The legal services market is notoriously slow when it comes to adapting to technology. As a result, those in need of lawyers have historically been reluctant to use technology to find them. Think about it. You need a lawyer for your startup. Where do you turn? A friend? A business advisor? Someone else in your personal network? Now there are substantially greater options.
Finding your lawyer online will become pervasive in the next 12 months. This is especially good news for entrepreneurs who would benefit from legal advice, but given the friction in the process, may be slow to find it.
Innovation in law has been slowly creeping along since 2001, when LegalZoom was founded to bring legal documents to the public. LegalZoom's offering of deep discounts on standardized legal documents was transformative to the traditional industry. All of a sudden, consumers who might otherwise have forgone legal formalities had a viable alternative.
But that hasn't translated to how consumers find and work with actual lawyers. Until now.
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In the past three years, sophisticated legal consumers have come online looking for services as we've all grown more comfortable with web and mobile applications for all manner of intimate, critical tasks, such as finding a doctor (ZocDoc), paying for almost anything (Square), learning professional skills (Skillshare, Skillcrush, Dash) and communicating with everyone about everything (too many to list).
Forces at play such as a dramatically increasing legal labor-force since the 1990s and downsizing at some of the country's major firms have driven a generation of high-quality lawyers online to find cutting edge ways to compete.
A new crop of legal startups (Priori, included) have taken up the mantle. The models are disparate but flourishing -- from allowing lawyers to create sophisticated profiles that serve as the foundation of a referral network (WireLawyer); enabling lawyers to 'bid' on matters through an online marketplace with a traditional rating system (UpCounsel); instantly connecting a consumer with a lawyer (LawDingo); highly customizable contractual agreements on your phone (Shake); to building a vetted network of high-quality lawyers who offer services at below-market rates and alternative fee structures (Priori).
These startups are experimenting with an uncertain means to a certain end -- fundamental changes to the way the business of law functions in the U.S. All attempt to bring transparency to an opaque industry and make legal services more cost-effective, efficient and accessible.
Here are a few reasons why 2014 will be the year you find your lawyer online:
Increasing quality (and lower costs to find it). Big law firms are a one-stop shop, attractive for big companies because one phone call is often all that is needed to solve your problem. Many agree that unbundled legal services can be rendered more cheaply, but the opportunity cost of finding multiple high-quality lawyers has historically been very high. Now, online services make it much easier for small- to medium-sized businesses to access high-quality lawyers quickly and efficiently.
Value through analytics and data. Consumers are coming online looking for value rather than pure bargain basement options -- and finding it. In 2014, business can increasingly look to legal tech solutions to track legal expenses, understand billing and analyze overall corporate legal spend. For example, at Priori, we just launched a data analytics platform that brings the same level of insight into legal spending for small companies that bigger corporations have at their fingertips.
Ease of billing and management. With online services, you can now pay your legal bills as you pay most other bills.
New ways to practice, cost-savings to you. The average hourly rate of a partner in New York City is $755.68, but the average hourly rate of lawyers connecting with clients through legal tech companies is much lower (Priori's average rate for lawyers with at least five years of experience is $275 per hour). Savings come, in part, because these lawyers practice without many of the traditional cost centers and billing arrangements of law firms. In 2014, consumers should expect to see legal-tech platforms (including Priori) facilitating significantly expanded alternative fee arrangements, which can provide both savings and cost certainty to legal consumers.
So, in 2014, when you're feeling confused about how to find the right lawyer or dissatisfied about the options that are available to you, remember what these online services can offer.
Basha Frost Rubin and Mirra Levitt are co-founders of Priori Legal, an online platform that connects small business owners with a curated network of lawyers and provides tools to help businesses manage their legal relationships. Rubin and Levitt met at Yale Law School.