Legal Entrepreneurs: Lawyers or Marketers?

We are just preparing the 2012 Online Legal Services Conference. It seems that in the last year or two the legal, business and technology planets have aligned to produce a surge in interesting web-based projects hitting our legal shores. Far from overnight inspirations, many seem to have been nurtured for years. Often the result of pain experienced by lawyers, or their clients.

When such projects ferment for so long, their depth can be surprising. They start out providing solutions to real problems the legal entrepreneur has experienced, but are enriched by feedback from numerous sounding boards.

Another observation is that often the lawyer behind it has not always been a lawyer. Many have done something else before law. It seems to help them appreciate that the status quo might not be cast in stone. Nor do they have such a large investment in the partnership track. There are now many paths to financial success in law, and other fields, thanks to the Web.

The Internet has helped create a world which has become increasingly ‘connected’ in which you know more about more people. But on another level it has become increasingly superficial. The catch is that lawyers, and “the Law” will be competing with web-based “convenience”. It is the marketing and presentation that will get people in.

With are so many apps out there, interest of a potential client might be triggered on their phone. Smart little apps are really the lure to get people in and then involved at a deeper level with whatever system you are a pushing. There will be so much choice for clients you really need to have that point of difference ie, something smart and useful and effective and easy to use….and then get them in for the bigger stuff.

A new Australian-based service called InVaulta is a prime example of a system to complement and extend a legal practice. The system was developed over 5 years by an estate planning lawyer. At its simplest, it lets you know when your client has died. Over time, it has evolved considerably, including as a system for sharing client data with the client’s other business advisors.

I would suggest that in the future, in addition to just being a good lawyer, you would be wise to have some sort of “angle”, like InVaulta, to distinguish your offering. There are going to be so many web-based services, complementing and extending basic legal services, that clients will simply come to expect them.

However, you will need to have something of substance to offer, rather than mere “tokenism”. To date, many lawyers have had a computer on their desk as a paperweight, or had their secretary handle their email. Similiarly, Practice Management Systems are typically used to a small fraction of their potential. Most lawyers have failed to take advantage of empowering technology that could help them be better lawyers.

We are now seeing the same thing with Social Media. However, rather than missed opportunities, Twitter and blogs poorly used can instantly do more harm that good for one’s reputation.

Online legal solutions will go one big step further: they can empower the client. However, before going that far, lawyers need to understand what technology is available to them. Admittedly, it is not easy for older lawyers to become comfortable with the role of digital tools, let alone an understanding of the subtleness of each. I recently attended a small seminar where a Social Media guru spoke about the new Facebook with Timeline capabilities.

Attendees comprised those involved with my old football club, mainly ex-footballers, and no shortage of ex-factor. What was immediately apparent was that for most, including myself, Facebook was not an integral part of their social lives; and the new automatic Timeline in Facebook was a scary feature. They were not at all comfortable with the possible public airing of their past, unlike a younger generation. I suspect some had a past social life that might have been inconsistent with image they now project.

Interestingly, the speaker did marketing at University, and became an expert in Social Media, which went a long way to explaining why he had a full client portfolio within 6 months of leaving university.

After the seminar, I was with him when he ordered a drink from the Bar. The barmaid was not shy about how impressed she was with the speaker, particularly when he revealed that the source of his knowledge was the fact he was a …. Facebook Developer. I didn’t bother to share with her the fact that I was a … Filemaker Developer, and that databases are the foundation of systems such as Facebook.

Could there be a hint of a lesson here for lawyers? Will clients be drawn to the more “likeable” online legal solution and service providers with marketing and social media qualifications, rather than “real lawyers”? Can legal entrepreneurs get by with just enough knowledge of the law to be able to communicate with, and delegate work to “legal technicians”? Will lawyers need to be associated with online legal solutions providers to firstly survive, and secondly have a viable succession strategy?

One thing I am sure is that we will be getting answers much sooner than most lawyers realise. And in the face of app and web-based competition, the challenge will be to avoid becoming like Toad in The Wind in the Willows, an instrument of Fate, sent to punish clients who couldn’t tell a real lawyer when they saw one. In the coming era of Siri Esq., it will not get any easier.

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