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If a law firm creates an actual physical product, like an easy to use legal guide for non-lawyers, can the law firm sell that guide? Or perhaps more apropos for today, if a law firm buys a program or website that can render legal services without the assistance of an attorney, like generating basic form documents, can a law firm sell those services, ethically speaking? Generally, the answer is an all too familiar: Yes, but ...
When it comes to products that may verge on the practice of law, or may be ancillary or related to actual client matters, there are some significant matters to consider. Naturally, each state's rules of professional conduct may have some rules that loosely apply. For example, California Rule 3-300 prohibits attorneys from acquiring pecuniary interests adverse to their clients. So a lawyer that represents a publisher of legal guides, might want to think twice, and maybe even get client consent, before publishing and selling their own guide.
For law firms interested in breaking digital ground with a new revolutionary legal product, the frontier is still pretty wide open. In recent years, we've seen some free chatbots targeting access to justice issues, and there have also been more sophisticated (better-monetized) efforts as well.
For example, the new divorce website, ItsOverEasy, started by a celebrity divorce lawyer, charges users to fill out divorce forms, and upsells actual legal services for interested online consumers (or more complex matters). The concept may not be revolutionary, but even in this day and age, selling anything is as much about the pitch as the product.
Law firms still seem to be reluctant to enter the digital marketplace. For firms looking to avoid liability and/or bring on non-lawyer assistance, it may not be the worst idea to set up a subsidiary to ease that attorney anxiety.
While generally a subsidiary would be elected when a law firm seeks to enter a non-legal business, like publishing, a subsidiary can also be used to create a flat-fee, commoditized, legal services provider that operates as a separate entity. Like a JiffyLube for estate planning.
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