Patrick Scharmer remembers when he and his wife executed their first set of wills, when their children were very young.
Both of them had to take a half-day off work. They schlepped the kids to the attorney’s office. Scharmer, with a mindset that technology can make most things in life easier, thought in the back of his mind that there had to be an easier way.
Fast-forward several years, and he’s found it.
Scharmer, who formerly worked in the technology field, is now practicing trusts and estates law and offering unbundled legal services, using a virtual law office platform to deliver them.
It’s convenient for his clients, some of whom he has never seen face-to-face. Meanwhile, he doesn’t incur the huge overhead expense of a brick-and-mortar office while he’s getting his practice established.
The demographic Scharmer markets his services toward typically is comfortable, to some degree, with technology. For example, they download music, and they prefer Amazon.com to the mall (which describes me – I especially love Super Saver free shipping). They might be tempted to use LegalZoom, but when he can offer advice and a document, both tailored to their individual needs and prepared by an attorney, at a price that typically isn’t much higher, they’ll opt for the attorney any day over the uncertainty of, “Will this pro se will stand up in court?”
He said, “One of the things that first attracted me to online legal practice was the ability to serve people who might otherwise be underserved. With an online platform, I can deliver legal services at a cost that’s lower than if I had a traditional office. And I can reach clients in places where they might never want to come to my office in the first place.”
The virtual lawyering platform
This past summer, Scharmer bought a one-year subscription to DirectLaw, a virtual law-firm platform for his website, which is built upon its “ClientSpace” application, a secure, password-protected client portal.
With it, clients can purchase legal advice, or legal documents bundled with legal advice; they can collaborate, share files and communicate with him; and they can pay him online.
The way it works for Scharmer is, a prospective client registers with the platform, and he does a conflicts check before anyone proceeds any further.
Once over that hurdle, the client clicks on the link to the document he or she needs, most often a will, to access a questionnaire specific to it. The answers are used to start a will automatically in real time. Help boxes and information prompts appear throughout the questionnaire, but Scharmer additionally counsels a client via phone or e-mail when there are questions.
When he or she is done, the client clicks on “submit.” Scharmer is then alerted via e-mail that the document draft is ready on his “attorney dashboard.”
Once he has reviewed and revised the will, he informs the client, who retrieves it by downloading it from the “ClientSpace.” He gives specific instructions on how to execute it so it’s enforceable. He also remains available if there are additional questions.
Because he’s targeted a middle-class demographic, typically their estate-planning needs are relatively straightforward. But Scharmer says DirectLaw can help draft more complex documents such as an AB living trust if necessary.
Scharmer said DirectLaw can be customized so that clients pay upfront. But he’s chosen to save that for after they’ve completed the questionnaire, as a business and marketing decision. He wants to make certain clients are satisfied every step of the way, rather than paying upfront and later realizing they don’t like the online questionnaire, for example.
Speaking of customization, Scharmer said Directlaw will do most of that for you, so you don’t have to be a techie like him, either to get it set up to your practice needs or use it.
He’s received universally positive client feedback. They especially appreciate how quickly he can draft the will, in days rather than weeks, and his willingness to answer their questions at unusual hours sometimes. And, in the few instances where someone wasn’t overly comfortable with technology, he’s happily made a house call or met at a coffee shop to walk them through the questionnaire.
DirectLaw offers two pricing models: Basic for a solo is $49 for the first attorney per month, while Complete is $199 for the first attorney per month. You’ll need the Complete package to use the Web-enabled automatic legal documents; Scharmer knew almost immediately that he wanted that. He received a new attorney’s special price, of $99 per month for the term. There’s also a new solo firm price for experienced lawyers, at $99 for three months, as well as other discounts for paying in advance, etc. And, there’s a 30-day free trial.
In addition to estate planning, DirectLaw offers three other libraries of automated forms – business, consumer and family law. A single subscription entitles you to forms within a single jurisdiction.
There are competitors, Scharmer noted, such as Total Attorneys VLOTech. He checked it out closely and determined that he liked how it works. But it was pricier at the time when he making the decision. Now, however, its current pricing is cheaper than DirectLaw Complete.
However, VLOTech is more “case-centric,” while DirectLaw is “document-centric.” Since the focus of his practice, for now, is documents, DirectLaw was the better choice. He’s been told that Clio is developing a similar platform as well.
When his DirectLaw subscription is near expiration, he’d consider making a change. But for now, he’s very satisfied with the status quo.
Jane Pribek is a former family law attorney and former editor of the Wisconsin Law Journal. Since moving to Nashville, she has been our editor-at-large. She can be reached at [email protected].