The concept may seem alien to people of a certain age who prefer signing on the dotted line—because the dotted line is now digital. Yet electronic signatures are becoming the wave of the future as fast as anyone can say “John Hancock.”
Electronic signatures are not new, especially to LegalZoom Vice President and Deputy General Counsel Ken Friedman. His efforts to allow them on wills because they leave a forensic trail that can better authenticate a valid legal document, typifies how he and the company are making the law and attorneys more accessible.
“Our mission is increasing affordable access to the law. The products we build and the access to lawyers we provide is part of that mission,” he says. “We believe more people will create wills if the execution process is simpler.”
Bringing the law home
Friedman and his team handle legal issues for LegalZoom, including matters relating to risk management, employment law, marketing, intellectual property protection and regulatory compliance.
“What I’m helping to build is not for a company looking to build a new and improved widget,” he says. “It’s core to advancing my own profession.”
Instead, it’s about ensuring that small business owners and ordinary people can access legal venues to form a business of any type, apply for a trademark or copyright, or write wills and trust agreements as part of estate planning.
The lack of estate planning is a huge problem, he explains, with most people having made no preparations for health care emergencies through methods such as living wills and assigning a power of attorney; or determining how assets and property will be shared through trusts or wills.
LegalZoom charges flat fees for documents and filing, and bundles the estate planning and health care directive documents starting at $149 per person (or $249 for couples). An additional fee is charged annually for continued access to attorneys, and can cover needed revisions to the documents if needed.
“It simplifies a hard process, and it’s nice to have access to the updates,” Friedman says.
Fewer costs for better business
Meanwhile, the company’s business law offerings are tailored to smaller businesses that cannot afford an in-house attorney or expensive outside counsel for things like contracts, business agreements, or even forming the business. People can also get help forming a nonprofit or obtaining an employer identification number for tax purposes.
While it started as a do-it-yourself service, Friedman says LegalZoom now recommends customers speak with an attorney, and has created prepaid legal services plans ranging from $10 to $35 per month, offering individuals and businesses unlimited 30-minute consultations on new issues.
“It’s a way to get those one-off questions handled,” Friedman says.
The attorneys are not company employees, he adds, and prepaid legal plans are not a LegalZoom invention. Yet it is access to attorneys who speak plainly about the issues customers have—and at a reasonable price. When larger questions or issues arise, the same attorneys discount their normal retainers by 25 percent to plan holders, Friedman says.
LegalZoom also connects customers to attorneys for issues like bankruptcy or a driving under the influence charge, but its real niche is its consumer and business law services.
“We have a group of product counsel who are wonderful at their jobs, helping create new products and making sure they remain compliant,” Friedman says.
A graduate of the University of California, San Diego, with a bachelor’s degree in communications and political science, Friedman says he was ambivalent about a career in law. He had interned for a member of Congress in Washington, D.C., and, along with moving toward the business world, it was a route that intrigued him.
He applied to both law and business school, then enrolled at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law. He says that his law education gave him valuable training and perspective on how to see issues from differing viewpoints. His second-year summer associate position cemented that training.
Friedman earned his Juris Doctor from USC and was a litigator at Sidley Austin before joining LegalZooom in 2009. His litigation skills were put to quick use, he says. At the time, the company, with about 300 employees, not only needed to defend rearguard actions from attorneys who viewed LegalZoom as competition, but also faced other attempts to shut it down.
Those matters were resolved and the company continued to grow, and now has more than 1,200 employees, having expanded to locations in Austin and Dallas, Texas, as well as the U.K.
Through it all, Friedman took the lead on government affairs work to monitor changes in federal, state and local laws and advocate for issues such as expanded use of electronic signatures in estate planning. Four states have already revised rules to allow them on wills, he says.
Friedman’s success requires a great team and he is a firm believer in hiring attorneys in-house who offer expertise he does not have in order to advance LegalZoom’s mission.
“This is a very mission-driven company,” he says. “We’re democratizing the law.”
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