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Online lawyering

08 November 2016 - By Nick Butcher

In a utopian world, if you have a legal problem it can be settled online and without having to even meet the lawyer who is resolving the issue.

Virtual lawyering may sound like an unlikely reality but in the legal sector that style of arbitration is already occurring and is set to continue and grow further.

Companies such as Legal Beagle, CODR (Complete Online Dispute Resolution) Evolution Lawyers and Online Lawyers NZ, are revolutionising how we experience resolving a legal matter that falls outside the criminal court.

Is this the future of lawyering? Some insiders think so…

Auckland-based Complete Online Dispute Resolution has been live for over a month. It's an initiative created and driven by Mike Heron QC a former Solicitor-General.

Photo of Michael Heron QC
Mike Heron QC

"It's an independent service to match the issue that people have with the right expert and the technology to work digitally to resolve the dispute through mediation, arbitration or some other method," Mr Heron says.

"We are utilising the speed and efficiency of technology and the flexibility and independence of the experts out there."

And people don't have to leave home to get access to some of the best legal minds in the country, whether they're based in Auckland, Gisborne or Greymouth.

"You can do it where and when you want to.

"For example, we were dealing with a dispute issue the other night and the client sent in his claim and documents. By 9 o'clock we had sent his request to the other side. There's no having to turn up to a courtroom at a particular time," he says.

Mr Heron points out that CODR is not trying to replace the Disputes Tribunal.

"CODR is an alternative to the Disputes Tribunal but we are primarily focusing on modest commercial or civil disputes above the level of the tribunal. If the parties want to resolve a small dispute through CODR, we think we can do that more quickly and with greater expertise than the Disputes Tribunal but obviously that service is close to free which ours is not," he says.

Are there limitations to what online lawyering can achieve?

"Very few," says Mr Heron. "You can't resolve a criminal matter online. And with employment issues, exclusive jurisdiction is given to the Employment Relations Authority and the Courts, but it doesn't stop us mediating online and submitting mediation agreements to court."

Mr Heron says online lawyering isn't just about servicing the domestic market.

He says it can be exported.

"It's about what New Zealand can supply to our colleagues throughout Australasia. We work in a good time zone. We have a great reputation and have very skilled professionals and the digital potential for legal work is massive," he says.

Digital can transcend borders and jurisdictions

Mr Heron says cross-border disputes are not an obstacle for online lawyering.

"It's an area we will be focusing on and time zones don't really matter. If the parties involved agree to resolve a problem in a particular way then the arbitral regime in the Arbitration Act is enforceable worldwide. So while there are jurisdiction and legal limits, if the parties agree to follow a consent process, then most modern countries will respect that resolution and enforce the outcome.

"So it's not just the domestic problems. There are financial matters involving sums of $50,000 to $100,000 that are difficult to litigate efficiently. The hurdle to take that dispute through the courts is massive and we have experts available who can do the work. We have QCs, leading mediators and other experts," he says.

Access to affordable justice has been an ongoing problem but CODR includes a fee guide so that people will know exactly what they'll be paying in order to resolve their dispute.

Law firms will need to offer dual services to compete

"People do their banking, book air flights and buy other things online so why wouldn't they get legal work done online? Law firms are going to have to adapt. It's what people expect nowadays. I'd be surprised if traditional law firms didn't move more and more towards digital," he says.

Mr Heron says online lawyering is not about replacing other lawyers, such as provincial practitioners in the more remote areas. "I would hope that people would still go to their local person and that their local lawyer will have a good understanding of what other services are available and if they were unable to help a client, then refer the case to one of the online legal firms if they're a more suitable fit," he says.

There's a beagle called legal

Another online law firm to emerge into the digital market is Legal Beagle.

Director Claudia King says they deal with everything except court work.

Photo of Claudia King
Claudia King

"Our most popular services would be in property, so conveyancing, refinancing, subdivisions but we also do a lot of work in family trusts and wills and in buying and selling small businesses," she says.

The more traditional litigation and dispute resolution work is done through Dennis King Law for Taranaki people.

"Legal Beagle, while based there, is not focused on New Plymouth. It's focused on New Zealand, and we don't ever meet these clients except perhaps by Skype."

Legal Beagle was launched at the beginning of 2012 and Claudia King was admitted in 2006.

By 2008, she was working for her father at Dennis King Law.

"My father was in his late 50s but was very much of the mindset of using technology to better provide legal services more efficiently and he was very supportive of the work I wanted to do.

"Our industry is often seen as not providing a lot of client care and I saw an opportunity to provide not only an online experience but a friendly experience where our documents are all in plain English and there is clarity around fees so that someone will know in advance exactly what they'll be paying from start to finish," she says.

During the course of business, Ms King says it is not uncommon for Legal Beagle to not have a direct lawyer-to-client telephone conversation.

How do you gain trust when not meeting a client face to face?

"It's modern and our service either suits you or it doesn't. If you're someone who likes face-to-face and building that trust then our service is not for you. But if you're someone who wants to get on and do things, and not have to drive around looking for a car park to see a lawyer, and just get the job done online or out and about by using your phone, then that's the sort of person our service suits," she says.

Ms King says while the online business is probably aimed at the younger demographic, they do have a lot of technologically aware older clients.

She says a very low percentage of Legal Beagle's clients are based in New Plymouth and the company employs a social media specialist to push its online brand.

"Most of our clients are based in Auckland, Wellington, Tauranga, Hamilton and Christchurch which we've managed to gain through using social media such as blogging, webinars and twitter," she says.

The Legal Beagle office works out of Dennis King Law, giving clients the best of both worlds with specialist staff filling both law camps.

Like Mr Heron, Ms King believes law businesses need to offer clients both an online and offline option.

"Dennis King Law is still more profitable," Ms King says.

Legal Beagle is lower margin but with higher volume and has less administrative work. The services are at a set fee.

"The arrangement suits us for now but I do want to move towards an even stronger online presence," she says.

Ms King says Legal Beagle is about to launch into "selling documents" online.

What does that mean?

"We'll make our mark doing this. We'll be selling wills, family trust and business documents such as letters of demand to doing terms and conditions for privacy policy for websites and shareholders agreements. Basically anything you go to a lawyer to get drafted up we want to start selling through the Legal Beagle website," she says.

She says selling documents online isn't a case of selling templates.

"No, it's fully automated, where a client will go through an interview online and the software will autocorrect as you go through it filling the information in," she says.

Ms King says while lawyering online is more practical, it's also about serving the price conscious.

Using a shareholder's agreement when entering into a new business venture for example, Ms King says an online questionnaire explains every step of the work and costs a fraction of the price it would if dealing with lawyer face to face.

Another law firm practising online is Auckland-based Evolution Lawyers, which is completely mobile, and doesn't have an office.

Tamina Cunningham-Adams says the business has been operating for about one year.

Before offering online lawyering, the company's directors started off under another business name, CataLex.

The separate company offers both free and paid-for legal digital applications.

"As lawyers we are trying to offer competent advice and services, and the fact that we are in Auckland doesn't matter because people can access us online.

75% of litigation clients want the job done online

"75% of my litigation clients want to deal with me digitally. So we use a commercial product where we send a link and then the client clicks the link and is talking directly to me or one of my colleagues via video conferencing," she says.

Ms Cunningham-Adams says the method is particularly effective when dealing with clients who are overseas, and effectively she could be talking to a client in a different time zone from her kitchen table.

"It's still face-to-face, but through a video screen.

"The advantage of the virtual meetings is that people are less likely to hang about in the meeting room after the call, so it's more efficient," she says.

New lawyers don't remember a world without the internet

Ms Cunningham-Adams is 35 years old and the other company director is 30 years old.

Photo of Tamina Cunningham-Adams
Tamina Cunningham-Adams

"I only just remember a world without the internet and he doesn't remember a world without it [internet]. Given the circumstances it doesn't make sense to have a business that isn't really on it," she says.

Ms Cunningham-Adams says it comes down to philosophy. There will always be plenty of people who want the face-to-face experience of travelling to the lawyer but for a lot of people time is money in business and in their personal lives.

"I do wonder if people are stuck in this thought pattern of having to go and see a lawyer when it clearly could be done more efficiently and practically," she says.

The mobile service is not just about dealing with the small problems, as they also work with large businesses that post multi-million dollar annual turnovers.

"When you've got people doing so much on their mobile devices such as iPads and smart phones, that is the way they're accessing the world, so shouldn't lawyers be offering a similar experience?" she asks.

Ms Cunningham-Adams considers traditional lawyering as travelling the scenic route where letters and documents slowly go through several pairs of hands, slowing ramping costs up.

"The reality is nobody wants to travel from A to B on the scenic route when you're paying per six minute unit. If you want the Rolls Royce experience you can have it, but I doubt very much that New Zealanders need that for most of the legal transactions they undertake.

"I don't think we'll lose money for being efficient but I do think market prices will come down to compete with what online legal services are offering," she says.

And there are many other online legal services now dotting the internet landscape that offer fixed prices for work.

Ebborn Law, for example, offers an alternative web-based VLaw service and onlinelawyers.nz offers similar solutions for legal issues and problems.

Last updated on the 8th November 2016