How Google Helpouts Will (Not) Revolutionize the Legal Industry (UPDATED)

Google’s newest venture into the paid advice market went live yesterday with access for all. The program, called Helpouts, allows “experts” to offer their advice to the public for free or a fee.

Many praise Helpouts as an opportunity for lawyers to enter into a new legal practice realm, and I thought the same thing. I got my invite and immediately signed up as a legal expert. Since then, I’ve offered zero Helpouts.

Google Helpouts

Signing up was a novelty, “let me see what this is like.” However, my real problem with the Helpouts program is that I’m not quite ready to try to explain to the disciplinary counsel at the Bar Association why a paid legal Helpout is more akin to using a credit card processor than fee sharing.

That is, paid Helpouts, which are the only kind I’d offer, require that you split your profits — 20% to be exact — with Google.  Since most bar associations forbid non-lawyer fee sharing, the Associations will likely forbid Helpouts because of the high “platform fee.” I could be wrong, but I’d like you to test the theory first, please.

Of course, you can do a free Helpout, but I doubt there will be very many legal issues that are 1) localized to a jurisdiction (UPL concerns); and 2) easy enough to answer in a Helpouts session (malpractice concerns). I suspect that perhaps the best Helpout might be a contract review, or something similar, which would only take minutes to review, require no in-depth legal research, and could be completing in 30 to 60 minutes.

My guess is that there won’t be too many lawyers — especially those with significant debt — will willingly work for free. So, at least for the short foreseeable future, I doubt you’ll see too many lawyers peddling their services via Google Hangouts.

In the meantime, perhaps you’d like help filling out your business school application (at $300 per Hangout); perhaps some direction finding your style (at $95 per Hangout); help with the LSAT (at $395 per Hangout); or even something to do with smiling and pictures (at $125 per Hangout).

Obviously, there’s money in Helpouts, it just isn’t in the law.

Updated (11/06/13): Google’s updated the its support terms that confirms Helpouts is not for legal services:

At this time, Helpouts does not allow the promotion of legal services.

Examples include:

  • Legal advice
  • Consulting
  • Other informational services related to:
  • Civil rights
  • Corporate and securities
  • Criminal
  • Education
  • Employment and labor
  • Environmental and natural resources
  • Family and juvenile
  • Health
  • Immigration
  • Intellectual property
  • International
  • Real estate
  • Sports
  • Entertainment
  • Taxes

There are also other restricted content areas.

H/T Anne-Marie Clark

8 Responses to How Google Helpouts Will (Not) Revolutionize the Legal Industry (UPDATED)

  1. Jeff- For most of the lawyers out there, I agree. A good friend of mine was one of the Google guys who worked on HelpOuts and I had the chance to kick the tires earlier this year subject to a NDC agreement. I’m kind of looking at this new service as an additional welcome mat to the firm. I look at the business model as simply paying for a platform service fee as opposed to any type of referral fee. The client sees the link or icon on my blog or social media platform. He or she needs help with their personal injury or wrongful death case. They click, pay for the HelpOut and we’re connected. I answer the questions and them going in the right direction. If it’s a good case and we develop rapport with each other, maybe my firm will be hired. The fee (as I see it) is the same type of fee we all pay each month to host our blog or websites. It’s the same fee I pay each month to host my Aweber account. You get the idea. I don’t see this charge as being anything relating whatsoever with a “referral” fee or “fee splitting with a non-lawyer”. I’ll be checking with the State Bar but don’t anticipate any issues. Again, things are changing and I can’t wait to use HelpOuts via my Google Glass while on a mountain bike ride 🙂

    • Mitch, I sure hope you’re right, because I see plenty of opportunities for lawyers and those with legal issues. However, I think most bar associations — especially the more restrictive ones — will see this as a fee sharing agreement, rather than one as your describe.

      I think the biggest determining factor between the “website model” and the Helpouts model, is who pays for the platform. With the website, the law firm covers all of the costs to maintain the portal — site hosting, help access, design, etc. — and the client only pays when she’s ready, willing, and able to hire the attorney.

      In the Helpouts model, the client pays for the service, and the attorney shares the fee with Google. Helpouts seems closer akin to IOLTA credit card processing, whereby the attorney is responsible for depositing all of the client’s funds into the IOLTA account, and paying for the transaction fees from the operating account. If the attorney paid for each Helpout, then I’d wholeheartedly say Helpouts doesn’t violate any legal ethics rules.

      Obviously, if you’re going to offer a free Helpout, then you’re in the clear — no money changes hands. However, I’m not sure how many lawyers are willing to offer free legal advice to “potential” clients.

      Additionally, unlike “get help now” links to chat boxes, a Helpout may or may not be immediately available. The consumer can schedule a Helpout for a later time. I suspect, by then, the user will move on down the road, probably calling an attorney’s office.

      Until Bar Associations relax the rules on these types of technological innovations, lawyers are left outside looking in at a great opportunity to serve.

      • Jeff- Good points. BTW, I remember when the State Bar Associations thought Yellow Page Advertising violated State Bar Rules. They’ll come around and I expect big changes (whether they want to or not) over the next 2-4 years. Hey, just placed my order for #Glass tonight. Picking a jury in 2 weeks using Glass (Judge is OK with this) so will be sharing the experience on one of my blogs. Should be kind of cool.

  2. But a good lesson to the Luddites of our profession to bone up on the use of technology in their practice as a means of delivering convenient solutions to clients in a forum those clients turn to more and more often for solutions.

    • Clients are convenience-driven (aside from a few exceptions). We’ve all seen a “missed” opportunity because a client couldn’t get his/her questions answered and called another lawyer. I’d really like to see an opportunity to integrate Helpouts into a legal practice, and I don’t think the solution is all too difficult.

      In fact, it’s fairly easy for Google to verify — I can’t say “endorse” — certain lawyers in a similar way that they verify certain Google+ users and Google Glass participants.

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Jeff Taylor

I’m just an ordinary guy living an extraordinary life. I’m also an attorney and I blog about Android for lawyers. You can follow me on Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, or Google+.