Rocket Lawyer, Legal Zoom: How the Online Law Business Affects Your Business

The success of Legal Zoom, the online legal forms service which advertises heavily on the web and on talk radio, has apparently demonstrated that there is money to made in the low end of the legal services industry. Wherever you find money, you’re sure to find Google, which recently invested in Rocket Lawyer, the newest contender in this growing market.

What does this mean for your practice?

For most lawyers, the answer is “not much”. Online legal services are still small relative to the size of the market and inasmuch as they primarily provide forms and access to inexpensive legal advice, provide no direct competition. Unless of course your practice targets the same lower end of the market and in today’s economic climate, more and more attorneys are doing just that.

I don’t have a crystal ball but here are a few of my predictions:

  • No matter what the economy does, the online legal services industry will continue to grow and continue to take business from attorneys who offer commodity-level services to consumers and small businesses.
  • Attorneys who continue to target the low end will find it harder to compete with the simplicity, speed, and lower costs available online.
  • The attorneys who survive this trend will be those who (a) abandon this market altogether, in favor of higher level services (e.g, “asset protection” vs. “simple Wills”) or offer services where the hands-on advice and ongoing involvement of an attorney is mandated, or (b) get very good, and very creative, at marketing and finding under-served niche markets where they can carve out market share.
  • The growth of online legal services will expand the overall legal services marketplace, ultimately leading to more work for all attorneys. How that work is distributed and at what price points is the multi-billion dollar question.

Never fear competition. Embrace it, learn from it, prepare for it. Competition will make you a better attorney and, in the end, make you more money.

Should you buy a “canned” newsletter?

If you write a newsletter or a blog (and you should) you need content. But it takes time to write something worth reading and attorneys have precious little time to spare. There are services now that sell articles you can use, copyright free. You pay your money and you can print them under your name.

It’s a new twist on an old idea.

Canned newsletter for professionals have been around for years. My state bar sells pamphlets lawyers can send to their clients with their name stamped on the back. Of course you can hire a ghost writer, or assign someone in your office to write material for you. There are plenty of ways to get content that you don’t originate. The question is, should you?

In my opinion, you should not. Canned materials are never a good substitute for creating your own newsletter, articles and reports. They are better than nothing, but not much.

One reason is that far fewer people will read it. These articles and newsletters are very general and very bland. And a lot of people will know you didn’t write them. I toss my insurance agents newsletter in the trash, unopened, because I know it comes from a staff writer in New York and has little value to me. There is nothing personal or interesting in it. My dentist writes a personal newsletter, but it is terribly boring. I open and glance at it, in case there might be something that pertains to me in it (e.g., a change in his office personnel or procedure) but I don’t read it.

(Here’s a clue that it’s canned: there are no stories in them. Facts tell, but stories sell, and if what you write doesn’t have stories in them, either, you’re missing the boat.)

Now, there is some value in your clients getting something from you with your name on it, even if they don’t open the envelope or email. They are at least reminded that you still exist. But you’re missing the opportunity to build a relationship with them, and that’s costing you more than you can imagine.

The purpose of newsletters and reports and blogs is to (a) stay in touch, reminding people that you still exist, (b) demonstrate your expertise, your ability to deliver the benefits they seek, and (c) create a dialog with the reader that supports your relationship with them. With canned material, you can only stay in touch, and poorly, at best.

You want people to read your words, and "hear" your voice. You want them to believe you are writing just to them. You want them to read and appreciate your special news or offer. And you want them to see that you care enough about them to take a couple of hours once or twice a month to write something "just for them".

The time you invest in this process will not only be "worth it," it is the single most profitable thing you could do to build your practice.

Seriously. The people who know, like, and trust you will hire you again and again and they will efer people to you, too. There is no cost to acquire these clients, other than printing/mailing costs if you do that (and you should) and your time.

Now, don’t panic. Once you get the hand of it, it doesn’t take as long as you think.

Start by producing some "evergreen" materials, reports, for example, that once written, you can use over and over again for years to come. You have expertise in your field and you can write a report in two hours. Here’s your assignment for your first one: Take the five or ten questions you are asked the most by prospective or new clients, and answer them. There, you have a report.

A newsletter or blog require continual replenishment of material, but this is worth it, too. You don’t need as much as you think. A monthly newsletter could be two pages. A postcard, if that’s all you can do. Far more important than quantity is that they hear from a real person, sharing a story, a thought, a piece of your mind.

For a blog, three to five paragraphs, one to three times a week can be enough. What’s important is that it be your voice, your opinion, a glimpse into your world. Your clients and prospects (and referral sources) need to feel they are a part of your life and you a part of theirs. You want them to "know, like, and trust" you, and to do that, your material needs to be your own.

I’ve told attorneys in the past to order the canned newsletter or articles if they feel they must, but to make them their own. "Rewrite them, add your commentary, offer examples and advice that are specific to your practice. What do you agree with? Disagree with? What else does the reader need to know?"

Today you can pretty much do that without paying a service. Just go online, find something someone else has written, and use it as an outline or idea starter for your own material.