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What to tell clients about self-service legal solutions

People who need legal services aren’t always eager to hire a lawyer. It’s common for people to look for self-service legal solutions online first, and you might even have current clients ask you if they can just use that online tool for their needs instead of paying you to do it. What should you tell them?

There are a lot of solo practitioners and small law firm lawyers scratching their heads right now.

For years, you’ve been competing with online, self-service legal “solutions” that purport to offer clients sound legal advice and services on a variety of issues from family law to estate planning. Lots of potential clients would rather take the do-it-yourself route to save on legal fees.

Now, you may also need to compete with Artificial Intelligence (AI), which some say is about to revolutionize the legal industry.

With all this automation, how is the small firm attorney supposed to stay competitive?

In this post, we’ll take a look at some of the key differentiators between real, live attorneys and their computerized competition.

Specifically, we’ll provide some key points for you to use when talking to clients about why they should hire you instead of turning to technology for legal help. Incorporate these into your marketing and use this guide to help handle tough conversations with cost-sensitive legal clients.

You’re a person with emotional intelligence

Regardless of a particular client’s background, the legal system is intimidating to the uninitiated. It’s also something that people rarely encounter unless they’re involved in some sort of personal or professional chaos.

In light of this, the irreplaceable skills that human attorneys bring to the table are tremendous selling points.

Things like strength under pressure, skillful negotiation, interpretation of unclear legal concepts, and planning are all terribly important abilities that machines have not yet mastered.

Perhaps most importantly, however, computers are unable to provide empathy and understanding.

We comfort clients when they’re scared, calm them when they’re angry, and lift them when they’re feeling defeated. It doesn’t matter how sophisticated your software is – it can’t hold a client’s hand.

You have education, training, and good moral character

When clients try to resolve legal issues via the internet, it’s a big gamble.

Think about it: if you were going to make an important life decision, would you trust random advice from a stranger? That’s what it’s like when a person seeks legal advice from an internet search.

There’s no telling who wrote a particular article that they’re relying on. It could be a seasoned attorney, or it could be a high school graduate interning for some kind of internet platform.

One of the most likely scenarios is that the articles you find were written by inexpensive freelance writers who based the information on their own unverified Google search, and the articles they reference were also based on unverified information. It’s like a telephone game of mediocre legal information.

There’s generally no way for the average person to tell who wrote an internet article and what their credentials are.

Almost without exception, a human lawyer will have a doctorate degree in law and will have passed a rigorous bar examination.

It’s also important to note that most human lawyers, in order to become licensed, must pass an extensive moral background examination. In other words, when states hand out bar licenses, they only do so if they determine each applicant is a decent person.

There’s not a computer program in the world that undergoes such scrutiny before doling out legal advice. Anybody can publish an article on any topic, and keep in mind that AI tools use those articles to create their database of information.

You have accountability for your work

As an attorney, you’re well aware of all of the different ways you are accountable for your professional work.

First of all, you have ethical constraints. Clients can file complaints against you with your state bar if they feel you’ve violated those ethical expectations.

You also have employment or business considerations. Perhaps you work for a firm that can terminate your job if you screw up. If you own a firm, poor performance can lead to a poor reputation, which can lead to the end of your business.

You’re also susceptible to malpractice lawsuits.

And guess what?

Suing you is rather easy compared to suing an online program that hands out legal advice.

You’re easy to find and serve papers on. Online businesses or AI chatbots may be giving out legal advice from overseas, or technically from nowhere at all. Ask your clients if they’ve ever tried initiating a lawsuit against an online provider. It can be darned near impossible.

Of course, all of this accountability keeps you honest.

It may seem counterintuitive to convince a client you’re better than an online provider based on the number of ways you can get in trouble, but it’s a hard truth that separates you from the machines.

Yes, you’re more cost-effective

Let’s be honest: most clients turn to online legal services because they presume lawyers are too expensive.

In many cases, their concerns are valid. In fact, there are lawyers practicing in the US who charge up to $1,250 per hour.

While those lawyers may get a lot of media attention, most attorneys charge a whole lot less.

Many small firms, moreover, offer alternative fee arrangements that are more favorable to clients than the billable hour.

Combine all of this with the very real possibility that an online legal services provider will likely give less-than-perfect advice. There’s a good chance that a person who uses online self-service for their legal needs will eventually have to hire a lawyer to fix mistakes, which is even more costly.

Many do-it-yourself legal websites advertise themselves as a low-cost alternative to human legal services, but they don’t tell you that you’ll need to pay extra fees at every step.

Want to download that form you just filled out? It’s $2.99 just to save the file.

Do you want the AI to review your form for possible errors? That costs another $14.99.

Now you want to file it? They add $40 to the filing fee.

There’s another form required? Those fees are separate. You’ll have to pay for everything again, and now you need to buy a membership because the free account only allows you to file one form.

Suddenly, hiring a human attorney from the get-go seems to be the smartest option.

You have infinitely more flexibility to deal with unique circumstances

Any lawyer who has practiced in the real world for any length of time knows that there are very few one-size-fits-all legal solutions in the world. The law, after all, is known for its gray areas.

Online self-service legal offerings typically don’t have the capability to handle all the “what-if” issues that a live legal problem may present.

You, on the other hand, do.

In fact, humans are unique in their ability to deploy cognitive flexibility. Therefore, as you speak to your clients about online legal services, you might want to remind them that these platforms really don’t compare to the human brain when it comes to solving and responding to legal problems.

This is also important because legal self-service tools can’t tell you if you’re using the right forms or even researching the right things for your particular legal issue. A person might think that their legal need is simple and straightforward, but you can point out the nuances that necessitate a more complex solution.

Representation in court

Finally, even though some online self-service legal platforms offer limited representation by a “local lawyer” in court, being represented in this manner is rarely a good idea.

How many clients want to meet their advocate for the first time at the courthouse steps? After all, they know nothing about this person, their credentials, their reputation with local judges, or their ability to advocate zealously on the client’s behalf.

In fact, the client probably has no choice with regard to which human shows up on their behalf.

When it comes to being represented in court, clients prefer a known commodity.

That’s you.

Remind them of this the next time they tell you they’re tempted to replace you with a computer or an online service that sends strangers to represent them in court.

Bonus advice: adapting to AI in the legal marketplace

As time passes, more and more of us will find parts of our regular jobs being done by machines.

For some, this is an opportunity to adapt and evolve. There’s plenty of room for tech-forward legal professionals to add those tools to their daily routine and accomplish more than ever.

Others worry that large parts of their career may become obsolete as AI technology becomes more sophisticated.

Nonetheless, humans still need to connect with and rely on other humans.

Modern legal tools are awesome, but they’re a long way from becoming viable replacements for actual lawyers. Simple, common legal tasks like transferring ownership of an asset might be good candidates for legal self-help tools, but these types of tools are too risky to use for any legal task that could have major consequences if botched.

Hopefully, by raising the above points, you’ll be able to convince your clients of this in the event they try to replace you.


  • Jennifer Anderson

    Jennifer Anderson is the founder of Attorney To Author, where she helps legal professionals bring their book projects to life. She was a California attorney for nearly two decades before becoming a freelance writer, marketing/branding consultant, ghostwriter, and writing coach. Her upcoming book, Breaking Out of Writer's Block, Exercises and inspirations for getting the words out of your head and onto the page, is due out in September 2023.

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