BANGOR, Maine — As a working mother of three, Jennifer Eastman knows how hard it is to find time to attend to her family’s legal affairs.
As an attorney who does estate planning, Eastman also understands how important it is for parents to have wills and guardianships in place.
Eastman recently helped launch a website for Rudman Winchell, the Bangor law firm where she is a partner, that allows people to learn about estate planning and submit information that attorneys can use to create wills and other documents. It is designed to save consumers time and money.
“We wanted to make this convenient and accessible for working parents, who want to make sure their kids are provided for and guardians are named for them,” she said earlier this month.
The site is designed for people with simple estates, not for people with complicated assets or who need to create trust funds to protect their assets, Eastman said. People wanting to deal with those types of estates would need to work with an attorney to provide more information than can be conveyed online.
Rudman Winchell is part of a national trend in which law firms and solo-practice attorneys are offering more and more services online, according to Richard S. Granat, co-chairman of the eLawyering Task Force for the American Bar Association and a pioneer in the practice of electronic law.
“The legal profession is lagging behind other service industries in the use of a client portal, but law firms are beginning to catch on,” he said last week in an email. “A competitor like LegalZoom, which is a non-law firm, are eating into the market share of law firms, but law firms offer better value because only a lawyer can give legal advice.”
There are more than 1,000 websites that offer consumers self-service legal information and standard templates of documents such as wills, leases and powers of attorney that can be downloaded and printed, according to Granat. All of them issue disclaimers that state the operators of the website do not offer legal advice.
Eastman emphasized many of the same reasons outlined by Granat as to why using an attorney or law firm was advantageous to using a website that offers only document production.
The big difference between document preparation sites and an established law firm’s site is that wills, powers of attorney and other legal papers created with the aid of a document preparation website are not reviewed by lawyers, according to Eastman.
“Mainers have no assurance they are legal under Maine law,” she said. “The benefit of using our site is that all documents created using it are reviewed by Maine lawyers.”
Consumers, especially the Millennial generation — those born between 1978 and 1997 — want fixed prices, speed, transparency, convenience and better technology from lawyers and law firms, according to Granat.
By using the Rudman Winchell site, consumers with simple estates pay flat fees rather than what are usually more expensive hourly rates, Eastman said.
Instead of spending an hour being interviewed by an attorney, the site allows people to fill out a questionnaire that takes about an hour to complete, she said. As long as users remember to save it, they can return to the site more than once to complete it over several days rather than in one sitting.
“The forms are very interactive and easy to use,” Eastman said. “The site doesn’t include a lot of complex legal terms.”
Users need not worry about submitting personal information because the site uses an encryption program to make sure data is secure, Jeffrey Solari, manager of business development for Rudman Winchell, said.
The site also is designed to offer information to consumers. It includes five short videos created by the law firm that address the following topics: wills, powers of attorney, advanced health directives, trusts and family camp properties.
Stephanie Kimbro, author of “The Virtual Law Practice” and “Consumer Law Revolution” said in the latter book that consumers are beginning to demand legal information and services online. If law firms are to thrive, she warned, they must adapt and offer more services online.
“The public will have the ability to directly educate themselves and tell the legal profession through these tools exactly how it wants legal services to be delivered, the price points for services, and what other services, such as more interdisciplinary and holistic care, it wants to see added to a firm’s offerings.”
Granat has predicted that law firms and solo-practice attorneys must respond quickly to an Internet-savvy public or lose business to those that offer online services.
“Within five years almost all solos and small law firms will have to have a ‘secure client portal’ if they want to remain competitive.” Granat, who practices law in Maryland and lives in Florida, said. “As a younger web-savvy generation begins to have legal problems, they will expect their lawyers to be online.”
Rudman Winchell is the first law firm in the state to offer services online, according to Solari.
For information, visit https://onlinelegal.rudmanwinchell.com.