A Googley lawyer?

In What Would Google Do?, I argue that lawyers can’t be Googley, mainly because they have to do what clients want and can’t be transparent. In Twitter, lawyer Kevin Thompson said he disagreed, so I tweeted back asking him to define a Googley lawyer and he taped his reply:

I do make the point in the book that lawyers, like their ungoogley brethren, PR people, can improve their business with Googlethink and with a flow of information afforded by the internet. But Thompson pretty much agrees with me that lawyers can’t hand over control as the internet demands.

In honor of lawyers, here’s today’s 30 Days of WWGD? snippet from the section on law:

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When I suggested on my blog that there were three industries immune from rehabilitation through Googlethink, my readers disagreed about one—insurance, which spawned an earlier chapter. But nobody disagreed about PR and law. I won’t turn this into a joke about flacks and lawyers—there are plenty of those already (go to Google, search for “lawyer jokes,” and enjoy). Instead, I’ll use this opportunity to examine a few of the key tenets and prerequisites of Googlification through the exceptions that prove the rules.

The problem for public relations people and lawyers is that they have clients. They must represent a position, right or wrong. As they are paid to do that, the motives behind anything they say are necessarily suspect. They cannot be transparent, for that might hurt their clients. They cannot be consistent, for they may represent a client with one stance today and the opposite tomorrow, and we’ll never know what they truly think. In a medium that treasures facts and data, they cannot always let facts win; they must spin facts to craft victory. They must negotiate to the death, which makes them bad at collaboration. It’s not their job to help anybody but their clients. They are middlemen. They won’t admit to making mistakes well; clients don’t pay for mistakes.

Having said that these folks can’t be reformed according to Google’s ways is not to say that they can’t use the tools we’ve reviewed to their own benefit. Some already do. Many lawyers blog (see a selection at Blawg?.com). Like venture capitalists, they find value in talking about their specialties, giving advice, attracting business, branding themselves, and sometimes lobbying for a point of view. Some can be counted on to cover legal stories with valuable experience, background, and perspective. Lawyers are a smart bunch who—surprise!—can write in English instead of legalese. Still, when a law blogger advises me to check my made-in-China tires for problems, I’m also aware that he’s on the prowl for class-action clients. Law is business.

Some lawyers have taken advantage of online networking capabilities to create virtual law firms, eliminating the cost of offices and reducing the overhead of office staff. According to the blog Lawdragon, Virtual Law Partners uses these savings to give its partners 85 percent of billing revenue vs. the usual 30–40 percent. Virtual PR and consulting firms also operate loosely, bringing in members of their networks as needed for clients and communicating and collaborating without offices. . . .

I’m sure lawyers and PR people—like real-estate agents—will be glad to tell me where I’m wrong and I welcome that discussion on my blog: Let’s have at it, and if there are ways to Googlify these trades, then congratulations. In the meantime, both fields need to watch out, for the tools of Google and the internet enable others to disintermediate, undercut, and expose them.

The law and its execution are aided by obfuscation. The internet can fix that. A small number of volunteers could, Wikipedia-like, publish simple, clear, and free explanations of laws and legal documents online. All it takes is one generous lawyer—not an oxymoron—to ruin the game for a thousand of them. I’ve seen a few such sites. They’re not very good yet—none worth recommending—but they’re a start.

Another trend that helps both lawyers and clients is the movement to open up laws and case law online, making them searchable and free. It is a scandal that the work of our own legislatures and courts is often hidden behind private pay walls. Westlaw and Lexis, the so-called Wexis duopoly, have turned our laws into their $6.5 billion industry. They add value by organizing the information, but others are now undercutting them. Forbes told the story of Fastcase, a start-up that uses algorithms instead of editors to index cases so it can reduce costs and lower fees to lawyers. Better yet, public.resource.org is fighting to get laws and regulations online for free. Patents are online now, and Google has made them searchable (go to google?.com/patents and, for entertainment, look up pooper scooper—aka “Apparatus for the sanitary gathering and retention of animal waste for disposal” or “perpetual motion machine” or Google itself). Laws, regulations, and government documents are prime meat for Google’s disintermediation.

Sometimes lawyers are employed merely to intimidate—but now the internet’s power to gather flash mobs enables those targeted by attorneys to return the intimidation. I’ve seen many cases of bloggers pleading openly for help against big organizations that are threatening or suing them. They received offers of pro bono representation from lawyers, often thanks to the Media Bloggers Association. The intimidators then received floods of bad PR. The internet doesn’t defang lawyers, but it can dull their teeth or bite them back.

I would like to see an open marketplace of legal representation—present your problem and take bids from lawyers who have handled similar cases, with data on their success rates. Legal representation can also be open-sourced. People who’ve been in cases can offer free advice and aid to others: Here’s how I dealt with my landlord and here are all the documents I used; feel free to copy and adapt them.
The goal is to free the law—our law—from the private stranglehold of the legal priesthood. Between putting laws and cases online and making them searchable, creating simplified legal documents anyone can use, holding weapons to fight legal intimidation, and creating a more transparent marketplace, we would not replace the legal profession with all its faults but we could create checks on its power.

  • pjb

    I’m currently reading the book and finding it great reading.

    I think you might be underestimating the potential for lawyers to become googely – the primary basis for your point seems to be that lawyers have to represent people.

    A number of points –

    1. Representing people is only aspect of what lawyers do, they also give advice, maintain client files/records, run businesses, become inhouse advisory counsel, write legislation, mediate, become judges etc… – there are opportunities in most of those areas to change the way business is done. On the specific point that a lawyer must take a clients instructions, you are right, but even then, the manner in which the instruction is carried out is open to ‘googlification’.

    2. There are some examples of how law/lawyers developed in ways that google might have – the establishment of collaborative law in the field of family law is a good example.

    3. I don’t think one should ‘confuse’ the profession of law with the practice of law; meaning that while lawyers must conform to certain standards, practice in a particular manner – those standards and manner are subject to change if the law itself were to change – so maybe the answer would be to consider if ‘The Law’ could become googely.

    As above, i’m really enjoying the book, inspiring read.

  • Without a doubt, Googley, is a business model of the Information Age, not the Industrial Age. In my opinion, no business is immune from the affects – though every business believes they are (just ask them, including Lawyers and PR).

    More than anything, what Google does is lift they lift the curtain and expose the truth – and the insiders of any industry that have made fortunes hiding behind the curtain don’t like that.

    As we move forward, you will see people who create systems and markets that will break down every aspect of business and life. You can count on it – though it may take a little longer for some.

    • I agree, JJ Reich. Legal business models are dramatically changing. The legal industry is shielded by an enormous curtain, also known as the American Bar Association. In order to practice law, you have to take the LSAT, go to law school, pass the bar, etc. Even after you pass the bar, you’re not allowed to practice in another state unless you take THEIR bar. It’s anti-competitive behavior under the guise of “professional responsibility.”

      How will the ABA stop people from associating online, across state boundaries, and collaborating on legal projects. Quick answer: they can’t. Great thoughts in your last paragraph. People will create systems to break down this wall and open up the law for everyone. Lawyers will always be around, but in my opinion, there will be fewer opportunities for lawyers. The industry got saturated.

  • There are lawyers who are certified by the ABA and then there are law-ers who create and modify the law — i.e. our legislators. Certainly, it would be good if our public law-ers (legislators) would adopt more of the ideas in your book.

    bob wyman

  • There are some excellent points here. In particular, I think the point about virtual law firms is apt. While the practice of law will not become completely collaborative like many other industries, collaborative tools will definitely make the practice of law much less expensive and more beneficial to the client. In fact, I am a co-founder of a virtual law firm model that even leverages the location of the attorney, as well as collaborative documents and the cloud for more efficient work between attorneys, to bring high-end legal services at about 30% of the cost. So, I definitely agree that the Googley lawyer is out there – I like to think of myself as one of them.

    • Michael M., congrats on building such an innovative firm! I checked out the Rimon Law Group website and I’m very impressed. You are definitely a Googley lawyer. Very cool. Do you network all your attorneys on the cloud? What do you use for case management and document creation?

      • Kevin, thanks for the kind words. Yes, we network our attorneys in the cloud, as well as having in person meetings from time to time. Case management and document creation are also in the cloud with the highest level of security and privacy protection available. Interestingly, for this reason, our clients’ documents are more secure with our system that at a traditional law firm.

  • Interesting article – I’ve actually been working on creating a number of solutions you talk about at http://www.TheLaw.com, a site I founded 15 years ago to help people help themselves with the law. Currently I’m hoping to create an adaptation of the current legal business model but this is not as simple as stated. Kevin may talk about the “curtain” to practice law but the models aren’t really changing except as it relates to big law firm prices and the heft they have traditionally dumped on corporations that will no longer occur.

    The business model won’t change so quickly for much of the practice. The nature of law is confidential – people are far less willing or able to share their problems with a lawyer in the same way they do a site developer or buy airline tickets on Priceline. It’s the same issue as having therapists bid for work – but it’s worse. At least 50% of the time the client’s version of the case is very different than the paperwork brought into the office before signing a retainer. The work quoted bears no resemblance to the actual work reviewed.

    With regard to licensing, Kevin is diminishing the importance of requiring a level of proficiency and, no offense, but that’s ridiculous. Why do we license any specialty? Heck, we might as well not have bartending licenses, notaries or teaching for that matter. We can all teach, right? Law school teaches many different concepts and a general understanding of the law whose synthesis takes time. Then there is the practice of law which is another matter entirely, similar to a doctor passing the boards and then getting much needed experience.

    With regard to each state’s bar, he’s also wrong for most states and where he isn’t wrong (e.g. Florida) it has nothing to do with those awful lawyers – it’s state protectionism at work. Many other types of licensing divisions do the same, whether you feel they are right or not.

    So with regard to the law, I’m trying to do the right thing at TheLaw.com and provide people with professional help by those who are certified. For simple Q and A, those who aren’t certified provide information that is based on their experience and people who wouldn’t pay for lawyers are getting help they need. Those who will pay for an attorney can get help from people who invested time to really know what they are doing — the same people who invested time in studying for the LSAT and then for the Bar. As they say regarding buying any product, it goes the same for attorneys – caveat emptor or let the buyer beware.

    • Michael, you seized in on one sentence and completely misconstrued my statement. I never said the practice of licensing was bad. I disagree with the lack of mobility of those licenses. In the past, it made perfect sense to require separate state certifications because the law was not easily accessible. Now, a lawyer in Georgia is just as capable of researching and finding the law as a fresh-out-of-law school Tennessean. It makes no sense to require the Georgia lawyer to re-take the Bar exam. It is protectionism, as you said with Florida’s practice, and in my opinion, it will change. Why don’t you think the business of law will change? I’ve recently received an email from Russell Smith from SDD Global. He announced that his legal team in India prepared a motion for summary judgment in a libel case against Channel 4 in LA. They’re defending themselves against a large firm in California. With outsourcing, they’re able to defend themselves. I think the business of law has already changed it’s just going to take people a while to figure it out.

  • Kevin – Thanks for your reply. I understood your licensing point but wanted to make another – it has nothing to do with just law. I don’t know that Georgia but a good number of states have reciprocity if you’ve practiced law for certain number of years. In Florida there is none and I’m quite sure it’s because of protectionism in ALL industries, not just law, against the retirees who are “taking away the jobs of the locals.” Whether this is right or wrong, it’s not an issue limited to the legal field nor is it likely to change any time soon.

    With regard to the globalization of law – I think there might be a confusion with outsourcing of certain clerical tasks versus acquiring and managing the business as well as the most important task of managing the case itself and performing the tasks that just need to be done locally. You cannot compare the work in India to the work done locally, especially when you’re talking about people who work in an area of law every day versus those researching cases in general. Sure you can send out document scanning, coding, typing and other clerical work but, for the most part, familiarity with any type of law requires being indulgent in that area of law. There are firms that have lawyers abroad reviewing documents and providing legal research – again, this is not new and already done. It’s certainly not as practical or beneficial as it seems and a good amount you save in costs hurts you in terms of the return quality of the product. Bottom line – where does this make a difference? Only in large scale litigation. For general practice work that isn’t of large corporate nature – exactly how is this going to be outsourced? The challenge to a conservator skimming an estate, personal injuries for automobile accidents – how is this work going to be globalized?

    There is a lot to be said about knowing the players, the venue, and how to write for specific judges. Law is all about people and is a very personal business. The model I’ll be providing for TheLaw.com will clearly separate the tasks where they need to be as I’ve explained above. And with regard to the work for the summary judgment you mention, I would probably not be surprised at the percentage of work outsourced versus how much really needed to be done locally.

  • Jon Kay

    tion of law extant on the web – the application of the watchblog to a thoroughly unjust series of legal cases – SCO/Microsoft’s attack on Linux. The attack failed, in no small part with PJ’s help on the reputational front.

    Civil law can never be freed until it loses its ability to enslave. Reading PJ’s blog, I watched as IBM and other companies were compelled by court order to spend vast sums on their lawyers and have their employees and executives spent lots of time on depositions. All of this was in a copyright violation case in which the filer didn’t hold the copyright, and the biggest efforts were required on clear reaches. I’ve seen other cases where these provisions were abused to stop startups by forcing them to big legal bills, create a cloud of smoke over another company’s reputation, and to keep one of America’s greatest innovators from innovating for most of a year.

    Compulsion without payment and against the enslaved’s rights of interest MUST end.

    • Alan Armstrong

      Jon- I was one of those startups that was dragged into court with frivolous claims and ‘where these provisions were abused’ by forcing us to pay big legal bills. It wiped out 18 months of hard work and money that took me several years to earn that I invested in the project and then in defending the project – and finally – at my family’s request, I threw in the towel before mortgaging the house.

      I don’t share this to get pity or appear as a whiner, (I actually learned a great deal from the ordeal and will use it to benefit my next startup)but would like to bring light to the problem and say – PLEASE ‘open source’ the law so that innovation can flourish….we are killing innovation by making people afraid of the law. I wish I had the answer to fix it and welcome any suggestions.


  • Jon Kay

    Whoopsie – the 1st para there got munged. It should read:

    I think you’re in general right. BUT – there’s another powerful example of googlification of law extant on the web – the application of the watchblog to a thoroughly unjust series of legal cases – SCO/Microsoft’s attack on Linux. The attack failed, in no small part with PJ’s help on the reputational front.

  • This video post is a great step in the direction that lawyers and law firms ought to be heading. As an industry, legal professionals are generally a slow group to adopt innovations that meaningfully reshape the traditional landscape. I recently founded Rimon Law Group, a virtual law firm that cuts out a lot of the fat present in a traditional law firm.

    The amount of money that is spent by law firms on first-rate offices in premier locations, as an example, is an absurdity. As of recently, the average per-lawyer occupancy expense of a top-tier law firm in California neared $30,000. Clients are paying for this. The view from Rimon’s office is terrible, but our partners charge a deep discount over partners in major law firms, without a reduction in quality. As the economy continues to slow, the doors will open for more innovators that can figure out ways to cut costs while preserving the skill and integrity of their practice. Hopefully this shift will be a lasting one in the profession.

  • Its great to see so many lawyers have read Jeff’s book and are discussing this issue. I just got done reading the book as well. I have been practicing law for about 7 years now. Early on I was frustrated with the practice because I felt like I was really handicapped by not being able to offer my services in other states and to a larger market. I was also frustrated by some of the other rules of the profession that make it more difficult to adapt ones practice to the web and be able to take advantage of it like many other business do. I was able to tap a larger market by focusing my practice on immigration law (which is federal law so state law issues never come into play.) This made a big difference but I was still frustrated and eventually took a short break from the full-time practice of law and started an e-commerce company. I’ve learned a lot from my new business and am now trying to apply some of what I’ve learn to my legal practice.

    But I think that a lot of the comments above and Kevin’s video miss the point a bit. I think a lot of the suggestions about how to be a Googley lawyer are simply trying to find ways to repackage the same service and business model using the tools offered by the internet. This is good but I don’t think that’s exactly what Jeff talks about in his book. I think in order to be a Googley lawyer one really has to reinvent the services that the lawyer offers and I think this business model will look completely different than the typical law office business model that is common today.

    Although much of the tools we use as lawyers are still secured from access from lay people there is a lot of information available. I think this availability of information has encouraged people to handle some legal matters on their own which they previously would have hired an attorney for. I think there is a great reluctance by the bar at large to give access to this information to the public. After all, lawyers have charged premiums for years for services that could be done by a layperson but could not because the information needed was not readily available. I’m not suggesting this will ever be true for complex litigation and other legal matters unless the legal system as a whole is entirely changed (and I think it should be) but I think there are lots of opportunities out there for lawyers who really reinvent their services and how law is practiced.

    Now on to the question: what is a Googley lawyer. I think that a Googley lawyer will find a way (within the existing rules of professional responsibility) to provide legal information, resources, and some level of legal advice to consumers who want to handle simple legal matters on their own. I think that a Googley lawyer might even offer his expertise, information, resources and counsel for free and learn to earn revenue from sources other than the billable hour.

    I also think that the bar at large needs to seriously reconsider some of the rules regarding professional responsibility and licensure that may, if not adapted to the modern world, serious hurt the profession.

    I am currently testing a business model that I think may accomplish this for immigration law matters. The website is http://www.visaamigo.com.

  • The legal system is challenging even for lawyers and much of it has to do with the Constitution. That isn’t changing quickly. Are people going to somehow just learn the court system and litigating the same way a doctor can diagnose symptoms?

    Using the term “Google Lawyer” is just a new buzzword to say the same thing as Kanban or “just in time” processing in business. It’s a flashy word to get eyeballs like people who use the word “sticky” as if it was invented by Malcolm Gladwell.

    What is a “one stop shop for slip and fall cases?” Beats the heck out of me. A small law firm that gets a client has to do the typical legwork required and there is no mystique. It’s a lot of work done on contingency and the client isn’t paying for it anyways. What is outsourced to India? The local investigating? The court appearances? The motion drafting? I’m really not sure what kind of cost cutting can be done and it doesn’t really matter to the client in these cases – you’re paying the percentage you’re paying because the lawyer is fronting all the money and you think he’s got a good shot at recovering something for you.

    Bottom line – large law firms have NOTHING to do with the way regular law firms work. It has never been about efficiency in the top law firms but about getting as much money as was possible from the client. The smaller law firms have always had to be a more lean machine. Now, more than any other time, you’re going to see terrible lawyering because people aren’t going to want to pay for the time to really understand and appreciate all the moving parts. As I said above, there are tasks that can be outsourced and others you just can’t. The main lawyers need to be familiar with all the details of a case and you can’t just have someone pick up as if they were plugged in, whether in Indiana or in India. I’m not sure what a “virtual law firm” really is except for the same distribution of contract work that is happening elsewhere.

  • Interesting article and my timing for discovering this couldn’t be better. I cannot fully explain how much my business has benefited from focusing time and energy into increasing my practice’s online presence. Despite serving as an opportunity to market our services to a much broader demographic, the internet has allowed me to fully plan/prepare/research for just about every once of my cases. I truly believe that the new business that was consistently being attracted from our business was a direct result of exploring new options in various networks offered throughout the internet. My prior understanding (which is shared by the majority of my colleagues) of how the internet or a website could work within the legal industry was extremely limited and only included the desire to reach the very top of Google’s findings. As aspects of social bookmarking and blogging began to become more familiar to me, my participation in such forums grew significantly. And it is not a coincidence that the success of my website grew as well.

    I work within an industry that is saturated with those following a more “old-school” code, and it is becoming increasingly apparent that such individuals are doomed for failure without this incorporation of technology into their legal services. It is sad truth, however not an unfamiliar one. Although our technology is increasing everyday at an exponential level, we have seen this time and time again throughout our history. Failing to adapt to an increase technology only results in being left behind. Thank you for letting me share! Interesting article.

  • rob harvey

    kevin, truly you are a googley lawyer. i just finished your ebook and browsed your blog at http://www.nextgenerationlaw.com. i love that you get social media.

    solid points on outsourcing legal services, the virtual law office, and being unique vs. the pinstripes. i know i personally want to work with an authentic counselor vs. a lawyer in a can. blah.

    look forward to connecting soon. peace.

  • Great stuff, especially the “stranglehold” that lawyers have. It’s true. There is a conflict brewing in most lawyers hearts when dealing with a new client, one where they know the person could easily handle it on their own but the lawyer needs to make money….so they sell. I’m not a salemen, I’m a believer in karma, and it works out so far.

    As far as lawyer outsourcing, I think it will work for some things but only for lawyers, not individual consumers. It’s hard enough dealing with some of the services that are outsourced, can you imagine having to deal with a pleading drafted overseas and then sent back here for a laymen to review?

    I have the ability to outsouce some of my legal work, but I don’t. I like what I do, and I like the fact I have a personal relationship with my clients.

    Good stuff!

  • I’m bristish, and loved wwgd…and read it through the eyes of a googley lawyer/solicitor in the UK, and also disagreed that lawyers can’t be googley..

    that is, if you are trying to controla small number of clients its tricky…but if you are entrepreneurial and visionary then here the googloey thing to do is to bcome the platform on which the next generation of googley practitioners build upon with tonnes of free info and ease of transparenta ccess to engage a lawyer if need be…but to hand over control to the public…and encourage DIY…

    we acquired http://www.lawontheweb.co.uk and will use this for our UK googley law vision – launching in September…. p.s Jeff, we have found the answer to lexis nexis, westlaw….in terms of their selling of online documents…put them all up for free!

  • Great post! I have worked with a number of lawyers and quite a few “Googley” ones. One of my favorites is Joe McDaniel, who uses humor and refreshing candor in his BLOG; http://www.arizonabankruptcyblog.info

    To use Kevin Thompson’s word, the BLOG and its author are “authentic”. Besides covering the normally mundane world of consumer bankruptcy, the BLOG shares his strong views on just about everything including politics.

    I recently questioned Joe on the efficacy of mixing politics and the law so openly and wondered possible negative effect it may have on some prospective clients. While he admitted to losing some, he felt there was a net benefit of being totally transparent about who he was. I have to agree.