Ursula Hogben, Practice Leader and General Counsel, LegalVision

Many of our clients have never used a lawyer before. It’s not because there was no lawyer in their locality, or because they couldn’t have gone into a city to use a lawyer. It’s because for some reason they did not engage those lawyers, whereas they did engage us.

LegalVision is an Australia-based ILP that provides specialized legal assistance, advice and documentation to businesses. LegalVision offers its services on a fixed-price basis and its lawyers work primarily online.

LegalVision is a legal services provider that is modeled on the principles of business and of tech start-ups. We are organized in a manner that is quite different from a traditional law firm. The way we acquire our clients and we do legal work has a strong foundation in technology.

Lachlan McKnight (our CEO) and Evan Tait-Styles (our CTO) founded LegalVision as a document automation business (high-quality documents that could be generated online). In offering this service, they learned that while their clients appreciated the documents, many also wanted to deal with lawyers, so they created a marketplace to connect clients and lawyers. This was well received and it was apparent that offering legal services directly would provide a more systematized and scalable solution. At the same time I had founded a small business law firm to provide high quality services for a fixed fee in a systemized manner, and in early 2014 brought these legal systems to LegalVision. LegalVision is now a full service law firm that is highly systematized and technology-based.

In traditional firms, the team is divided among fee-earners and non-fee-earners, and there is often a strong hierarchy among the lawyers, from junior associates up to senior partners. On the whole, in a traditional law firm, the lawyers do a number of different things, ranging from marketing and lead generation through the actual legal work, and potentially even other activities.

In contrast, at LegalVision, using business principles we have four main quadrants: (1) marketing, (2) client care and sales, (3) legal and (4) technology/operations. This enables team members to focus on what they are good at and enjoy.

Team members have different skill sets, but shared goals, of using innovative business and technology principles to transform how business law is being performed and delivered.

For clients, their first point of contact with us is usually our website, because it provides a vast amount of information. Their next point of contact is usually with our client care team. This is a dedicated, legally trained team who assist potential clients. Once the client engages the firm, the legal work is done by members of our legal team. In this technology-oriented and highly systematized manner, we are quite different from a traditional law firm.

We work in a transparent manner with our clients. This is especially the case with respect to fees. We do not charge for initial consultations or for preparing quotes and we offer fixed fees where possible. Our quotes include consultations and rounds of amendments to help us take the time to explain the advice or documents to our client. For us, that is crucial. For the client, it’s about honesty and certainty.

We have four key teams. Some of our lawyers work on the sales and client care team, but most of them work on the legal team. The legal team is focused on doing high quality legal work in an efficient manner. The lawyers on our legal team are generally not responsible for marketing or business development or for administrative work such as invoicing. Further, the lawyers on our legal team are specialized. We attract lawyers who are the happiest working in their area of specialization, knowing that they are doing high quality work.

We do have people with law degrees in other teams. In this manner, we offer different paths to people with law degrees, if they would like to do something other than legal work on a day-to-day basis. With all our teams, it is important for us that we staff our roles with the people who are best suited and most interested. This allows us to benefit from each team member’s individual strengths, and it has proven important for team retention.

We currently have about 50 employees, of which about half are lawyers. Our team is diverse, we have similar numbers of males and females, we range in age from early 20s to late 50s and we have a wide variety of nationalities, … What I think explains this diversity is that we hire for the best people. We are genuinely open towards finding the best people, and we have a recruitment process that is aimed at attracting great talent.

Our lawyers are evaluated and compensated in a manner that is aligned to our business goals, including, for example the client’s experience. Because we operate on a fixed fee, our lawyers need to be focused and efficient.

We do not have a culture of face time. What is relevant is whether the client had a great experience and our team members’ productivity.

Each of our teams has systems including regarding our response times and quality.

Let’s use shareholders agreements as an example. These are bespoke documents as a client’s needs vary widely depending upon the number of founders, goals and whether there is external investment. We have a system of questions and guidance that we apply in preparing shareholders agreements. With this system, our junior lawyers can benefit from the expertise of our senior lawyers. We work to systematize our knowledge so that everyone in the firm who needs it can benefit from it.

In building our systems we have tailored systems specifically for us. We have a strong focus on retaining and sharing knowledge. This means that as people engage in unique work or look at unique problems, we follow up in order to incorporate and retain that know-how in our systems so it is available to all our team going forward.

A key development is our customer relationship management database and our project management database. It enables us to access a considerable amount of information about a client and about a matter.

We see our principles and our systems as our way to deliver legal services to businesses across Australia in a manner that addresses deficiencies that we have perceived in the marketplace.

We started with a focus on start-ups and smaller businesses, but we quickly realized that our principles and our systems work for the high-volume work of large clients as well.

The ILP structure is beneficial for us in a number of ways. It offers us the ease of a company structure. It enables us to issue shares to new investors. It enables us to have investors who are not lawyers and who do not need to participate in the business day-to-day. LegalVision is a growing, scalable company. The ILP structure enables us to retain profits to use to grow the business rather than pay profits to partners. The partnership structure would have been limiting for us. It would make it difficult for us to do things in a new way.

In addition to the co-founders, our core shareholders include angel investors (high net worth individuals), private equity investors, and the law firm Gilbert + Tobin.

We also have an employee share pool. This is relatively new for us. In July, 2015, Australian tax law changed to introduce tax exemptions for startups to offer employee share plans. With our pool, both lawyer and nonlawyer team members can become shareholders. We consider the ability to offer shares to all team members — not just lawyers — to be crucial for our business. It allows us to bring high-quality people into the company and it motivates them to work for the company’s success because they benefit also.

We have a Board that includes executive as well as non-executive Directors. The non-executive Directors include representatives of our shareholders. Our core management team, led by our CEO, includes lawyers and non-lawyers.

We see our competition at three levels:

1)         To the extent that the small businesses that are spread across Australia have sought legal services, it has tended to be from the lawyers and law firms who are based in their locality. The benefit of those lawyers is that they are local, and they are part of the same local business community. However, those lawyers are under pressure because of the increasing complexities of business law, notably in our increasingly high-tech world. It can be difficult for a generalist lawyer to be on top of many different areas of law including specific areas of business law. LegalVision offers a key advantage of expertise in our business law areas.

2)         There are a number of legal marketplaces serving Australia, aimed at bringing in legal work and distributing it to third party lawyers. However, at LegalVision we have found that by having our lawyers in-house we are better able to maintain quality and the client experience. It also allows us to better leverage our systems.

3)         The city firms have more specialized business lawyers. At LegalVision we also have more specialized business lawyers. Our differences include our use of systems and of technology to deliver the work efficiently and using technology to attract and retain clients.

I see LegalVision playing a significant role with respect to access to legal services. Many of our clients have never used a lawyer before. It’s not because there was no lawyer in their locality, or because they couldn’t have gone into a city to use a lawyer. It’s because for some reason they did not engage those lawyers, whereas they did engage us. So, even if those clients theoretically had access to business law services before, they had not accessed those services.

In deciding whether or not to engage LegalVision, our clients take into consideration different factors including that we offer a fixed fee, that it’s very easy to access us (online including online chat, by phone, by email, by videoconference), and that our lawyers are experts in our areas. It is for these reasons that we see LegalVision as increasing access to business law services in Australia.

Anecdotally, our clients confirm this on a regular basis. We receive testimonials with comments like “you made it so easy,” “you are the nicest lawyers we’ve met,”…  Our clients’ high level of satisfaction is also reflected in our client retention rate. Our team members say that one of the reasons that they enjoy working here is the positive relationship with our clients.

I understand that in countries like the US and Canada there is opposition to ILP-type structures in part because of a belief that as owners of a law firm, nonlawyers would cause the firm to act unethically. It seems to me that this kind of observation can be made about any kind of regulated industry, not just the legal industry.

Further, there are many ways to address this. For example, firms can make sure that they have dedicated roles around their legal systems — legal knowledge and compliance roles. They can make sure that those roles are staffed with lawyers, and that those lawyers have the management authority that they need to ensure compliance.

Legal regulatory bodies can help address this kind of concern. To me, the bigger concern is that given law firms are businesses, and many are very large businesses, is there sufficient business knowledge to make sure the business is being run in the best possible way, if management are all lawyers?

At LegalVision, we have worked closely with both the Law Society and the Legal Services Commissioner. We proactively contacted them in order to explain to them how we work and how our processes fit in with the rules that were drafted with traditional firms in mind. We aim to have an open and strong relationship with our regulators.

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