The Current State and Future of Big Law Online Legal Services
I recently updated my list of online legal services. Since the prior update in 2006, there has been less online legal service activity than I expected. With clients using outside counsel less and pressing for better value, however, I believe law firms can gain new business by developing online services.
ABOUT THE LIST
List Update Sponsor. Neota Logic retained me to update the list. The company’s website explains that “Neota Logic delivers the knowledge of experts in an operationally useful form – as expert systems that can be consulted interactively online or embedded directly in business systems.”
Explanation about Number of Rows. Some law firms have a single row in the online legal services table, some have two or more. A single row can mean either that a firm has only one service or that a single landing page describes and links to multiple services. Firms listed in two or more rows have separate landing pages for each of their online services. Consequently, the total number of rows equates neither to the number of online services nor the number of firms with such services.
Focus is Large Law Firms. The list focuses on large law firms but includes two exceptions. One is LegalZoom, which is as an example of how the consumerization of IT may potentially drive corporate IT and law firms. The other is Indigo Venture Law Offices, which as an example of small firm that offer business-to-business online services.
How I Updated the List. Finding large law firms that offer online services is not easy. Searching a firm website or navigating its menus may or may not uncover an online service. Even for firms I know have a service, in some instances, I had trouble finding it on their website. Given these limitations, I relied on three sources for updates: (1) the online legal service category of my blog; (2) input from Neota Logic; and (3) input from about two dozen legal professionals in the US, UK, and Australia whom I solicited for updates because I know they have long-standing interests in online services.
Call for Further Updates. I am left wondering if I have missed any large-law-firm services. If you know of a large firm service, please contact me and be sure to provide the URL.
Number of Services. About one-half of the firms that offered online services in 2006 no longer do. About an equal number of firms, however, have since created online services.
Types of Services. Most services offer rich content, generate documents, or provide databases of cases or other content. Few seem to apply advanced reasoning techniques to answer questions or perform intelligent intake.
Subject Matter of Online Services. The subject matter of the services ranges considerably but concentrates in financial services (including three just to track Dodd Frank). Four firms offer free document generation services for start-up companies.
Pricing. Pricing and access models vary: free to anyone, free with registration, free to clients, and by paid subscription.
Technology. Identifying the technology platform is typically difficult, so I did not seek to do so. I do know, however, that several use DealBuilder to generate documents and HighQ Solutions to manage and present rich content.
In my view, the dot-com boom spawned optimism about online services among some large law firms. Several, especially in the UK and Australia, developed online offerings. With the dot-com crash, however, interest seemed to wane.
Even in the boom, however, law firm economics worked against building online services. Devoting hours to “porting” expertise into a system is tough when trying to provide outstanding client service and meet billable hour targets. While the count of US firms with online services exceeds the count of UK services, my impression is that services in the UK are richer on average. I attribute that to the far greater number of Professional Support Lawyers in the UK than US.
Today, clients demand value and put pressure on rates. The Altman Weil 2012 Law Firms in Transition survey, released last month, finds that efficiency and value are key drivers in the new normal. The report concludes that this “is an exciting time in a profession not prone to exuberance, a time when risk-takers have the potential to capture attention, talent, momentum and market share.”
Legal expertise today is just table stakes. Firms now recognize the need to differentiate from competitors, deliver service more efficiently than in the past, innovate, and provide a better client experience. These trends, plus the economics of alternative fee arrangements, likely will spawn new and more sophisticated online legal services. Firms can deploy such systems to reduce cost, improve value, win new clients, and generate profitable subscription fees.
Beyond economics and AFA, another factor may trigger a new round of online legal service activity: UK legal reform. In January, the UK started licensing “Alternative Business Structures”, which allow outside investors to own law firms and provide legal services. Already we have seen a flurry of ABS activity. An outside investor may well see opportunity in building online services for large corporations. It is hard to imagine a success in the UK not crossing the pond to the US.
I welcome comments on other views of the future of online legal services.
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