||Verdict Is Out on Virtual Lawyers, But Firms Find Fewer Objections
Uncertainty about the impact of the presidential election has sent Americans searching for legal advice about everything from green-card sponsorship rules to possible changes to the estate tax.
To the surprise of many in the legal establishment, a growing number of those help-seekers are getting their guidance online.
In recent years, Web-based attorneys have gone mainstream, with pitches aimed at the cost-conscious. And while critics question whether their advice hits the mark, they concede the online model can work in some relatively simple situations.
An in-office consultation can cost as much as $1,000 an hour, though rates vary depending on location and a lawyer's area of expertise. Attorneys on San Francisco-based Pearl.com, in contrast, charge an average of $30 to $40 to answer a range of questions, many of which are basic preliminary inquiries (example: "What's the difference between a will and a trust?").
At Avvo.com, based in Seattle, attorneys provide advice at no cost to promote their practices, and the site makes money through advertising and enhanced listings. For the lawyers, the advantages include savings on overhead, and the possibility of luring more substantial business from customers satisfied with the short answers.
Perhaps more disconcerting to purists, some leading players aren't exclusively law-focused. Pearl.com, which says its annual revenue now tops $100 million, also offers assistance from computer technicians and relationship counselors. Avvo.com proffers legal help alongside medical and dental advice (legal questions account for about 80% of its traffic).
Solid data on the online-legal field is hard to come by, but supporters and detractors agree the business model is gaining steam. Already, many traditional law firms have extended their practices to the Web, where they offer services like will preparation and document review for lower fees than what they charge in person. DirectLaw, a Florida-based company that provides support to such firms, says it has signed on 250 practices since its inception three years ago.
"There are a lot of lawyers experimenting with moving their brands online," says founder Richard Granat.
Online providers emphasize that they are best suited for handling common, straightforward tasks -- a simple will or incorporation of a business, for example. As cases get more complex, providers may suggest in-person meetings. But even a partial online answer could help clients cut their overall legal costs, says Andy Kurtzig, chief executive of Pearl. com: "You might be able to get key insights that will cut your appointment time from three hours to less than an hour."
Still, legal experts question whether the insights are all that insightful. Some express concern over the qualifications of online attorneys, particularly on third-party platforms. (The providers say they conduct rigorous background checks.) Others worry that attorneys communicating online might gloss over details that could more easily emerge face to face.
"Maybe I'm too much of a fuddy-duddy, but I'm a little nervous about some of these services," says David Lat, an attorney and founder of the Above the Law legal blog.
Some clients, at least, seem satisfied. Retired marketing executive Donna Sasse recently had a question relating to her late mother-in-law's estate -- and says she got a helpful answer through Pearl.com. Ms. Sasse pays $99 for a monthly plan that gives her unlimited legal, medical and other advice. "Normally," she says, "an attorney would cost me $250 an hour."
Online legal-advice providers have been able to offer lower prices for basic legal services.
• Service: Document review
-- Online: $125 fixed fee
-- Traditional: $150-$350 per hour
• Service: Incorporation of business
-- Online: $200 fixed fee
-- Traditional: $500-$1,000 fixed fee
• Service: Basic will preparation
-- Online: $100 fixed fee
-- Traditional: $350 fixed fee
(Source: The Wall Street Journal, 11/06/12)
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Digital Changes the Shape of Advertising: A Look at 2012 Online Revenue and the 2013 Forecast
Local advertisers are devoting more of their spending to online advertising and promotions than you may think.
As part of this timely webinar, Gordon Borrell, CEO of Borrell Associates, will examine this year's local online advertising and promotion revenue, while also revealing next year's revenue forecast.
This presentation will be offered on Tuesday, Dec. 4 at 3 PM, and again on Thursday, Dec. 6 at 10 AM. For registration information, click here.