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Small business law for entrepreneurs and millennials in the internet age

Deputy Secretary Nides With Young Entrepreneurs          


Did you ever have one of those moments in a conversation where you wish you could have a do over? I was at a networking event a few days ago and after describing my law practice to a millennial internet business owner, he responded with: “Oh. So you are just like Legal Zoom.” At first I kind of felt sorry for him thinking that here is this young professional making a comment that displays a lack of sophistication, but then after thinking more I realized that the tectonic internet paradigm shift applies to all industries; including law.

Clearly the days of 8.5 x 14 yellow legal pads are a distant memory and lawyers have in some cases been early adopters of technology as a tool for practicing law. From fax machines to smartphones, attorneys have great tools to deliver their services faster and more efficiently, but the disruptive internet culture of search and content presents new challenges to which attorneys are slow to recognize and adapt.

We have seen that content-based enterprises in industries like publishing, music, film and television, previously dominated by a handful of large companies, have had to adapt quickly or die. The contraction and outright destruction of legacy behemoths in these industries at the hands of Amazon Kindle, iTunes and Netflix is well documented. These new market leaders have ascended to industry dominance by creating the user-friendly tools desired by consumers to access content.

Similarly, a primary role of a business lawyer is content provider, who then adds value with the implementation and execution of that content. The problem is that like many of the legacy content providers in other industries, attorneys need to adapt user-friendly tools for clients to consume their content and lawyers have been slow to do so.

Traditional lawyers are still holding on to the notion that they are the gatekeepers in their ivory towers of legal content. For a nice fat retainer and hourly billing the client will pay for access to our developed database of content and leave it up to the lawyers to get the job done. However, in a “there’s-an-app-for-that” age, the first thing millennials will do when they need a contract or dozens of other legal documents is Google it. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that a young internet entrepreneur might view a human lawyer as an extension of a website that sells commoditized legal content; a door-to-door encyclopedia salesperson.

Consequently, to adapt to this sea change of online technology around us, it is incumbent for lawyers to minimize legalese when they speak and learn how to interact and think like a millennial. Create value by educating clients that legal work is not a commodity and is not one-size fits all. A lawyer’s experience and skill is an important skillset that needs to be integrated into a business’s leadership team as a collaborative tool.

The adaptable lawyer for entrepreneurs needs to create a billing framework that allows for the integration of the lawyer’s skills into the client’s business affordably. Lawyers should always strive to optimize their client’s user experience and realize that many clients that approach them may have already done their homework. Telling a client that you require a multi-thousand dollar retainer to draft an agreement may invite befuddled clients to view you as a commodity. The client might think that if he is paying for a contract, why not save the money and buy it online.

The adaptable small business lawyer promotes the user experience. The message for the client isn’t that they are buying a contract, it is that the attorney’s services provide the client with the tools and skills they need to build a proactive, secure and profitable business relationship with the other party. I was at a great presentation on branding delivered by Geri Mazur, where she pointed out that the marketing-savvy water company doesn’t sell bottled water; they sell a solution for portable thirst quenching.

So let me ask you. How should I have responded to my internet guru millennial networker who compared me to Legal Zoom? What is the portable-thirst-quench story for law? I’d love to hear your thoughts.