Is Technology Cheapening the Practice of Law?

S. Destin Sims, Esq.[1]

As technology has done with most things, it has altered and impacted the practice of law significantly.  Positively, technology has aided the practice by making information available to attorneys at their fingertips, regardless of their location.  Attorneys used to be required to visit law libraries and go to courthouses to file documents in person.  Now most attorneys utilize Westlaw for research, LexisNexis to file documents, as well as other online resources for research and legal education.  Moreover, with email capabilities on mobile phones, attorneys who are out of the office can read and respond promptly to their clients’ emails at all times and days of the week. 

However, has technology also had a negative impact on the practice of law and caused a devaluation of the practice of law?  Clients used to need to visit with attorneys in person to create documents.[2]  Now, however, they can simply download forms online and create documents themselves,[3] a process seen as a legal information revolution that will change the market for legal skills.[4]  Are these websites contributing to the “unlawful practice of law” by selling legal documents to the masses? Is the general public no longer viewing attorneys as authorities in their field, or persons to respect and seek advice from, but rather as overpriced salesmen for people who are too lazy to draft documents for themselves? It is my belief that for the small firm practitioner, technology has made the practice of law more difficult and significantly less respected.

I am a young attorney in a law firm located in Denver, Colorado with a client base comprised largely of sophisticated young professionals and successful baby boomers.   I practice primarily estate planning and small business law, but like many other small law firms and solo practitioners, I also provide services to clients in dealing with a range of matters that do not specifically fit into my firm’s defined practice areas.  These periphery areas of practice often include real estate transactions, trademarks, and familial contracts.   The Internet affects every aspect of my practice.  Increasingly, clients are scheduling appointments and bringing in information obtained from web searches, Internet classes, and other online tools.[5] 

Recently, I had a young couple with two small children make an appointment and come in for an estate planning consultation.  After a very productive meeting, the husband stated that he believes he can do his estate planning on the Internet at a fraction of the cost and create a high quality trust document.   I attempted to communicate to him that the trust he wishes to create is a complicated legal document that should be drafted by an attorney, or at a minimum, be reviewed by an attorney. I also expressed to him that if he purchases a legal document online he will not know who authored the document, if the author is actually an attorney, or what state, if any, the authoring attorney is licensed in.  I explained to him that working with an attorney gives you a custom plan.  An attorney, meeting with him in person, is able to listen to his wishes and respond with a unique document that meets his needs and is part of an overall wealth transfer strategy.  Unfortunately, I have not heard back from these clients since our initial meeting.   This scenario is becoming more and more common to small practitioners.[6]  Increasingly, our clients are mistakenly led to believe by relying on the Internet that they can obtain free or extremely cheap legal advice without the help of a licensed attorney, which can cause legal troubles later that may be much more expensive than just working with a licensed attorney in the first place.

In today’s world, the traditional legal client can start a business online, obtain almost any contract online, create a will or trust online, create a deed online,[7] and even obtain help with a probate proceeding online.[8]  For example, PublicLegal, a product of the Internet Legal Research Group, advertises that their site has over two-thousand documents available online.[9]  If a consumer seeks actual legal advice, there are numerous websites advertising free legal advice,[10] and a Google search can point you in the direction of a legal blog purporting to be written by an “expert in the field” that answers almost any legal question.[11]  Again, these services raise the question of authorship, correctness of advice, and quality of the given legal advice.

If the client wishes to actually pick out and purchase a tangible legal document, they can visit their local office supply store where they are able to purchase many contracts for a miniscule price.  These legal documents, that can be purchased at almost any office supply store, often come with a downloadable compact disk allowing the client to recreate the documents many times and share the information with colleagues.[12]

It seems that many of the websites offering online legal documents may produce high quality products.  In fact, LegalZoom, one of the largest, if not the largest, provider of legal forms online, just won an award from the National Law Review for providing the best legal forms.[13]  The question at this time seems not to be whether consumers can find quality legal forms online, but rather, how does the average individual know if a legal form they obtain online is appropriate, reliable, and well written for their specific legal need?  This question seems to be central in the debate of a lawsuit between LegalZoom and the North Carolina State Bar, where the State Bar sent a cease and desist letter to LegalZoom.[14]  The State Bar believes that LegalZoom is engaged in “the unlawful practice of law.”[15]

LegalZoom responded by filing suit and accusing the State Bar of unfairly weeding out competition and stating that they do not create legal documents, but instead allow consumers to create their own documents.[16]  In fact, LegalZoom points out that their website contains a disclaimer in each page stating, “The information provided in this site is not legal advice, but general information on legal issues commonly encountered. LegalZoom is not a law firm and is not a substitute for an attorney or a law firm.” [17]

While some people argue that this approach works, many do not agree.  The Lawyers Weekly, a Canadian publication, quotes Toronto-based employment lawyer and columnist Daniel Lublin, as stating,  that when it comes to law, the “cookie-cutter” approach never works.[18]  Lublin further argues that even if the online service arranges for a lawyer to review the form at a lower rate, he questions the quality of the advice: “If you pay for cheap advice, that’s what you’re going to get.”[19]

In the present economy, I have found that small business clients as well as young families appreciate low cost over high quality.  Attorneys are forced to adapt in order to survive.  Many attorneys are trying new, creative methods to compete in the new, internet-based market.  For example, a New York Law School graduate started a new website in early 2011 called Shpoonkle.[20]  This website allows potential clients to post legal needs.  Then, attorneys place price bids, similar to a reverse eBay, where the lowest bid typically wins.[21] This type of service helps out-of-work attorneys find some employment. However, it should be questioned if this type of service can lead to quality work. Other website businesses have attempted to provide the same type of legal services for bids framework, but at this time, most of them have gone out of business.[22]  It remains to be seen how successful Shpoonkle will be.

It is unclear at this time how the Internet will ultimately change the traditional practice of law.  Perhaps attorneys will also need to take sales classes in order to sell their services over those offered by technology.  It is evident, however, that the abundance of information, products, and sources available to the sophisticated client online is currently forcing attorneys to be creative in their practices and also pushing attorneys into more collaborative relationships with their clients rather than purely advisory roles. 


[1] S. Destin Sims is a founding member at Rosenlund & Sims, LLC.  She attended Louisiana State University and graduated with a bachelors’ degree in biological science. After she completed her undergraduate degree, Ms. Sims attended Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York. At Rosenlund & Sims, LLC, Ms. Sims practices in the areas of estate planning, probate administration, business entity creation, and adoption.  She is licensed to practice law in the State of Colorado and the United States District Court for Colorado.

[2]See Bruce H. Kobayashi and Larry E. Ribstein, Law’s Information Revolution, 53 Ariz. L. Rev. 1169, 1171 (2011).

[3] Id.

[4] Id. at 1220.

[5] Id. at 1171 (“[L]egal software and other new technologies are squeezing small law firms and sole practitioners.”); see also id. at 1174 (“Information markets have become particularly robust since the advent of the Internet and powerful search engines.”).

[6] See id. at 1171.

[7] Id. at 1194–95 (listing legal services websites and describing the websites’ functionalities); see also LegalZoom, www.legalzoom.com (last visited Jan. 13, 2012).

[8] See Probate Online, www.probateonline.com (last visited Jan. 13, 2012).

[9] See PublicLegal, www.ilrg.com (last visited Jan. 13, 2012).

[10] See FreeAdvice, www.freeadvice.com (last visited Jan. 13, 2012), see also Kobayashi, supra note 2, at 1197.

[11]See Kobayashi, supra note 2, at 1199–1200.

[12] See Socrates, http://www.socrates.com/ (last visited Jan. 13, 2012).

[13] LegalZoom Selected Best Legal Forms Provider by The National Law Journal, PR Newswire (Dec.14, 2011), http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/legalzoom-selected-best-legal-forms-provider-by-the-national-law-journal-135596873.html.

[14] Cullen Browder, LegalZoom Faces Court Battle Over Business, WRAL.com (Nov. 25, 2011), http://www.wral.com/news/local/story/10424116/.

[15] Id.; see also Kobayashi, supra note 2, at 1195 n.110 (describing other legal issues LegalZoom has faced in other states).

[16] See Browder, supra note 14.

[17] Id.; see also LegalZoom, legalzoom.com (last visited Jan. 5, 2012).

[18] John Schofield, Booming Internet Biz Threatens Small Firms, The Lawyers Weekly (Dec. 16, 2011), http://www.lawyersweekly.ca/index.php?section=article&articleid=1560.

[19] Id.

[20] Joe McKendrick, eBay of Legal Services: Clients Can Seek Lawyers’ Lowest Bids, SmartPlanet (Dec. 12, 2011), http://www.smartplanet.com/blog/business-brains/ebay-of-legal-services-clients-can-seek-lawyers-lowest-bids/20485.

[21] Id.

[22] Id.