Instant Legal Assistance? Just Fill In the Blanks

While the practice of law will always be a professional pursuit, the purchasing of legal services is becoming more of a consumer product, whether or not we lawyers welcome this shift. Take, for example, Legal River (link here), a website devoted to providing lay people with just enough legal assistance to get them going.  It is a web locale designed to faciliate “connection” between lawyers and business people. The free service has been around since 2009. What are they all about? Take a look at their own explanation, from their site:

Legal River brings legal information to the consumer. We at Legal River understand how confusing it can be to run a legitimate business and still not fully understand the law. Legal River was created to solve this problem.

Whether you are a small business owner, an attorney or an individual, there is a place for you on Legal River. As a small business owner or individual, you can find legal information that will save you countless hours later trying to figure out how to fix an issue. Also, you can ask any law question you might have. As an attorney, you can use Legal River to learn about laws in different geographical regions or areas of law. You can also submit guides and answer questions; these will help you win points, unlock badges and reach new clients.

Interesting, huh? On the surface, Legal River looks to be part information repository, part social network and part video game, complete with badges. Underneath, Legal River is a form of referral network, matching attorneys with business owners, although this is expressly disclaimed on their site. Their “referral” page promises to “let the right lawyer find you” as well as a response from five attorneys on legal questions within 24 hours. There are more than 300 law firms connected with the site and it appears their distinction (compared to Findlaw or lawyers.com) is their rapid turn-around on RFPs.  

But, if you aren’t so interested in getting hooked up with fee-based representation, there is a lot of information just laying around the site. The search box on the home page invites users to “find questions, answers, topics, or guides on legal matters.” “Insurance” gave me very general information on workers compensation, licensing agreements, sole proprietorships and C corporations. I was also offered an opportunity to “vote up” an article or comment on it. Or, I could peruse previously-answered questions on various topics, filtering them by recency, month or all-time popularity.

There are tabs for questions, guides, tags, badges (more on that in a minute), open questions, a guide submission form, and a place to ask questions. The badges are interesting, to say the least, ranging from good to super questions or guides submitted to various levels of generalist, researcher, professor, paralegal, law student, law clerk, senior associate, partner, name partner, and LSAT through Bar Exam.

Very, very interesting.

At the top of the page, I noticed two links: terms of service generator; and, privacy policy generator. Apparently, Legal River rolled out this feature within the past year. If you doubt Legal River’s handiwork with respect to terms of service, just take a look at their own very lengthy TOS on the site. To get your “document”, Legal River invites you to simply fill in the blanks – the appropriate document is returned online quickly. The user also ges an HTML code version and an emailed copy.  As can be seen on the header for the page, the tools are a combined effort of Legal River and General Counsel, P.C.

For what it is worth, Legal River is not alone in this endeavor. Other firms have offered similar “fill in the blank” document generation, likely in an effort to win customers with freebies. Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, P.C. host a similar Term Sheet Generator. Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, LLP launched their version about a year ago. Private investors are interested too – Legal River secured two infusions of seed funding within the first year.

What does it all mean? While it is hard for old school attorneys like me to stomach the implications of “one size fits all” when it comes to legal document crafting or any aspect of lawyering, the new school part of me recognizes that this is where all services are going – law is moving towards commoditization. Lawyers must develop sensitivity to cost concerns in response to the concerns of web-savvy consumers. While some of Legal River’s trappings make me smirk a bit (read, badges and points for intellectual output), the gist of what they are trying to do makes more and more sense as our economy moves on-line. If we are comfortable living and sharing in social networks and virtual worlds, why wouldn’t we feel comfortable shopping for legal information in similar venues?

I will be watching to see where this move leads us. Perhaps down the Legal River, hopefully with paddle firmly in hand.

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Massachusetts Authority

I am here in Massachusetts and, therefore, have a predisposition for an interest in Massachusetts authority and general information. Fortunately, the Massachusetts courts and agencies have not been sitting idly by while the Internet revolution explodes around them. Here are a few information gems:

  1. The Massachusetts Trial Court Law Libraries include information from 17 public law libraries across Massachusetts. There are subject entries on such over 100 topics, including the more popular entries of auto insurance, foreclosure, health insurance, landlord-tenant, potholes, same-sex marriage, smoking and a blog about Massachusetts law. There are Massachusetts and Federal forms provided, at no charge. There are links to podcasts of interest, including one on Massachusetts DUI news. Various statutes and regulations are included, such as Massachusetts laws, Federal laws, links for laws from other states and links for foreign and international laws. Cases can also be found via links: for cases 1972-1996, the cite includes information by citation, name, or through a Google site search. Although not complete collection, the site also includes hundreds of often-cited earlier cases. There is a blog featuring updates on Massachusetts law. You can even chat with a law librarian!
  2. The Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly includes links for free full text opinions from the Supreme Judicial Court and Appeals Court cases from 1997 to current. Summaries are available from 1993. There are other resources available on the site for non-subscribers and it is well worth perusing the pages and links.
  3. Beginning in September, 2007, the Massachusetts Appellate court site began making available briefs filed in most cases scheduled to be argued before the Supreme Judicial Court shortly before the sitting. Hyperlinks to the briefs may be found on the Case Docket pages, just above the Docket Entries.
  4. The Board of Bar Overseers and Office of the Bar Counsel also maintain a site full of helpful information. There is a list of upcoming public hearings. You can search for an attorney by name or city and see his or her status. There is a link to relevant rules including the Rules of Professional Conduct, Canon of Ethics, procedural rules of the Supreme Judicial Court, and rules of the Board of Bar Overseers.
  5. Interested in a case before the Supreme Judicial Court, but cannot make the date for oral argument? Suffolk University Law School, in conjunction with the Court, has made available webcasts of oral arguments. The archives go back to September, 2005. There are minimum system requirements, as well as the need for Windows Media Player, which are outlined on the page.
  6. Here is a handy organizational chart for the Massachusetts court system.
  7. The Massachusetts Department of Revenue very kindly provides on-line access to forms and other information at its own website. There are also news and reports provided on various public information under the auspices of the DOR, including DOR press releases. The DOR also publishes tax guides as general resources regarding Massachusetts law, policies and procedures.
  8. The Massachusetts Legislature maintains a website which lists the legislators, legislation, the laws, the committees, the journals and the calendars of the Massachusetts Senate and House of Representatives. There is a great outline of lawmaking in Massachusetts, complete with a glossary of terms.
  9. This is a great listing of all Massachusetts state agencies, arranged alphabetically.
  10. All you ever wanted to know about the Massachusetts economy can be found at MassBenchmarks, a quarterly journal of the Massachusetts economy published by the University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute in cooperation with the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston and managed by the Institute’s Economic and Public Policy Research unit. Based on census data, the site includes information concerning the performance of and prospects for the Massachusetts economy, including periodic economic analyses of major geographic regions within the Commonwealth and an array of key industries that make up the economic base of the state. The journal also provides commentary and interpretation of economic data aimed at business and labor leaders, public policy makers and the general public.

As the reader can probably imagine, this is not an exhaustive list. For the researcher or general information junkie, however, this should provide many hours of entertainment. Enjoy!