This series looks at technologies that will be game-changers for small business, particularly firms whose staffs are highly mobile and where travel is part of the game.
Addison Cameron-Huff knows that for most ordinary people who need a lawyer, the fees can be intimidating, and he wants to flat out change this.
Mr. Cameron-Huff is founder and manager of FlatLaw, a website on which lawyers from across Canada can advertise free – as long as they offer a flat rate for their services.
"It's a new way of generating business," says Mr. Cameron-Huff, a Toronto-based lawyer who focuses his own legal work on technology and intellectual property. While he acknowledges that it doesn't work for every type of legal work, he sees FlatLaw as just one more marketing tool in a profession that has been changing rapidly since the 2008 recession.
In an influential book published that year called The End of Lawyers, British author Richard Susskind argued – flat out, if you will – that "lawyers should change the way they work."
New technology, increased competition, globalization and more discerning clients have shattered the old business model that had people signing open-ended retainers or keeping in-house counsel on standby.
"Lawyers … must respond creatively and forcefully to the shifting demands of what is a rapidly evolving marketplace," Prof. Susskind wrote.
"For routine work, lawyers have a better idea of the time required than the clients do, and they can develop procedures to work more efficiently," Mr. Cameron-Huff adds.
Prices offered by lawyers on FlatLaw range from $70 to prepare a letter for parents with kids to show to customs agents when travelling to $3,000 for mediation to settle a legal dispute, or the same amount for a one-day Small Claims Court trial.
"With mediation, you pretty much know it's not going to take more than a day," says Murray Miskin, a Whitby, Ont., lawyer who advertises on the site. He says he is careful to post on FlatLaw only those services of which he is reasonably sure about the time involved.
"You have to look carefully at whether the time is likely to become variable," he explains. Unlike the Vancouver lawyer who offers a day in Small Claims Court, he does not advertise trials, because "a trial can take two hours or it can end up being three or four days."
FlatLaw is possible because the rules for lawyers advertising in Ontario and across Canada have become more relaxed in recent years. The Law Society of Upper Canada, which governs Ontario lawyers, says that rules must "be in the best interests of the public" and "consistent with a high standard of professionalism."
Ads are also not supposed to suggest that lawyers are "aggressive" or imply "qualitative superiority over other lawyers," although some lawyers seem to bend these rules. While there are no U.S. "hurt-in-a-car-accident?" ads in Canada, one print ad that runs in Ontario's Niagara region features a stern-looking female lawyer with the sexist tag line: "Ever try to argue with a woman?"
FlatLaw encourages short, straightforward copy, says Mr. Cameron-Huff. "If you sign on as a lawyer, there's a guide to help you create the ad, and you can see what it looks like on your screen," he says.
Occasionally he offers editing advice, but usually only to ensure that the ads are to the point and clear, he adds.
Another development making FlatLaw possible is the advent of what Mr. Cameron-Huff calls the "limited scope retainer." Rather than seeking a flat retainer for open-ended service, many lawyers now opt for an explicit contract to do an agreed set of legal services, he explains.
"It's a way of protecting themselves from being sued when clients say, 'You didn't do this or this,'" he says. A side effect is that the lawyers can advertise the explicit service on FlatLaw.
FlatLaw is available only in Canada so far, although one New York State firm that offers services in Canada does take out ads on the site.
Taking a cue from social media sites that seek to build traffic before gaining profits, FlatLaw is free for advertisers. But Mr. Cameron-Huff has put the several dozen lawyers who use it on notice that he will eventually impose a small fee.
"I've been a little surprised at some of the services that people have managed to put into a box," he says.
He has not seen any comparable services elsewhere in Canada or in other countries.
In Germany, there's a legal question-and-answer site, but it works there because the system is different, he says.
Is FlatLaw effective? "I haven't had anyone say to me that it was the reason they called me, but it does add to my Internet presence," Mr. Miskin says. And that's important, he believes. "Lawyers have to look more at offering results and value."