California Lawyer Magazine Portrayal of LegalZoom Misleading

September 3, 2010 - On the cover of the September 2010 issue of California Lawyer Magazine, the following headline appears in bold red type beneath a picture of the LegalZoom founders: “Will These Guys Put You Out of Business?” LegalZoom’s answer is the same as it has always been – No.

We thought that the combination of the photo and headline was unfortunate. Although it was probably designed to provoke a reaction and motivate people to read the story, it portrayed a different message than the story as a whole. The story spends a lot of time upfront detailing the various legal challenges filed by plaintiff’s attorneys, before concluding with the fact that lawyers have attempted to restrict self-help legal services for over 150 years without lasting success in the courts. As California Lawyer’s editor, Martin Lasden, said in his Editor’s Note, “these cases stand little chance of having a big impact.”

However, we were more disappointed that the magazine did not better use LegalZoom as an example to highlight a very important issue – the fact that lawyers have, in the recent words of California State Bar President Howard Miller, “become a luxury good, available to large businesses and the wealthy.”

Many in the legal profession still refuse to acknowledge the root of the problem highlighted by California State Bar President Miller – that the legal profession has let the general public down. There is a massive “justice gap.” Overall, the system is broken, consumer needs are not being met, and there is no broad access to justice.

As stated in the California Lawyer article, LegalZoom fills an urgent but unmet need. According to our latest surveys, 75% of American families with minor children do not have a Last Will. Two-thirds of California family law cases are filed in pro per. This led the California Judicial Council to establish the Elkins Task Force to recommend ways to better deliver access to justice for self-represented litigants. One of its key recommendations? Expand self-help.

Laurence Tribe, Access to Justice counselor for the U.S. Department of Justice, suggests that now may be the time to take advantage of new technologies and innovative web-based systems to optimize the delivery of legal services to those in need. Acknowledging that there are not enough lawyers to do the job, he urged a “serious re-examination of the rules governing the unauthorized practice of law.”

Are some lawyers threatened by LegalZoom? Certainly no litigator feels threatened, since a website cannot represent someone in court. No criminal defense attorney feels threatened. Family lawyers don’t feel threatened because they know first-hand the depth of the “justice gap.” Immigration attorneys don’t feel threatened. Labor attorneys don’t feel threatened. Good lawyers of all varieties, including estate planning, business, and intellectual property attorneys shouldn’t feel threatened because they understand the value of the personalized attention and advice they provide. Perhaps the only attorneys who feel threatened by LegalZoom are those who charge an arm and a leg for what legal futurist Richard Susskind calls “commodity” legal documents which can be easily produced by a computer program. 

There will always be a need for lawyers to handle complex legal issues and to provide one-on-one personalized legal advice to clients that need it. In fact, that is why LegalZoom has invited experienced attorneys to join our free Attorney Connect listing service. LegalZoom is even certified by the State Bar of California as a lawyer referral service. There is a place for both companies like LegalZoom and practicing attorneys.

Are we concerned about the unauthorized practice of law or “UPL”? Absolutely. We regularly engage outside experts to consult on our business model. Even before we launched, we hired a national law firm to provide a legal opinion on UPL and our self-help services. The law at that time was substantially the same as it is today. No jurisdiction prohibits the sale of legal forms with written instructions. No jurisdiction prohibits scrivener services. No jurisdiction prohibits the sale of legal document software to the general public which dynamically generates a document based on a customer’s unique input.

With our LegalZip® document automation engine, we’re continuing the centuries-old legal right to self-help law started by do-it-yourself books and computer software. Not once has LegalZoom been found to engage in the unauthorized practice of law, despite inquiries and lawsuits instigated by worried lawyers in over 23 jurisdictions

We wish that more lawyers would follow the suggestion of the editor of California Lawyer magazine – stop waging a rearguard action against non-lawyer service providers like LegalZoom on UPL grounds. Instead, do a better job of meeting the needs of the American public. Offer more flat fee services and unbundled legal advice combined with reasonably priced document preparation. 

Legal documents should not be a privilege only for the wealthy. From the beginning, our mission was to set new standards for convenience and affordable legal access. We believe it should be easy for everyone to protect their family with a last will and to pursue their dreams with an incorporated business. For us, the goal is not simply to provide a smart, cost-effective alternative – it is to make sure everyone gets the legal protection they both need and deserve.

Brian Liu, Esq.

Co-Founder, LegalZoom.com, Inc.