EFFECTIVE PRACTICE: MEANWHILE, ON THE INTERNET…

by: RICHARD SUSSKIND

RICHARD SUSSKIND’S LATEST exploration of the destiny of lawyers says lawyers and legal institutions will change more radically over the next two decades than over the past two centuries. Tomorrow’s Lawyers – An Introduction to your Future sees a future of virtual courts (with virtual hearings and online dispute resolution), internet-based global legal businesses, online document production, commoditized legal services and internet-based simulated practice.

While the physical structures of New Zealand legal practice seem to be changing little, the signs of the revolution predicted by commentators such as Professor Susskind are there inside your computer, or phone, or tablet. Free from physical restrictions such as the need to maintain an office - or courthouse - and to provide information in a hardcopy format, the internet is being used to take the practice of law in an ever-growing range of new and exciting directions.

Change is all around and what is an interesting possibility today will often be reality tomorrow. A February 2013 survey by LexisNexis of firms in NZ LAW Ltd found that the use of mobile devices is now a well-established part of a lawyer’s work. All respondents were using mobile devices to submit information, 63% used them to search for legal information and 58% used them to capture their own notes. Five years ago the results would have been quite different.

Europe’s Parliament recently voted to set new rules for Alternative and Online Dispute Resolution (ADR/ODR). From 2015 onwards, European consumers will be able to settle any dispute with an EU-based trader without going to court. An EU-wide internet service will handle all consumer disputes arising from online transactions. This is a major cross-border initiative which will create an online way of resolving millions of disputes. And where do lawyers fit in?

Check out the website of Axiom Global Inc (www.axiomlaw.com), a law firm which employs over 1,000 people and claims almost half of the Fortune 100 as its clients. It does the “bread-and-butter” work for them at relatively low fees by eliminating typical big firm overheads through innovative use of technology and working from “delivery centers”.

Axiom’s exciting website is really just a novel way of publicising a big firm which has adopted a successful new way of working.

As shown by the following examples, the delivery of cyberspace legal services is well established but evolving rapidly. While many of the sites still rely on existing law firms, the process for providing a legal solution takes place online. As with all business, the key ingredients are facilitating connection of the parties by providing reasons for visiting the website. The New Zealand Law Society does not endorse or recommend any of the sites listed below.

Conveyancing.co.nz

Site owner Online Conveyancing Ltd is owned by Auckland-based conveyancing software provider KeyTrack. The intention is to bring together anyone with an interest in conveyancing and property purchase. Lawyers may obtain a free listing, but can pay for a “featured listing” which entitles them to receive conveyancing quote requests from home buyers and sellers.

Do-it-yourself-wills.co.nz

An Australian company sells its plain English wills adapted for New Zealand law and priced in New Zealand dollars. For $19.95 for a standard will or $37 for two mirror wills, anyone can construct “the best looking will on the web” and it will arrive within minutes by email, ready for signing. Testators can “save a fortune in legal fees” - as long as they manage the signing and witnessing process and don’t need advice on any of the tricky things such as establishing trusts.

Findlaw.co.nz

Not a transactional site, but the original Findlaw in the United States was one of the trailblazers for the formula of providing legal information on a wide range of subjects (to draw consumers) and linking it with a means of engaging an appropriate lawyer (which is how Findlaw makes its money). New Zealand’s Thomson Reuters-owned version offers the opportunity for the 1,500 firms listed to pay $495/year for an “enhanced listing” which allows them to stand out from the crowd.

Justanswer.com

Enter this URL and you’ll land on a page which says: “Ask a New Zealand Law Question, get an answer ASAP!” and then advises “Solicitors are online now”. Type in a question and a price will pop up. For example “What do I need to do to set up a family trust?” received the response that a solicitor wanted to answer the question and it would cost NZ$47 for the answer (“if satisfied”). This is an international site, but appears to use New Zealand lawyers as advisers.

Lawguru.com

“Become a LawGuru Attorney … and enjoy added revenue, business growth, free advertising, and attract new clients”. This site is organised around the ability to ask a free legal question, which is answered by one of the attorneys registered. Set up in 1996 by two Californian lawyers, this is one of the most enduring sites and has grown and evolved with the internet. Special Legal Forms and Law Student sections drive traffic, and a league table shows which attorneys have provided most answers each month.

Lawlive.co.nz

Register and create a legal document “within minutes” - and without a lawyer. After (free) registration the user fills in a form with specific details for employment, commercial and corporate contracts and documents. Information is provided on the charge and the time it will take to build the document. A final document - output in MS Word - is emailed to the user. The terms and conditions refer to Australian legislation and the site is owned by LawLive International Pty Ltd.

Lawpath.com.au

“Speak to an experienced lawyer for $29”. While this newly-launched Australian site states that members can speak to lawyers around the world, it seems very Australia-focused at the moment. The theory is that clients ask a legal question on the website, Lawpath analyses it and connects the client with “an experienced lawyer” who will speak directly with the client by phone for up to 30 minutes. Clients can pay for a one-off consultation or subscribe and ask multiple questions each month.

Lawplainandsimple.com

A new English site which provides plain English guides to the law on a wide range of matters, and then directs you to an appropriate local lawyer. The same old formula, but this one focuses on making things “plain and simple” so that visitors can get the most out of their next visit to a lawyer.

Lawspot.org.nz

While most of the “guide to the law” sites focus on driving business to lawyers who register, this site was set up in Wellington at the end of 2012 as a not-for-profit service. Users post a question, which is then answered by volunteer lawyers and screened by Community Law Wellington and Hutt Valley.

Lawworldconnect.com

This is an interesting new development, aimed at bringing clients and lawyers together. The theory is simple: (registered) clients post information about their legal need and (registered) lawyers tender for the right to the work.

Other features include a “court diary” so clients can see if their lawyer will be free on a particular date, and the ability to look at feedback by past clients. In mid-April there appeared to be four New Zealand lawyers or law firms registered and available.

legalbrief.ly

This is currently being developed and available only in beta. It will let lawyers, legal researchers and others upload and sell copies of their research. They keep the copyright and set the price. Canadian company Shared Solutions Inc will launch this new site shortly.

“Anyone running a website on which they hold themselves out to be a lawyer and offer legal advice in New Zealand, must hold a practicing certificate and be entitled to practise on their own account”

Netlaw.co.nz

Auckland-based Netlaw Ltd claims this site provides information and documents on over 550 topics. A 90-day subscription costs $45, allowing members to access and use all the information as many times as they like over that period.

Springboard.net

A very English development which is similar in aim to conveyancing.co.nz. This new site aims to bring together solicitors, real estate agents, mortgage advisers and other referrers of business to interact and cut out third party costs.

Thisismybarrister.com

Another English site, with a go-live date of 10 April 2013, which has the key objective of enabling the flow of clients to barristers.

Worldlawdirect.com

This large and well-established US-based organisation claims to have lawyers in 26 countries (New Zealand appears to be absent). For US$9.95 you will receive an assessment of your legal rights and options within 48 hours to a legal question. “When you use WORLDLawDirect, you don’t have to make a trip into a law office, you receive information according to your schedule, and you save valuable time.”

But is it legal?

The New Zealand Law Society has published information on the requirements for offering legal services on the internet (for the full details, see our Practice Briefing, Requirements for offering legal services on the internet).

While anyone in New Zealand can offer legal information, only lawyers can provide services in the reserved areas of law as described in the Lawyers and Conveyancers Act 2006.

Anyone running a website on which they hold themselves out to be a lawyer and offer legal advice in New Zealand, must hold a practising certificate and be entitled to practise on their own account.

Clients seeking legal advice through a website are entitled to certain information about the lawyer conducting the work for them. This includes written information about fees, professional indemnity arrangements, the Lawyers’ Fidelity Fund and the lawyer’s complaint process. The client must also be informed of the name and status of the person who will have overall responsibility for the work and be given further information as set out in Rule 3.5 of the Rules of Conduct and Client Care.

If a website requires payment in advance of providing services, this money must be paid into a lawyer’s trust account. This means the lawyer running the website must be trust account qualified and comply with the legislation regarding trust accounting.

While there is no specific requirement for a New Zealand lawyer to maintain a physical address, they must have their records available to enable the Law Society to organise inspectors if a trust account is being operated and in the case of complaints.

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* Published with kind permission of Law Talk, Law Society of New Zealand.