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Technology puts legal resources within reach

| Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014, 7:53 p.m.

Joey Mucha used to seal a business deal with a handshake or an email. Now he whips out his smartphone.

The San Francisco entrepreneur runs a side business renting out skee ball machines. With the company growing steadily, Mucha decided last year he needed to use contracts to protect his clients and the business.

But he didn't go to a pricey lawyer. Instead, the 27-year-old downloaded a smartphone application called Shake. It guided him through the process of making easy-to-read contracts, which customers can then sign with a swipe of their fingers on the screen.

“I don't make enough money to pay $250 an hour for a lawyer to draft a contract,” Mucha said. “But I needed something to use as a defense in a scenario where I wasn't paid, without hiring a lawyer or trying to write my own contract.”

Technology is creeping ever faster into the $200 billion legal field, shaking up an industry that has long been defined by tradition and dominated by white-shoe firms.

Law firms are adapting to seismic shifts in the industry. The collapse of several big firms and the downsizing of many others during the economic turmoil left thousands of lawyers out of work. Survivors faced a stark landscape in which clients demanded more flexibility and an alternative to the tradition of billing by the hour.

Industry experts say the industry is ripe for big tech shake-ups, including innovations on social media and apps for smartphones and tablets.

“As software becomes more intelligent, we will have digital apps that can either substitute for the labor of lawyers or will assist a lawyer in being more productive,” said Richard Granat, co-director of the Center for Law Practice Technology at Florida Coastal School of Law.

The Shake app was released in September with options for six kinds of contracts, including freelancing, renting, lending money and a write-it-yourself feature.

The app walks users through a series of questions — Who are the two parties? How much money is involved? — and automatically fills in an agreement stripped of unnecessary legal language.

“It's like TurboTax” for the law, said Abe Geiger, founder and chief executive of Shake Inc. “Legal becomes less of a hurdle when contracts are not long and full of jargon.”

Geiger, whose wife is a lawyer, said he was inspired to start Shake after seeing the inefficiency of law firms, coupled with demand for legal services by the growing ranks of freelancers and entrepreneurs. The sharing economy — in which people earn extra cash by renting out their cars, apartments and free time to strangers — has boosted the need for cost-effective legal help.

“The deals that happen are more quick and spontaneous,” Geiger said. “You meet someone on Craigslist in a parking lot, a lot of freelancers meet clients in coffee shops, and they all need simple tools.

“Those people typically can't afford pricey lawyers but still require sound legal help.”

The demand for legal services from low- to middle-income earners who are priced out of expensive attorneys is an estimated $45 billion “latent” market, experts say. Once ignored by the legal industry, they are now targeted by a growing number of startups eager to roll out innovations designed to win over tech-savvy young people.

Meeting that demand could help improve the poor labor market for lawyers. Among 2012 law school graduates, 84.7 percent were employed nine months after graduation, according to the National Association for Law Placement. That was down from 91.9 percent in 2007.

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