Why are there so few commercial online interactive legal advisors (online legal services)? One explanation is lack of demand. This seems unlikely. Both corporations and consumers are desperate for affordable advice and, unlike lawyers, seem not to care who provides it or how. Lack of an appropriate software platform is almost certainly not the explanation. Document assembly systems and expert systems are well-established.

Another explanation is that the expense to build interactive legal advisors outweighs the return. Translating legal expertise into software is hard work; so are marketing, distribution, and maintenance. It seems likely however, that for “horizontal” legal topics – those that affect every business such as employment law – the size of the market would cover development costs. Is there someone who could develop and profitably market online advisors?

Law departments – the natural customers and users of such systems – do not typically have the people or budgets to develop systems on their own. They cannot amortize development costs over a big enough base. Law firms have the domain expertise but lack the ‘knowledge engineering’ skill to translate the expertise into systems; they also have no marketing and distribution capability. Legal publishers have the competency and resources to create online advisors. That they have not suggests either that they think sales would not cover development cost or that they have better investment opportunities.

Enough law firms have experimented with online advisors that it is not clear many more will. A legal publisher could yet step forward. Or an entrepreneur might find a way, for example, by partially funding a development effort via pre-paid subscriptions from large law departments. The market has been very slow to develop but could tip very quickly; one demonstrated success could cause a rush into the space.