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Legal startups peddle online access

| Saturday, Feb. 1, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

When Jim Angelopoulos opened his first restaurant 10 years ago, he hired a lawyer to help him incorporate. When he decided to trademark the name with an eye toward expansion, he used a different route: a website called LegalForce.

“The cost itself is night and day,” said Angelopoulos, who owns Scrambl'z Diner in San Jose, Calif.

Angelopoulos said LegalForce helped him register his trademark nationally and block another restaurant from using a similar moniker. “I thought registering a name was only for large companies,” he said, “but they make it really smooth” for the little guy.

Indeed, a host of other startups with names like LegalZoom, LegalMatch and LegalReach have set up shop to help the public find a lawyer, prepare legal documents online and get questions answered for free.

“Main Street can't afford the law today,” said Charley Moore, founder and chairman of San Francisco-based Rocket Lawyer.

Moore, who calls himself a “recovering high-priced lawyer,” began his career with Menlo Park, Calif.-based Venture Law Group, where he recalls meetings with Yahoo's Inc. founding team.

But he found himself inspired by another VLG client, FindLaw, which helps law firms market themselves on the Web and gives consumers online legal information. So in 2008, Moore founded Rocket Lawyer. Backed by Google Ventures and others, it lets users download legal forms and run questions past pre-screened attorneys for $39 a month.

Camilla Fonseca of San Leandro, Calif., used Rocket Lawyer to help her parents prepare their wills. “Lawyers are not really in our price range,” she said. “I just typed in ‘will,' and it popped up all these categories. It starts prompting you through questions, so you can fill out the right form.”

The San Francisco Bay Area has a long track record of demystifying the legal process; Nolo Press of Berkeley, Calif., began publishing books like “How to Do Your Own Divorce” in the 1970s.

“We decided to change how people access law,” said LegalForce CEO Raj Abhyanker, and he could easily be speaking for Silicon Valley as a whole.

Abhyanker claims his users filed 15,000 trademark applications around the world last year, “more than any law firm in history.”

One legal veteran, though, warns that while the online trend has promise, people shouldn't rely on DIY for complex matters.

“If it's not simple,” said Rich Scudellari, who runs the East Palo Alto, Calif., office of law giant DLA Piper, “it can't come out of a can.”

Hoping to ward off criticism that LegalForce and its competitors are, in Abhyanker's words, “faceless” — or that they encourage the practice of law without a license — last year, he opened a retail operation in downtown Palo Alto.

It includes self-help legal books and staff attorneys who can dole out free advice or references to a specialist.

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