At the American Bar Association’s recent annual Techshow, the excellence in elawyering award went to a family law attorney who created a streamlined way to handle uncontested divorces in California.
When Erin Levine, founder of Hello Divorce, took the stage to accept the honor, she said a couple of things that caught my attention.
First, she said her model, which creates a much-needed client-friendly approach to initiating and completing a divorce, is financially viable for the lawyers working with clients who sign up for the service.
And second, she said her model is only allowed by lawyer regulations in four states.
Erin is the type of innovator I especially admire. Her family law practice is informed by painfully personal experiences. And she developed a lower-priced, technology-driven solution for divorcing couples because she saw through her practice how convoluted the justice system is for families already grappling with a difficult time period. The last thing they need is to go to court and add even more stress to the mix.
Her model addressed one other issue: creating a sustainable lawyering model for lawyers (mostly moms) with kids. These are the lawyers who often were full speed into practice until having kids left them burned out or overwhelmed or both.
With Hello Divorce, lawyers set their own hours and their own workload, and they’re dealing with clients, who although they are going through a painful process, are relieved to have found a process that is transparent, easy to use, and affordable.
This isn’t legal services for the poor. Rather, Erin’s firm, Levine Family Law Group, and its tech companion, Hello Divorce, are targeting another group of Americans who are being underserved by the legal profession: the middle class. Data cited frequently by the ABA and others indicate that moderate-income individuals seek legal services in only about half of the cases that would otherwise benefit from legal assistance.
From Erin’s experience, the middle-income families are also frustrated by other aspects of the legal process. First, the sticker shock of a $10,000 retainer to handle a divorce. Erin notes that many of her clients also can’t take off work to visit a self-help center or find a way to make appearances with kids in tow.
The Hello Divorce model eliminates many of those barriers, including eliminating the need to retell the divorce story over and again in different contexts.
As for the business model for lawyers, Erin says lawyers working with Hello Divorce can make a comfortable living, as much as $200,000 a year without overhead. This means they can charge a below-market rate. For instance, in the East Bay Area, Certified Family Law Specialists at Erin’s level charge between $400 and $600 an hour. The Hello Divorce rate is about $300.
This model makes so much sense to me. Lawyers are making a living. Clients on a budget are getting help.
So why aren’t more lawyers running practices like this?
Remember that Erin said at Techshow that her model is only allowed in four states so far. That’s because lawyer regulations in each state bar or are inhospitable to many of the things that make Hello Divorce and her Divorce Navigator product work. As it is, Erin had to splinter off Hello Divorce (the tech company) from Levine Family Law Group (the law firm) because non-lawyers are barred from having an ownership role in law firms. She also has to be mindful of other rules, including those regulating fee-splitting, regulations on marketing and advertising, and those barring investment by non-lawyers.
Early in the model creation, Erin said the most money she spent outside of the tech development was on ethics lawyers.
“Had I known that I was going to spend $10,000 to try to comply with legal regulations I probably wouldn’t have done it.”
Erin can operate her model in California because it’s one of a handful of states, including Arizona and Washington, that allows trained legal document assistants to guide clients through the court process. So far, only three other states New Mexico, Utah, and Florida, are looking at similarly revising their lawyer regulations to bridge the access to justice gap.
The newer rules in California, Arizona, and Washington allow Erin to lower the overall costs of a divorce. If a legal document assistant spots a legal issue, she will recommend the client consult with a lawyer. Hundreds of clients have been through the legal document system so far, with 92% of the paid users not stepping foot in a courtroom or needing to meet with a lawyer. Rather they’ve been able to complete the process with legal coaching and online mediation.
Yet, despite the success of her model, she’s wary of expanding into other states when it’s unclear whether she will face unauthorized-practice challenges that others have faced when attempting to create new models of law practice.
The cost associated with fighting a challenge and the threat of putting her law license in jeopardy keeps Erin in the states that have started to relax and modernize practice rules.
For now, Erin is building her two businesses, raising her children, and fielding many many calls from lawyers eager to learn her secrets.
Video is of Erin Levine and the Levine Family Law Group being recognized by Clio for excellence in legal innovation: