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by Robert Fenner

Over the past several years, I have noticed that non-lawyers are increasingly offering some of the services that were exclusively provided by lawyers such as estate planning and business start-ups. These companies are eroding legal business by offering ‘legal’ services, online, at competitive prices. The high overheads of traditional law firms are costly and time consuming compared to companies offering online services. Lawyers must appreciate how to evolve legal service provision to include online services. We attorneys need to look forward and embrace technology.

When I created Fenner’s Law (the firm is based in Charlotte, NC) my goal was to provide selected legal services online, in a non-cost-prohibitive fashion. To accomplish this, I needed to match prices of non-lawyers while still upholding the requirements of being a licensed professional. Licensed professionals, like lawyers, need to be able to demonstrate that an agreement has been read. I realized that click-through approvals alone would not be sufficient because, should an agreement be challenged, I needed to have a proper audit trail to show that the person had actually agreed to accept my legal services.

For my practice, the key to delivering legal services online was to obtain a valid signature on my retainer agreement from clients online and be able to demonstrate that they had fully read the agreement’s language before clicking their assent. This way, I could work with clients completely virtually, without their setting foot in my office.

Initially, I looked at electronic signature products. That didn’t work because clients were intimidated by signing documents this way and they still wanted to come into my office to sign the document. Since the whole point had been to enable clients to sign remotely, my problem was not solved.

As I kept searching for a solution, I discovered a product called PactSafe which was created by a lawyer named Brian Powers who had practiced business, internet and eCommerce law for nearly 10 years. PactSafe is relatively new so many lawyers don’t know about it yet. In general, ecommerce merchants (including lawyers) and customers alike don’t think enough about the validity of online agreements. The actual content of online agreements is usually ignored and customers just click and press “Submit” without realizing they are entering into legally binding contracts. Once they realize how PactSafe can deploy, manage, track and enforce digital legal agreements, I think it will become very popular. PactSafe is a service ahead of its time; it is cost-effective and easy to use.

PactSafe presents a persistent, always-visible icon on the bottom of each page of my website. The software also provides me with a full audit trail of the electronic interaction with the client, including dates and times. The collaborative efforts of lawyers who provide online services can lead to other possibilities. For example, I am able to link PactSafe to my eCommerce shopping cart. The software streamlines the entire process and my clients have a meaningful view of what they are agreeing to when purchasing my legal services.

Fenner’s Law now offers online business creation services and estate planning services at a rate I never could have before because I am delivering them online. I don’t need to incur costs for a paralegal’s or associate’s time. PactSafe easily bolts onto our proprietary software. I am confident that online legal services will be a profitable addition to small and large law firms alike.