Epoq Software – the company behind the Rapidocs document assembly & automation – is hoping it will be second time lucky for its ventures into online legal services with the launch today of its MyLawyer.co.uk service.

MyLawyer provides both consumers and businesses with 24 hour access to create their own legal documents. As standard, each service includes individual review and where necessary, amendments, by leading UK law firms, in order to ensure that resulting documents are precisely tailored for customers’ legal requirements.

MyLawyer say that while online legal document services have been available for some time now, these have mainly been offered as ‘flat pack’ forms services unsupported by legal review by a qualified practitioner. At its launch, MyLawyer has access to hundreds of lawyers based throughout the UK. The service has been designed to allow tusers to have access to flexible and cost effective legal document services and it is anticipated that in its first year the numbers of participating law firms will quickly rise from the initial 6 firms to over 20. The firms which are announced as part of the MyLawyer network at launch are all listed within the Legal 500 and include Pannone LLP, Hugh James LLP, Nelsons LLP, Minster Law, Brethertons LLP and Last Cawthra Feather LLP.

“Historically, technology has revolutionised the back office process but the accessibility of the internet means that the legal front office – the way legal services are offered to and accessed by consumers and businesses – is now changing too. Law firms can now give their clients what they want, keep the personalised service yet lower cost and increase recoverable hourly rates, benefiting from the very real opportunity to provide the generation of consumers and business managers who regularly engage other professional services using the internet and who are eager to embrace these changes” says Richard Cohen, solicitor and Joint CEO of Epoq.

Cohen says technology will play a key role in firms’ future structures. “Technology is enabling multiple legal brands to collaborate and in doing so they can achieve far greater scale and cost economies. Solutions such as MyLawyer provide law firms with new channels to access business and will also prove an effective tool erecting barriers to fight the threat of market erosion from alternative legal services providers.”

As well as gaining customers from the national MyLawyer brand, firms participating in the MyLawyer network also receive extensions to their own websites, enabling them to deliver transactional services to new and existing clients. They each receive their own branded private-client and business services website where their clients can engage, instruct and generate draft documentation, then seamlessly move from web to bespoke in-office services.

For those of you feeling a sense of deja vu, here is the back story (from the September 2001 edition/no.123 of Legal Technology Insider) from the last time the brothers Richard and Grahame Cohen were involved in the UK online legal services market. Back then, the service was called Desktop Lawyer and the company Epoch Software….


EPOCH SURVIVES NEAR DEATH EXPERIENCE
Twelve months ago Epoch Software, the company behind the Desktop Lawyer service, was being fêted as one of the great success stories of the legal dotcom world. Yet, at the end of August the company had run out of money – the statement of affairs issued by the liquidators suggested investors lost nearly £7 million on the venture – and gone into voluntary liquidation.

Ten days later, after a marathon 27 hour negotiating session, the liquidators agreed to sell the business to its original management team, including co-founders Richard and Grahame Cohen, for an undisclosed sum. So what went wrong and what implications does this have for the future of online legal services in the UK?

In an exclusive interview, Richard Cohen told the Insider that while the immediate cause of the collapse was the inability to secure additional funding – Epoch’s board spent the past five months talking to nearly every venture capital group in the UK but was unable to find anyone prepared to invest in a dotcom business – the failure also raised serious doubts about the current demand for online legal services as an alternative to conventional bricks and mortar legal services.

Although the new business will continue to run the old Desktop Lawyer (MyLawyer.com in the US) consumer oriented online services, it would do so primarily as a shop window to promote the company’s technology capabilities, including its RapiDocs document assembly system.

For the future however, the main focus of the business will shift to the supply of bundled online legal service packages to third parties, such as banks and insurance companies, who will then include them as part of larger products that they sell directly to their own customers and policyholders. The Epoch’s US arm (All American Law Inc) is already selling its services as part of a legal expenses insurance package offered by Royal & SunAlliance. (In fact over the intervening years Epoq has been providing online legal services to a range of institutional customers including MORE TH>N, HBOS, RBS, NatWest, DAS, Abbey Santander and Allianz.)

Cohen said Epoch would still be interested in talking to smaller law firms wanting to offer ecommerce services to their clients, via Epoch’s DirectLAW system, but would no longer be actively promoting this side of the business. “Because there is no money in it. You can advertise your online legal services until the cows come home but there are not the volumes of consumers and SMEs out there to buy these services.

“The only organisations that are going to make this work are either the very large law firms or organisations like insurance companies who already have a captive audience for their services. I really do believe the internet is the way legal services will be delivered in the future but we thought the market would move a lot quicker than it has done. With hindsight, I can see we were ahead of the times and that we are looking at maybe another five years before the demand for online legal services in the High Street firms/consumer market really takes off.”

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Eight years – rather than five years later – Richard Cohen is clearly hoping this time it will be second time lucky.