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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Sometimes, personal interaction – not just the Internet – is needed

Scott Flegal

Lately, the Internet has been costing me quite a bit of business. More and more people are going online and doing their own legal research. Increasingly, people utilize online service providers like LegalZoom.com to form their entity of choice. I am not bitter. I do not let it bring me down. I soldier on, because I know that I am so much better than the Internet.

I am better than the Internet because I have lasting relationships with my clients. The Internet is vast, crowded and impersonal. I, on the other hand, am a human being. I practice law with other attorneys in a small law office. Our space is not vast, nor is it particularly crowded, especially when compared with the traffic on the Internet. We meet face to face with people every day. We interact with clients and solve problems and add value to their enterprise. ...

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Lately, the Internet has been costing me quite a bit of business. More and more people are going online and doing their own legal research. Increasingly, people utilize online service providers like LegalZoom.com to form their entity of choice. I am not bitter. I do not let it bring me down. I soldier on, because I know that I am so much better than the Internet.

I am better than the Internet because I have lasting relationships with my clients. The Internet is vast, crowded and impersonal. I, on the other hand, am a human being. I practice law with other attorneys in a small law office. Our space is not vast, nor is it particularly crowded, especially when compared with the traffic on the Internet. We meet face to face with people every day. We interact with clients and solve problems and add value to their enterprise.

The Internet, of course, is not capable of maintaining a relationship. In the movie “Her,” one of last year’s best picture nominees, Joaquin Phoenix really tried to have a relationship with his operating system. Her name was Samantha. Spoiler alert: Inevitably, the relationship failed. When Phoenix needed her the most, she was off somewhere else on the Internet, interacting with other individuals and operating systems. He could reach her, but she could not respond. There was no relationship.

I, on the other hand, am reachable. I answer when my clients call. I know them. I know their business, and I know how to take care of them. I have a cellphone whose number I provide upon request. I have email. I even know how to instant message. All of these things make me almost as accessible as the Internet. But unlike the Internet, I am committed to them. The Internet does not care.

I am better than the Internet because I know who you are when you posit your question. I know your general age, your general personality and your business. The Internet cannot know you the way I can. In order to have the Internet meet your needs, you need to input data. Furthermore, that data must to be correct! If you input garbage, the Internet’s output will be garbage. Your Nevada LLC might wind up filed in Tennessee. That is not the case with me. Generally, I recognize mistakes and make sure they get corrected.

Lots of people have started to use LegalZoom to form their new business, but LegalZoom has no interest in interaction. It wants your credit card number, and it requires data input. Then, it spits out a solution. That solution may or may not be right. But who cares? LegalZoom will make it painfully clear before it drafts your business formation documents that it is not, in fact, engaged in the practice of law. Whether it gets it right or not is not its problem. It is your problem. You can use LegalZoom, but you are not getting legal advice.

I am so much better than LegalZoom.

To do my job well, I need to learn about you, and what you want from your business. I need to establish a relationship with you, one that is based on trust, and that benefits each of us. I want to demonstrate to you that you can rely on me. I want you be successful. I want to get it right. Indeed, I must get it right, or I can lose my license to practice law. LegalZoom, with all due respects, cares not a whit about any of that. It is looking to file your forms and move on. A one time interaction is fine with it, as long as you tell your friends how easy it was.

LegalZoom is not the only legal service provider on the Internet. There are some that will even let you talk to a live lawyer in exchange for a modest monthly stipend. So there is, I guess, human interaction with business lawyers available on the Internet. Then again, if you use one of those services, you are unlikely to speak with the same person twice. That means there is no accountability. For Internet legal service providers, history is just a footnote, a recorded interaction. Context is meaningless. The quantity of your interaction will be carefully tracked. Quality, on the other hand, is largely meaningless. I am better than that. Communications with my clients have meaning and value. I am selling intellectual capital, not forms.

I admit, the Internet knows a lot of stuff.

But it does not know how much of that stuff is relevant to your situation. It cannot share it with you unless you know enough to input the right query.

The Internet can tell you that Wyoming is a nice choice of jurisdiction for your new venture because it has no income tax. But it cannot tell you without additional queries that you will still be registering and doing business in other states where taxes will be due. I, on the other hand, know from my experience that information on foreign qualification in states in which you intend to do business is relevant.

Unlike the Internet, I give my clients the benefit of my experience. Little things can be important. For instance, I know from experience that complications can arise at the filing window at the offices of the New Hampshire secretary of state. The Internet does not appreciate the importance of having a human file your entity in person, to ensure you get the name you want, and to ensure your return copy does not disappear for weeks in the mail pile.

The Internet has value, I know that. But the notion that it can effectively provide people with legal counsel is absurd. It may be the cheaper option, but it is not and never will be the better one. The practice of law is about more than data and forms.

There is value in the relationship between lawyer and client, and that value cannot be duplicated by the Internet. In the end, humans need other humans to help them solve their most important problems.

Scott Flegal is a business lawyer and mediator. Visit him online at www.flegal.com or www. negotiationworks.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/hscottflegal and read his blog at scottflegal.com.