"these changes may
well force lawyers into radically different forms of professional
Lawyers, court professionals,
and academics have only just begun to think about the societal
implications of the Internet. Yet in a few short years, the relationship
among lawyers and between lawyers and the public will be transformed
as radically as bookselling, travel services, money management,
and banking already have been.
The Internet is making it easier for clients to find lawyers,
and easier and cheaper for lawyers to serve clients. It will
allow us to create new forms of practice that more effectively
meet consumer needs. We celebrate these facts; we encourage these
trends; and we want to remove regulatory and other barriers to
their progress. At the same time, we cannot ignore the risk that
these changes may well force lawyers into radically different
forms of professional association, lessening their independence
and allowing for control by corporate entities -- with arguably
Traditionally, the attorney-client relationship was built
and maintained by word of mouth. Most attorney marketing was
by referral, and most clients returned to the same attorney for
transaction after transaction.
Today, however, online lawyer referral systems are on the rise.
These systems have huge potential to attract large numbers of
lay users by providing broad legal self-help information on the
Internet and then linking users to attorneys based on need, expertise,
and geographic location. This is not a problem in and of itself
-- it is a good thing that more people can find lawyers. The
problems may come when lawyers become dependent on these systems
Similarly, online systems are allowing attorneys (as well as
other experts) to bid for the provision of defined and unbundled
services to clients. This may raise quality control issues and
increase the risk that attorneys become dependent on such a gateway
for their professional work. Moreover, many of these systems
allow users to rate their satisfaction with the service provider
-- a practice that weakens the relative force of traditional
word of mouth while increasing attorneys' dependence on Internet
services that are distributing satisfaction ratings to potential
Many online systems also offer or plan to offer free legal tools
to those who want or need to represent themselves. These tools
might include online forms, artificial intelligence-assisted
decision making, and support for electronic filing. Such tools
are highly laudable, yet they make clients more dependent on
the services that provide those tools and less dependent on attorneys.
Once a client secures a lawyer, the same general dynamics
will come into play. To be effective, a lawyer will need to access
and use a wide variety of electronic tools, including form generators,
expert systems, databases, and automated practice systems that
use statistical analysis to make decisions.
At this point in their development, these tools are relatively
marginal in day-to-day practice and represent relatively small
investments. However, as time goes by, the investments required
to build these systems will increase, and access to them will
become an effective barrier to entry for legal practice. Moreover,
since the systems will be "self-teaching" -- learning
from the accumulated experience of millions of cases -- it will
be impossible for individuals or small firms to build their own
systems. As in most commercial areas of the Internet, the vast
majority of traffic will flow to a very small number of sites.
In effect, lawyers will be able to practice only if they have
access to these systems and will have to accept the terms offered
by their providers.
Rapid technological shifts in the courts, particularly to electronic
filing, will further enhance these forces. As courts' computer
systems become more tightly bound with those of legal practice
entities, lawyers will need to keep up to date with opportunities
for the two-way data feeds that enhance practice.
While these trends may be most dramatic for lawyers who represent
individuals, a similar set of forces is at work in corporate
law. As corporations continue to embrace the "business to
business" model of Internet commerce, they will put more
and more of their routine legal work out to bid, and only attorneys
who are part of bidding systems and have the tools to make and
live by competitive bids will be able to get business. Moreover,
many of the tools being built for lawyers can be used by nonlawyers
as well (such as paralegals), allowing corporate clients to move
more of their work in house.
PRIVATE SECTOR ACTIVITY
Online conflict resolution tools will similarly cut into the
legal profession's overall business base. Such tools are particularly
appealing to corporations, which are often less interested in
outcomes than in managing the overall cost of disputes.
Faced with these trends, companies are moving to take advantage
of the commercial opportunity to become the gateway to legal
services on the Web. One way or another, they aim to attract
potential clients and pass them on to attorneys, ultimately charging
for the support services that they provide. Although such changes
are moving more slowly than seemed would be the case a year ago,
competitive forces will nonetheless push these companies to seek
high market shares and drive down the cost of attorney services.
As legal services become more tech-driven, the marginal cost
of each transaction will decrease and attorneys will become more
dependent on gateway companies. (Several of these players see
themselves as playing a broad social role to increase access
to legal services for middle-income people, allowing lawyers
access to what is called the "latent legal market.")
In evaluating likely outcomes, a few truths about consumers and
the Internet also bear repeating: As newspapers and encyclopedias
are finding, consumers are very reluctant to pay for services
that they can get elsewhere for free, regardless of any quality
differential. The Internet democratizes expertise, giving consumers
access to a wide range of alternatives to traditional services.
And, because of the economics of marginal scale and low cost,
the long-term race is always, in the end, won by the large and
swift. Once several entities have made large investments in online
tools and obtained control over a significant portion of the
client flow, it will be very hard for new players to enter the
market and for attorneys to practice independent of these entities.
Together, these changes will encourage effective monopolization
of fee-based legal services on the Internet.
RICHARD ZORZA is an attorney and consultant who has
worked for the past 15 years helping nonprofits and government
use technology to carry out their strategic and service visions.
He is a graduate of Harvard Law School and Harvard College.
It is far from clear how these structural forces will play
out in practice. Following are five possible scenarios, all of
which result in the extinction of the non-capitalized solo practitioner.
DOES IT MATTER?
The large, high-volume firm. One possible model is a restructuring
of the legal business into a small number of large firms with
many relatively low paid attorney employees. These firms will
(regardless of the formal accounting mechanism) be highly capitalized,
with investments in online client recruitment systems, electronic
advocacy tools, and electronic linkages, and their control over
the flow of clients will give them high market power over their
staff. It may not make much difference whether they are controlled
(as is currently required) by attorney partners, or by some other
form of ownership by attorneys, nonattorneys, or some combination;
even if the organization is controlled by attorneys, their functional
role will be as owner-managers rather than leading practitioners.
This model is closest to the emerging organization of the accounting
Attorneys as private contractors. Perhaps the most likely
scenario is that large companies will develop online client development
systems and attorney support tools, and will then feed clients
only to those attorneys who accept the companies' terms. Such
a scenario would result in a radical lessening of professional
In this case, the large firms will come up with innovative ways
of structuring their financial relationships so that they do
not violate the Code of Professional Responsibility, or they
will obtain legislative removal of current restrictions. While
in theory these organizations could eschew control over the terms
of the attorney-client relationship, as a practical matter their
interest in volume and their market power make this unlikely.
This model is like the medical HMO model, in which the HMO controls
much of the practice without taking legal responsibility for
The profession disappears. The high price of legal services
provided by actual lawyers, together with the likely abundance
of low- or no-cost online tools that replace the work of lawyers,
could eliminate all but the upper end of the profession, who
will work for the very rich and corporations. Under this scenario,
most people will use online services to handle their interactions
with the state and one another.
A highly fragmented and marginalized bar. Under this scenario,
lawyers will remain, but most of the profession will be highly
marginalized, performing low-paid form fill-in work, with a much
smaller high-paid bar. In some ways this will be like the current
structure of the bar -- only more so.
Lawyer cooperatives. Large-scale investments and the establishment
of online client recruitment systems and client support tools
need not necessarily lead to attorney marginalization. If such
systems were built by lawyer cooperatives and operated in the
interests of the members of those cooperatives and of the justice
that the profession is supposed to serve, then they could enhance
rather than threaten professional autonomy. The model for such
systems already exists in bar association legal referral systems.
The rapidly increasing prepaid system also provides another potential
model: the democratic political system. To be successful politically,
such systems would need to ensure that they were run in the interests
of clients as well as the profession, not necessarily an easy
Does it really matter if most lawyers are dependent on large-scale
organizations for their clients and for the tools with which
they do their jobs? The economist's answer may well be "no."
These large entities will drive down the costs of legal services,
enabling many more people to obtain professional help. They will
result in higher-quality work and better outcomes for clients.
That lawyers will not ultimately control the practice does not
really matter, since the marketplace will demand both quality
and loyalty to client.
* * * *
I believe, however, that there are significant dangers in a legal
profession dominated by a small number of economically powerful
Local monopolies. Since the legal market remains highly
geographically fragmented, there is a real risk that in any one
jurisdiction a single corporate entity will effectively control
everything -- access for lawyers, access for clients, the pricing
structure, and the quality of practice. The effects could be
Lack of autonomy. Attorneys dependent on large entities
and with little choice between these entities will find their
loyalty to their clients diluted. In particular, they may be
forced to accept pricing mechanisms that inhibit quality practice.
Lack of innovation. Highly capitalized systems, as we
know from industry, are ultimately very conservative. With automation,
routine practice will be much easier and of higher quality, but
also likely to be much more expensive to change. It is likely,
therefore, that the legal professional will be discouraged from
developing innovative theories or techniques.
Surrender to the market. In the end, however, what I fear
most is the final surrender to the market. Most of us became
lawyers because we believed -- and still believe, on our better
days -- that the system ultimately worked to improve the world.
If the bulk of legal practice moved through a small number of
economically powerful players, it would be only a matter of time
before those players moved to reshape the legal system in their
interest -- a business interest, not a public interest.
(Indeed, even today, it is hard to deny that bar associations
tend to defend their members' economic interests, rather than
a broader public interest.) Issues of court reform, access to
justice, legal procedure, and even the underlying substantive
rights would become captive to the economic interests of those
powerful economic players.
If we agree that technology can offer huge improvements in
the delivery of quality legal services, but that there are dangers
inherent in economic consolidation, then we must find ways to
structure the profession to give lawyers and clients the benefits
of technology while minimizing the dangers of centralized power.
In short, we must transform it into the customer-driven, public
interest profession that it holds itself out as being.