Carolyn Elefant has a great post on the eLawyer Blog about a recent article about the lack of success of the early web sites designed to provide or enhance legal services.
Carolyn’s analysis is right on target.
I might add a few other observations.
First, the interpretations of the ethical rules that affected many of these sites were murky at best and lawyers wanting to go all out with some of these ideas would have definitely taken a risk of disciplinary hearings (rightly or wrongly – it was just new territory). Whether a lawyer can add his or her name to some types of directories is still an unresolved question.
Second, the MDP (Multi-disciplinary practice) debate had a definite chilling effect (and I speak from personal experience here), because there were so many concerns being raised about what law firms could and could not do, whether you could hire non-lawyers, and, perhaps most important, there were arguments that in a legal service business a lawyer’s compensation could be drastically limited because the lawyer could not receive compensation based on the work of the non-lawyers. This stuff was extremely complicated and difficult to figure out.
Third, many of the legal sites came into being in the go-go days of the dot-com era, leaving them vulnerable to underfunding and only a short-term business plan. We learned that it’s difficult to build a lasting business based only on a clever domain name.
Fourth, no one ever quite figured out what part of the legal business could actually be delivered over the Internet. I think I know some of the answers, and I’ll share those at my consulting rates, but most of these legal sites missed the mark.
Fifth, the visions of IPOs and making millions blinded people, moving them toward elaborate universal approaches and neglecting good, profitable niches.
Sixth, the failures scared everyone. Rather than learn from the failures, the general tendencies were to write off the whole idea. This reaction is a corollary of the typical view of lawyers that “the law is unique; the law is a profession, not a business.”
Not suprisingly, I believe that after the shakeout, there are opportunities and we may still see very successful legal sites develop over the next few years – too many people are looking the other way and it’s a good time to reinvestigate this area.
The eLawyer blog is definitely a great blog and well worth your attention.