Competing against self-help websites: When and why an attorney is better

November 13, 2013

Attorney communicationNewer technologies have made attorneys’ jobs easier in many ways: less paperwork, more mobility, simpler accounting, to name a few.

But advances in technology have also caused quite a few headaches for attorneys.  Although I’m sure that quite the list could be formed of all of the different causes, there is one that has created problems for many attorneys all by itself: legal self-help websites.

Thanks to these services, many attorneys have found their legal opinions questioned by clients who have done additional research online, while others may have lost business to a website that can cheaply churn out legal documents on demand.

Regardless of whether you’ve experienced the effects of this phenomenon firsthand, online legal self-help services have had a profound effect on the legal industry.

And like it or not, these websites are here to stay.  Instead of grumbling about them, attorneys need to learn how to deal with their presence in the marketplace.  This means learning when and why an individual is better served by hiring a real attorney – and, more importantly, being able to explain that to potential clients

Yes, I did say “when” – meaning that there are circumstances where it may be better for an individual to just use legal self-help websites than to retain an attorney.  These circumstances are most commonly situations with virtually no conflict, and the required legal service is one of the simplest (example: drafting a simple individual will that bequeaths few assets and does not specifically exclude any heirs).

I’m sure that these websites will dispute this assertion and respond that they can handle a variety of legal services.  But the truth is that the only true advantage of these services is cost (and attorneys cannot and should not attempt to compete with the prices offered by these websites).

What they cannot compete with is the bundle of services provided by an attorney who is actually retained by a client.  And this is what attorneys should focus on if and when they are ever faced with a potential client who asks, in not so few words, why he or she shouldn’t just go with a cheaper, online alternative.

What’s in this “bundle?”

First, and most prominently, a lawyer can be sued for malpractice if he or she screws up.  Conversely, while an individual may be able to sue a legal self-help service for breach of contract, these websites publish enough disclaimers to be fairly well-insulated against such lawsuits.  Furthermore, unlike attorneys, these entities are (generally) not subject to state ethical standards.

What does this mean?  The bottom line to the client is that there’s far more protection for him or her if there’s a problem with the provided legal service sometime in the future.

This liability, in turn, creates a much greater motivation in attorneys to produce the best possible result for his or her client.  By contrast, the only actual motivation of these self-help services to create a quality end product is profit – that is, if they produce a bad product, their public image may suffer and may lose business as a result.  But they aren’t going to be facing malpractice suits.

But a guaranteed end product isn’t going to convince everyone; luckily, it isn’t the only advantage attorneys have over self-help websites.

As mentioned earlier, these services are often ill-equipped to handle complex or contested matters (even though many of these services often do deal with such matters).  Complex matters are unsuitable for self-help websites because the number of variables in play often requires an attorney to be attentive in case one or more of these variables changes.  In addition, the matter’s complexity creates a greater likelihood of error – for which, as detailed earlier, the self-help service has little liability.

Matters that are contested – or potentially contested – are also not something that should be left in the hands of a legal self-help website.  The most practical reason for this is that the client will often need to get an attorney anyhow in these circumstances.

But there’s another very important reason: when an individual is embroiled in a contested legal dispute, there is someone else who is attempting to elevate his or her legal interests above – and often at the expense of – the potential client’s.  This situation may merit the strongest need for an attorney to represent the interests of that individual, since there is someone else that is actively working to defeat those interests.

Finally, attorneys offer another major advantage over self-help websites that will not be overcome in the foreseeable future: they’re people.

Clients are also people (or, in some circumstances, the representatives of the clients who actually communicate with the attorney are people).  Clients won’t stop being people anytime soon.  And people, for the most part, like working with other people.

Good attorneys not only know the law and do their jobs well, but they also build strong personal connections with their clients.  Your clients will keep coming back to you – and refer additional clients to you – if they like you.

Obviously, attorneys need to ensure that their work meets or exceeds the client’s expectations.  But self-help websites can do that, too.  What those services cannot do is build a personal connection with a client that causes the client to develop a sense of trust.  Attorneys can.  And they should.

Again, though, these websites aren’t going away.  Despite their shortcomings, there will always be a place for them in the marketplace, just as there will always be a place for attorneys.

But attorneys can’t expect to have that place reserved for them.  They have to continue to stake out that area for themselves, ever adapting to new changes and challenges that come with the times.

In other words, attorneys need to continually be aware of their role in an industry that is rapidly evolving technologically.  As long as we can do that, we’ll never be replaced.