In a recent commentary on the Wisconsin Law Journal's Blog, Karl Robe noted the increasing popularity of online legal services like LegalZoom, warning that such sites pointed to a trend toward the commoditization legal services. Robe notes that this potential trend toward commoditization "means the profession and its ability to maintain profit margins is in jeopardy of value erosion. Unless more traditional practices and firms enhance their online status to rise above the din, they risk being drowned out of the conversation."
Perhaps things aren't quite as desperate as Robe makes it seem, neither for lawyers or consumers. It is understandable that the legal profession has concerns about its services becoming commoditized; legal advice can be one the most important services a consumer pays for. But just because someone purchases a will online, for example, doesn't make a will a "commodity." There may be a great many people for whom an online will is more than enough to suit their needs. But not everyone will buy their law off the rack, so to speak. And for those individuals, establishing a traditional attorney/client relationship might be the best choice.
While I doubt that traditional law will ever be "drowned out of the conversation," Robe does offer good advice to attorneys in the sense that traditional lawyers need to reconsider how they make their services available to consumers. Far from deflating the value of traditional legal services, alternative providers may well open new markets to attorneys by allowing entry into the market for legal services to people normally excluded.
That consumers seem to be embracing new ways of receiving legal services merely reveals that the market for legal services may be broader than attorneys may realize. Sound legal advice is just as in demand and just as essential now as it ever was and that advice is has the same value whether it is provided online on an as-need basis or across a desk in a law office conference room. The important thing is that the advice finds its way to the consumer who need it.