Document Creation: The Americans Are Coming!

September 11, 2011

It was revealed in August that LegalZoom, the best known legal brand in the US, plans to enter the UK market in 2012. This was preceded by an announcement that Rocket Lawyer, backed by Google, will be doing the same. Will these US giants be the country’s greatest legal export since Ally McBeal?

What do we know about LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer?

Both companies provide legal documents for consumers, such as wills, divorce papers and contracts. These are compiled online based on user input, often in just a few minutes, thanks to clever document-creation systems.

LegalZoom has, in the space of around 10 years, grown to become the best known legal brand in the US. Its slick TV adverts are seen throughout the country, and the company has served over a million customers.

The catch? LegalZoom is not a law firm. Lawyers barely even get a mention. Reviews of the legal documents created via its documentation system are made by its “customer care team”, who check for such things as spelling mistakes, capitalisation and so on.

Rocket Lawyer is a little different. An important part of its offering is a network of around 6,000 practising lawyers, on hand to review forms created by Rocket Lawyer’s documentation system. However, just like LegalZoom, it is not a law firm; the lawyers are part of a referral network, not employees.

The reason for these ostensibly lawyer-less legal services is US regulation, which prohibits companies from employing practising lawyers and even, to a large extent, from giving legal advice. In America, only law firms can do that.

(Of course, neither LegalZoom nor Rocket Lawyer are actually lawyer-less. For a start, both were founded by lawyers.) 

What are their plans for the UK?

Details are sketchy, but we can assume that, largely, it will be more of the same for Rocket Lawyer – a network of solicitors reviewing documents created online.

What about LegalZoom? I suspect the company may take advantage of the somewhat less restrictive legal regulatory system in the UK and, like Rocket Lawyer, engage with solicitors. Eddie Hartman, one of its founders, was quoted as saying:

‘What’s exciting about the UK is that many lawyers are challenging the status quo and embracing change… There are people willing to think differently and reimagine the offering of legal services.’

I’m not surprised. I spoke to Brian Liu (another Legal Zoom co-founder) at a legal conference earlier in the year, and he was asking a few probing questions about online legal services in the UK. With a massive $66 million being pumped into LegalZoom in the last few months, and $18.5 million for Rocket Lawyer (a notable investment as part of this sum is from Google), it seems the time is right for expansion into the ripe and juicy UK online legal services market.

What will it mean for UK consumers and legal professionals? 

British consumers are heading online in increasing numbers, and these two companies will offer new ways to perform legal tasks with or without professional assistance. Though in many cases there is no substitute for a solicitor, increasing consumer choice is a good thing.

Another good thing is the competition. It will provide yet more challenges for existing providers and new ones (such as The Law Wizard), and thereby drive innovation. The current online legal marketplace in the UK is largely fragmented and, in many areas, poor quality. It will become more crowded, with increasingly high quality tools and marketing campaigns vying for the public’s attention. It will begin to catch up with the more advanced US market. Only the most innovative will survive (or, perhaps, the strongest).

For legal professionals, there will be more ways to engage with new clients through online legal tools. With Epoq cornering this part of the UK market, I think choice is long overdue.

The new entrants will provide not only competition but also opportunities. As Rocket Lawyer founder Charley Moore argues, Rocket Lawyer will expand the legal services market, making lawyers more accessible (there is an excellent interview with him on YouTube). This is a view I share, though I wait to see exactly what these two companies will offer.

So, 2012: a big year for the UK online legal services market. Two US behemoths and our UK startup The Law Wizard. We are not intimidated: as Anita Roddick puts it, ‘If you think you’re too small to have an impact, try going to bed with a mosquito’.

That’s going on the office wall.

Tom Hiskey is co-founder of the forthcoming online probate service The Law Wizard and a solicitor (non-practising), specialising in probate.