Did you notice that Public Trust recently launched an online wills and enduring powers of attorney service? Yes, you did read that right. Even Public Trust now have online wills and enduring powers of attorney.
You may be thinking this presents an issue for LawHawk, given we also offer online wills and enduring powers of attorney. It probably will affect part of our business. We may lose some online opportunities to Public Trust, but at the same time their presence online will also help to grow the overall online market. Time will tell but I think it's a positive move for making wills and EPAs more accessible.
Online wills and enduring powers of attorney are still very much a niche offer, appealing to those who are comfortable or prefer doing the whole process themselves online, or who either cannot afford, or choose not to pay the costs of, a traditional legal service.
Our online offers direct to the public represents only a small part of our overall business. The larger part of our focus – as it always has been - is working with law firms to help them to offer a better and more affordable service to their clients, while also making this a more satisfying and profitable part of the practice.
In my opinion, this further shift towards online wills and enduring powers of attorney should be of greater concern to law firms in respect of their own practices. Until relatively recently, law firms were in total control of when and how clients could get wills and powers of attorney, and what it would cost. The only real competition was the trustee companies. One was recovering from significant financial and operational issues, and the other was only working 4 days per week. Both had reputations for poor service and high fees. So not much competition, and no great surprise that law firms felt no pressure to innovate their own services.
Now, both of the trustee companies have online capabilities and are pushing them hard.
How should law firms respond? I can see several possible options. The first two are:
1 Carry on as you are
The first option is to do nothing different. If you’re still seeing good volumes of wills and enduring powers of attorney, and you’re at your current capacity (given the way you work), you may feel comfortable to:
- Continue to do your enduring power of attorney forms using the ADLS forms a lot of you tell me you hate. Re-enter information repeatedly, and create a poorly formatted document that your clients often struggle to read and understand.
- Keep using your basic husband-and-wife will templates, and copy and paste extra clauses in as required.
- Make your clients come into your office to give you detailed instructions you can hand-write and pass on to a legal executive or young lawyer to interpret.
- Take substantial time (weeks or months) to finalise documents, potentially underwhelming your clients with the levels of service and the overall cost.
This part of your practice may slowly decline, as clients transfer this work, and all of the other legal work that may stem from it, to other law firms that are more responsive, or even to the trustee companies. It’s what you would do yourself if you were a client and could see better options.
Given how easy it would be to improve your work in this area with little effort using any of the options below, if you follow this path your lack of effort to try your best for your clients will return the right results.
2 Exit this area of practice
Alternatively, you may look at the enhanced level of competition you are likely to face, and the level of change to what you are comfortable with, and decide this is not an area of practice you want to continue with.
If other firms are willing to invest the time in developing the best service they can offer, and will be able to do this better than you can, you could just refer your clients to them, so you can focus on the areas you truly can do well.
This is a reasonable response. Because (as Covid-19 has now demonstrated) so much legal work can be done remotely, specialist firms will be able to offer their services across much more of the country, and so the level of competition will increase.
If you are much better at some of the other areas of law, you may be better to double down on that, and focus on offering that solution to a broader range of clients across the country.
It doesn’t have to be black and white though
We do tend to see things in absolute terms. Stay the same, exit the market entirely, or totally transform. However, it doesn’t need to be so absolute.
There are several options in between, and this is where the opportunity lies for you to design your own distinctive solution and way you want to work for the best interests of your clients and yourselves. I've set out some further options below. No doubt there are many more.
3 Automate your back-end processes
One of the easiest ways to get started on improving your processes is to make a small start in a low-risk way.
One example could include signing up to use an existing set of automated will and enduring power of attorney documents, which only people inside your law firm can see, or are even aware of.
Clients continue to find and instruct the law firm as they previously did. They can still meet the lawyer in person, and provide all of their instructions in the way the lawyer would most prefer.
However, when the lawyer gets back from the meeting, they or one of their team can quickly knock out the full set of documents, 100% consistently, in just a few minutes. The time savings are particularly significant if they also need to prepare another set of documents for the spouse because the data can be re-used.
The assembled documents can be generically formatted in a professional style, which is the lowest cost option. Or for a small additional cost, they can be set up so they format according to the firm’s own styles/fonts etc.
There is no need to dramatically change the way the firm advertises or charges for work at this early stage. It is very much dipping a toe in the water. However, it does enable the firm to see how an automated workflow could work for them and their clients. If it doesn’t work as needed, you can simply turn it off.
4 Get the client to fill in the information to go into the document
A more ambitious approach, aimed at maximising efficiency for the law firm, is to get the client to enter the information required for the documents directly into an online interview so that the text can go straight into the documents.
Until recently, this has been a challenge for us to offer, as that functionality was not available within the core document assembly software we use, and there were licensing constraints.
However, HotDocs (our technology partner) have recently released this new functionality, and we can now extend it to our customers.
Because we have been offering wills and enduring powers of attorney directly to the public for several years now, we know that many of your clients can enter the information in this way. For those that do, it should make it a lot easier for the law firm to quickly check what they have done, and generate the documents.
However, I do wonder if this is the best approach overall. After all, a core part of your value proposition must be that – as long as you have the key information you need - you could do this better (and certainly faster) than the client can themselves, given you do this all the time and are familiar with the underlying documents and concepts.
5 Get the client's instructions, in their own words, via a digital form
An alternative approach, that captures some of the efficiencies, while also not asking the client to do any more than are capable or willing to do, is to create a separate online form. You could embed this form into your website or just send a link to it as required.
The form can be easily built to match the firm’s style, and preferences as to content and tone.
This form can also be aligned with the solution that the law firm is using in the back-end. The form asks clients for the key information that the law firm will need, broadly in the order and format that the law firm will need it in, but without asking the client to consider and understand the exact wording required.
Instead of asking the client closed questions looking for "Yes" or "No" answers that the document automation relies on to generate documents, you want to ask open questions that will elicit the information you need to understand their situation and objectives. “Why are you looking at doing a new will?” “Why are you thinking of leaving one of the children out of the will?” This will help you to identify any potential issues, and to work out for yourself how to draft the best set of documents for their circumstances.
In my experience, when the client provides this information, it still only takes a few minutes to enter the information into the document assembly software. There is a bit of retyping required, but most likely there always will be, because the client won’t always have used the best possible wording.
In addition to using the form for gathering information for inserting into documents, they could also be a valuable source of leads. If you embed the form into your website, and you run effective digital marketing campaigns, you could get more prospective clients coming to your website doing their own research, seeing your form, and completing enough information you require to be able to understand the requirements and follow-up with them more directly to get them over the line as a paying client.
The forms can be as long or as short as you want. You can see an example of a more detailed form here:
6 A guided interview
You may have noted that the options above are still based around more of an all or nothing approach.
First, the process will either use automation technology or it won’t.
Second, if the process does use automation technology, either you will use it, or the client will use it, but you won’t use it together.
The best approach could be that you use it together.
In my opinion, an experienced lawyer who understands the law, regularly uses the technology, and understands how the online questionnaire will translate into the content of the documents can always do the job better, and significantly faster, than the client.
Instead of hiding the technology that the lawyer is using in the background, if the client understands that they are paying for value and outcomes through an agreed fixed fee, there is nothing to lose by showing the client how you will deliver the service to them. If anything, it should give them more confidence in the quality of the service, and a faster outcome.
So why not get the client into the office so that you can build rapport and a relationship with them, but at the same time you can work through a structured questionnaire which will ensure that you efficiently gather all the information you need, don’t miss anything important, and give the client the opportunity to design a will and EPAs that are just how they want them. At the end of the interview, you can generate drafts of the documents. The client could either take these away to consider, or if you need to do further drafting for some specific circumstances, you can tell them specifically what you will do, how long it will take, and how much extra it will cost. What client would not be happy with that?
We all now know there is no need for physical meetings in many cases. During COVID 19, we have all learned how easy it is to do a video call, including to share a screen. You could just as easily avoid putting the client to the time and cost of travelling in the initial meeting, and do it online. If you are really putting the client first, you might even offer to do one or two of these meetings in the evening, when they don’t have to take time off work or worry about looking after the kids.
These clients would not need to be located anywhere near your offices. You could offer this service nationally.
7 Witnessing and advice services
The above scenarios are based on the lawyer still retaining primary control of the whole process. That’s not how things work for a lot of areas of the economy now, and increasingly it’s not how legal services will work either.
Richard Susskind and others have long been talking about the likelihood that legal services will become unbundled. Basically, lawyers will still do certain parts of the work, but others could do other parts, and clients will control who does what.
This could be seen as a negative by lawyers. It takes away some of what they currently do, and may appear at risk of reducing revenue.
However, it could also be an opportunity.
For example, when LawHawk sells our online wills and enduring powers of attorney, we always recommend getting legal advice, and note that a lawyer must witness the enduring powers of attorney. We just need more lawyers who believe that the real value they add is in providing the advice, not preparing the draft, and who are prepared to work in that way.
As we add more law firms as customers, it is becoming increasingly easy for us to steer online customers to our partner law firms. Thinking about the whole end to end process, it makes sense to us that if the client is using a trusted system (in this case, the same system the law firm also uses), the law firm can easily see exactly what the client has done (because the client shares their answer data and draft documents), and the law firm is well-positioned to pick up from any point where the client decides they need help. It’s really option 4 above, but at the client’s initiation.
The firm can focus on the value they can add, and should be able to easily agree a fee with the client, based on what they specifically do, and the value of that.
It’s well known that many people currently don’t go anywhere near lawyers because they think it will be too hard, or too expensive. Under the seventh option, there is a substantial opportunity for lawyers to counter those concerns without compromising on the quality of the outcome. The firm can make high-quality legal support easily accessible and affordable, address access to justice issues, and also increase their overall revenue, while focusing on the more interesting parts of the work they want to be doing.
What are your thoughts on the above? Where does your firm currently sit, and where are you planning to take your practice as competition heats up?
If you are keen to use technology to improve this area, we are here to help law firms get the best automation on a low-cost subscription basis. You can see more details here. We’ll give you a free trial, and if you would like to work with us, agree a subscription based on your expected volumes. Complete the form below, and I’m happy to talk through possible options.
Given there are so many technology options that are almost immediately available, the real challenges you need to grapple with may be more to do with your business model and strategy. We have partners that specialise in helping law firms with these issues, and who we can introduce you to.