo (or at least the peacock portion of it)? A gift from a talented friend. I can set up WordPress sites, write nearly unlimited amounts of content, or troubleshoot tech catastrophes, but when it comes to making something pretty: I ain’t an artist.

I stumbled upon Canva earlier today when I needed to create a logo ASAP. And in about five minutes, I had the name-tag logo you see above. Is it one-of-a-kind? Is it mind-blowing? No. But it is good-looking, simple, and quick. And Canva lets you do a lot more.

Edit on 6/2/15: Looks like they’re releasing something called Canva for Work. I hope it’s as awesome as the main version. The waitlist can be found here

Free Features

Canva comes with a ton of fonts, layouts, and sample images. It’s basically a super dumbed-down publishing tool that allows you to create online graphics, logos, infographics, promotional materials, business cards — any of the publishing stuff that you’d pay a graphic designer lots of money to do for you.

The easiest way to create something is to start with one of their layouts and then upload some of your own images or content (such as your own picture or logo).

Did I mention it’s free? Well, mostly.

Premium Features

There is a ton of free content. There are also a lot of premium tidbits — clip art images, layouts, etc. — that cost $1 per use. (You can also upload your own images which means, theoretically, you could use their platform and never pay a cent.)

How This Works for Lawyers

The obvious uses: logos and business cards. But where this would really shine is if you want to create flyers for offline marketing or shareable online infographics.

This took fifteen minutes while watching an episode of past-its-prime Grey’s Anatomy:

willie peacock author of
Shameless self-promotion!

Not bad, huh? I love the pre-made layouts, free icons, and how the design elements snap into alignment with each other. And the transparency feature is flawless. Also, it had no issues with my transparent .PNG peacock logo that Vistaprint and other sites choked on.

To sum it all up: free graphic design and publishing tool that has almost no learning curve. It’s definitely on my bookmarks list.

Frustration is a Natural Byproduct of DIY (Thanks Automattic!)

There has to be a lesson here. There probably is … something about me needing anger management so that I won’t break my keyboard after spending 45 minutes trying to get a simple *(&(*& logo added to one of WordPress’s own themes.

Let’s start at the beginning.

Automattic Makes Great Themes for WordPress Sites

Automattic is the company behind WordPress. There’s a more complicated relationship there — nonprofit “.org” versus the for-profit spin-off, but who really gives a damn? Short version: same folks.

So it stands to reason that their own templates are going to be the quick and easy way to put a site together. And I love the Edin theme: so clean, modern, and simple. If only the “modern” menu option didn’t take over the whole page, and if only there were an integrated color chooser so that I didn’t have to go with blue for everything by default.

Anyway, the theme and Automattic both advertise the new “Site Logo” feature: set your logo in one place and it’ll show up throughout your site, automagically resized. And this is the only way to set your logo like the way I have it above — in line with the search box. If you try to use a header, it ends up above the search box and looks like crap.

Grrr. Okay. But the “Site Logo” feature begins by clicking “Add logo” under the customize > appearance tabs. And that button was missing.

F U Jetpack.

What was the answer? After thirty minutes of searching for the answer, I found it in a damned forum thread. Not on WordPress.org. Not on the theme documentation. Not anywhere.

If your “Site Logo” or “Add a logo” buttons are missing: You need WordPress’s Jetpack add-in installed. It’s free, so no big deal, but damn man, how hard is it to mention that “Site Logo” is a Jetpack-only feature?

You’re killing me Automattic.