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Why This Successful Website Is Going Brick and Mortar

There's H&R Block for taxes and walk-in clinics for patients. This company is betting the same model can work for legal advice shops.
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It seems like a head-scratcher: Why would a legal services website that grew 35 percent last year, and every month gets 2 million unique visitors and 500 new small business clients, suddenly want to go brick and mortar? And it's an unusual retail offering at that--LegalForce, formerly branded as Trademarkia, recently opened in Silicon Valley a tablet store, book store, legal office, event venue and lounge, all rolled into one.

Different, right?

Situated right across the street from an Apple store in a busy Palo Alto shopping district, LegalForce's physical store will be the first of what founder and CEO Raj Abhyanker hopes will one day be a national chain. The idea is to make legal services as accessible as possible to regular folks, much like how easy it is to get on-demand accounting help by walking into an H&R Block, or how One Medical Group uses technology to improve access and communication between doctors and patients through things like same-day online scheduling and direct patient email access to physicians.

Legal Advice--Plus Books and Gadgets

While it might sound like an unusual offering, Abhyanker says the City of Palo Alto wouldn't have let him set up shop there without selling something other than legal services, and books alone weren't going to cut it, although books are important to people when it comes to legal dilemmas. Someone going through a divorce, he says, might peruse the legal section of a bookstore before seeing a lawyer.

As for selling tablets, Abhyanker says his store actually feels a lot like an Apple store with tables of devices that people can pick up, play around with and use to access LegalForce's online tools. And if they end up buying one, LegalForce can also offer them content bundles as well--things like e-books about legal matters as well as legal document templates.

The LegalForce floor is staffed by what Abhyanker calls "legal concierges," educated people who have experience working in a place like an Apple store. They don't give legal advice but can point customers in the right directions for receiving it--whether it's in a book, tablet, through online legal forms, or through face-to-face meetings with an actual attorney in a private area of the store--no appointment necessary seven days a week, including evenings and weekends.

How the Business Works

LegalForce has its own cadre of attorneys at hand plus invites outside legal specialists to buy into the brand, similar to how attorneys can join SuperLawyer or Lawyers.com. Each lawyer in the network associated with the flagship Palo Alto store adopts the LegalForce brand but keeps an independent practice while agreeing to LegalForce's rules, such as being available to clients via mobile devices, responding to them in minutes as opposed to hours as well as using the company's shared infrastructure and globalized support.

The whole thing is such a decidedly different tack that you'd think getting into peddling merchandise would be a hassle considering it introduces pesky things such as managing inventory, but Abhyanker isn't daunted.

His father owned what was at one point the fifth largest Apple computer dealership in the U.S. "So I grew up selling Apple computers in Phoenix, Arizona, dealing with inventory and computing and retail experiences when there were independent computer stores prior to... today['s] Apple stores.

And he's hoping people just hang out at his store, as well.

"We've created a community space to build trust with lawyers so [they] aren't seen as sharks anymore," he says. "I think lawyers should be seen as counselors... and there's no need for lawyers to be seen as kind of this separate breed of people. Our biggest strength is to be able to be available to people in their times of need. We want to put a human face to our otherwise online law firm."

Even so, going brick and mortar isn't cheap, especially when you're talking about premier Silicon Valley real estate. Can LegalForce stores get enough foot traffic to pay the rent?

Maybe not in the short term, says Dr. Roland Vogl, executive director of CodeX, short for the Center for Legal Informatics at Stanford, who met Abhyanker when he pitched his idea for LegalForce at a Stanford startup summit last year.

"My sense is... he is not too concerned with making the stores themselves profitable in the near future. It sounds to me like his desire is to make the point that you can take the fancy mahogany furniture and marble clad law firm environment away and have something that's more accessible to everyone... and take away the price tag from accessing competent legal counsel, which is what we currently have in the country," says Vogl, who is now a strategic advisor to LegalForce.

The Future of Law Firms?

In the long term it might be a different story. Vogl says he can see LegalForce doing what Quality Solicitors has already done in the U.K., where non-lawyers are allowed to invest in law firms, which brings in more capital for tech innovation and makes it possible to run firms more like real businesses instead of consultancies. Essentially, Quality Solicitors is doing over there what LegalForce wants to do in the U.S.--group together large numbers of law firms to operate out of hundreds of branches that offer approachable, same-day service.

"I think that's where the trend is going," Vogl says.

Last updated: May 3, 2013

CHRISTINA DESMARAIS

Christina DesMarais is an Inc.com contributor who writes about the tech start-up community, covering innovative ideas, news, and trends. On Google+, add her to one of your circles. Have a tip? Email her at christinadesmarais (at) live (dot) com.




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