Why LegalZoom Is Better than You [Sponsored Post]

legal-zoom-is-better-than-you

I’m going to come right out and say it. Online legal services offer a better service proposition than some estate attorneys. In fact, they currently present the biggest threat to estate attorneys in the history of our industry.

I sense you vigorously shaking your head. Nonsense, you mutter. After all, estate attorneys do more than just draft one-size-fits-all documents. We use our knowledge to advise clients on the best way to protect their family and preserve and distribute assets according to specific wishes.

We offer personal advice. They offer form documents. I’ve heard these defenses from far too many of my esteemed colleagues in the profession. Now I’m the one vigorously shaking my head.

I’ll agree that plenty of others still agree with you … kind of. Among them, a Consumer Reports study that explored the quality of service offerings of LegalZoom, Nolo, and Rocket Lawyer and found them lacking in some respects. But are you really comfortable resting on your laurels when the study’s strongest warning is nothing more dire than “many consumers are better off consulting a lawyer?”

Pay attention, people! What the report also says is that clients with simple estate plans may do just fine with an online solution. And I can pretty well bet that most of you, like me, handle loads of clients whose needs are pretty darn straight-forward.

Online companies already give consumers a solution that’s cheaper and more convenient than yours. And they are becoming more and more sophisticated. New technology, dynamic forms, and increased usability are making them an increasingly attractive alternative to legal counsel.

Those who refuse to admit the appeal of these sites will continue offering the same, droll, standard services that don’t deliver much more to the client, and do so at greater expense and inconvenience.

So let’s quit relying on platitudes about the dangers of trading a scholarly advocate in for a cheap solution. We need to pull our collective heads out of the sand and recognize our need to do better. We are not doomed. We simply need to deliver a better estate plan.

What online solutions do poorly, we can do well. Most clients would actually rather deal with a human. It gives them comfort knowing that a trained professional will walk them through the process, tell them they’ve done everything necessary to be secure, and help loved ones get things addressed after they’ve gone to the great beyond.

But just because they’d rather deal with a person than a machine doesn’t mean we should ignore technology. Instead of fighting against it, embrace technology to make your service more convenient and your clients’ estate plans more comprehensive.

There are online services at your disposal that can help you offer a more comprehensive estate plan and make life easier for your clients and their heirs. Check out LegacyLocker, a direct-to-consumer product that gives users the ability to selectively pass-on online asset information; AfterSteps, a direct-to-consumer offering that helps users pass-on a broader range of important estate information; and Estate Map, an offering that offers all of these benefits in a package that cleanly integrates into an attorney’s existing practice.

Solutions like these can also be used to address important estate concerns such as funeral planning, digital and online assets, the location of tangible property, beneficiary designations on existing accounts, notes to loved ones, specific instructions for asset treatment and distribution, and even a repository for important estate-related documents – all things LegalZoom does not do well.

Do all of these things, and LegalZoom won’t stand a chance.

(image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/amboo213/4020584983/)

  • RH

    Great article! Thanks for confirming to me that my thinking is on point. I will now move forward more confidently with my plans for my practice which includes other practice areas as well.

  • JJ

    The college educated consumer with a small estate and other probate avoidance strategies (taking title to RE as JTWRS, etc.) will do just fine with LegalZoom. Clients with large estates (over $5mm) will still require the services of an attorney who knows what she is doing.

  • Joe Henderson

    JJ – An important point you’re missing is that an estate plan that consists only of documents isn’t much of an estate plan. When a weeping widow can’t access any of the family photos because they’re locked behind an unshared Flickr password, that’s a failure of the estate plan (and the estate planning attorney if a solution was never offered). Those with smaller estate may place an even larger emphasis on these sentimental assets. We need to deliver comprehensive plans – not documents. If we do, LegalZoom will never do better than us.

  • Elisha

    Estate planning is more then just a will and a power of attorney. Long term care planning is the main focus of any conversation I have with a client. The will, POA, health care proxy and living will prepared by attorneys are just form documents that we tailor to each client, no different then LegalZoom. Its the LTC conversation and protecting the estate from a Medicaid Recovery Action that a client will never get with an online service.

  • David Hiersekorn

    I agree that LegalZoom is a greater threat than most attorneys think. And, I agree that LZ competes on convenience as much as price. But, I can’t agree that the solution is for attorneys to offer a bolt-on service that, itself, could easily be duplicated by LegalZoom.

    I like the service that you’re advertising here, at least in concept. I could even see myself signing up some day. But, I think it’s kind of silly to think that an online repository of information is somehow the LegalZoom-killer that we’ve all been looking for.

    Attorneys can beat LegalZoom in exactly one way. We need to inform the world that we can offer the one thing that LegalZoom cannot. We can offer RESULTS. The heart of legal advice is the promise that “if you do X, then you will get Y.” LegalZoom cannot promise that, ever.

    That’s our better mousetrap. We already have it.

    • Joe Henderson

      David, I’m afraid I find myself shaking my head. I’d like to hear about your better mousetrap. What solutions do you offer your clients to address the passing-on of online account information? Of funeral plans? Are you still using paper intake forms or have you come up with dynamic online intake that’s more convenient for your clients? Do you give them convenient self-help tools to continue updating their information after they’ve left your office? If you’ve created a good solution for these things, more power to you because I haven’t heard of many who have. Those who continue to ignore the real demands of modern clients, will find themselves more likely holding a buggy whip than a mousetrap.

      • David Hiersekorn

        Joe, I think you’re missing my point. You presented your solution as a way for attorneys to beat LegalZoom. I’m saying that, while your product is interesting, it’s not going to give us an advantage over LegalZoom, because LegalZoom could easily offer everything you do.

        They already let customers enter information online. They could easily create a system where people could store online account information or funeral arrangements. There is nothing in your system that could not be copied by LegalZoom tomorrow.

        That doesn’t mean your system is bad. Like I said, it looks cool.

        As for your questions, MY system is awesome. I’m not going to spill all my candy on the table here. There is a fair amount of intellectual property in my system. But, suffice it to say that I don’t offer estate planning as a one-time transaction. I offer people a lifetime of legal protection with regular updates and ongoing improvements in their plan. It’s online when they want it, offline when they don’t. We plan for digital assets, too.

        But, I don’t want to get away from the important point you raised. I do agree with you that LegalZoom is a problem. I believe that the solution is for the legal industry to point out the HUGE gaping hole in LegalZoom’s services. That is, they can’t actually promise any RESULTS. They can’t even say that their plans will work. They are confined to saying that they have worked in the past, because promising that THIS plan will work for THIS purpose is, by its nature, giving legal advice. They can’t do that.

        So, our better mousetrap isn’t an online service that is easily duplicated. It’s the fact that lawyers can promise a result. We can tell clients that you do this, you will get what you want. And, if you ask me, we need to beat that drum as loudly as possible.

        • Joe Henderson

          I certainly appreciate your points. At the risk of blathering, I’ll make one more myself. My claim is that Estate Map and the other systems mentioned DO create solutions that beat LegalZoom. It matters not that Legalzoom can copy Estate Map. Estate Map is a superior offering BECAUSE it demands the inclusion of an estate attorney. It gives US the tools to give the convenience and robust solutions that clients seek in the age of Google. I think you and I may have the same position as each other but are simply stating it differently.

          • Jeffrey R. Gottlieb

            I think David’s point is that LZ could seemingly fairly easily incorporate the type of solutions and services that Estate Map provides. EstateMap itself may demand the inclusion of an attorney, but are you saying that LZ could not come up with a comparable system that does not “require” an attorney? I’m not clear why that would be the case.

            I still think the value provide by estate planning attorneys is from looking at the estate plan from more angles than a LZ could possibly duplicate. In some ways I suppose it’s not that different from a person that has a “simple” medical problem. Why not just look up everything on the internet and if it’s simple, then just self-medicate? What could go wrong, right?

            And also, there is value in having an ongoing relationship with an EP attorney that can be utilized as needs and desires change. And then furthermore, to have an attorney stand behind the plan and then possibly help fiduciaries administer the plan upon death or incapacity, etc.

            None of this is to say that no one with a self-created LZ plan has had a “successful” estate plan. But the list of things that can go “wrong” is quite numerous and the odds that it will work as effectively is in almost all cases is significantly lower..

  • Adam Pizer

    I don’t agree that most people’s needs are straightforward. At least not straightforward enough for automated documents. There’s a set of people who do have simple needs, but there’s a larger set of people who think they have simple needs but don’t. And as of now, legalzoom doesn’t ask the questions necessary to distinguish between the two.

    Even if the documents were perfect, they have to be executed properly. Does that happen most of the time? I’d be curious to know what percentage of documents produced by these companies end up being properly and promptly executed. My guess is it’s not that high.

    Like David, I think you have an interesting product. But I don’t see why you have to bring these other companies into the mix to sell your product. And I also think there’s a line — perhaps a subtle one — between a marketing approach that draws people in, gets them excited, makes them want to be in business with you and one that is strident and off-putting. Unfortunately, your post falls in the latter category for me.

    • Joe Henderson

      Well I’m sorry you fell put-off. The gist of the article was to challenge all in our profession to recognize the inherent appeal of convenient and inexpensive online solutions and step up to better meet client needs & demands. The LegalZoom reference was intended as a convenient hook to succinctly characterize the would-be client’s desires in the age of Google. Do I want our colleagues to try Estate Map? Heck yeah! Do I think it’s the only possible solution? Heck no! But regardless of my promotional efforts, and even in the face of your dislike of the post, I stand firmly by the position that many lawyers simply aren’t delivering estate plans that will draw would-be clients away from options they deem to be “good-enough.” The fact that you and I know that “good enough” may not cut it won’t really matter to them until they’re dead and somebody is left to clean up the mess.

    • RickBryan

      I have to say most middle class couples get wills which say exactly the same thing, more or less: all to spouse, if predeceased, then all to children equally.

  • Mayhem Mike

    I agree with your article, Joe, and would add another important point: Proper estate planning requires that assets be titled correctly (!) Consider the complexity of wording deeds, beneficiary designations (especially IRA’s and 401-K’s!), and other assets to accomplish a client’s planning objectives. Most clients simply cannot do this correctly, and LZ is prohibited from helping them. Especially at risk are the couple, both of whom have families from previous marriages, who fail to title assets properly. They may rely on their LZ wills or trust but continue to hold titles, for example, in joint tenancy, causing their assets to pass directly to the surviving spouse and not the decedent’s own family.

    Finally, a major obstacle we have, compared to LZ, are the restrictions against direct solicitation of clients. Financial advisors are allowed to do this without appearing to be unethical, but lawyers cannot. Why? Can’t safeguards be implemented by the “geniuses” who run our bar associations to insure that no misrepresentation or undue advantage occur? I resent the implication that for a lawyer to do so is tantamount to “ambulance chasing.” (When I began practice forty years ago, NO advertising was allowed. Only after lawyers directly violated these canons was some advertising allowed, to the benefit of the public. See Bates v. State Bar of Arizona, 433 U.S. 350 (1977).)

  • Shingle_Berry

    In a related point, check out my recent summary of reasons why Rocket Lawyer sucks:

    http://www.shingleberries.com/1/post/2013/05/rocket-lawyer-sucks.html