I Love The Hundreds of Legal Startups But Can We Consolidate?

There was a time, a few dark years ago, when there were only a  few legal startups. Fastcase would give you free cases if you used an iPad and Clio/RocketMatter/MyCase were trying to upset the law practice management software field. (Spoiler alert: they did.)

Now? I’m learning about ten more services per day. Not all of them are law-related, but they are all useful for lawyers. RightSignature/DocuSign/AdobeWhatever are all useful for getting e-signatures so that your client doesn’t have to trek through LA traffic to get to you to sign one or two pieces of paper. Dropbox/Box/GoogleDrive/OneDrive are useful for obvious cloud storage reasons. You can pair together twelve mini-apps to tackle your accounting: invoicing, billing, collections, receipt tracking, expense tracking, actual accounting, etc. Google Forms and its competitors can be used to create intake and other forms, then connected with something like Clio to automate much of your document generation.

Things like Zapier, IFTTT, and Workato connect all of these apps together. So, if a client submits info into Google Forms, it’ll be carried by Zapier to Clio, which sends it through its own (white-labeled, I believe) document generation process to create intake sheets, form letters, etc.

But even for me, a lifelong tech geek, it can get a little overwhelming. And forget paying $10/month to six dozen mini startups that may disappear overnight.

It’s time for a little consolidation, my dear legal industry. Because if I can’t handle twenty-seven services, you can be damn sure that older senior partner in small firm that actually has money to spend doesn’t want to juggle that many different companies. Not to mention the headache of setting up Zaps or IFTTT recipes to connect everything. And imagine how much a product would be worth that had all of these little startups’ features, already connected, in set-it-and-forget-it fashion?

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.


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.

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.