Amazon: the future of online legal services?

Amazon: the future of online legal services?

I can still recall the excitement of my first Amazon order in 1996 – a book delivered from in the US took just a few days to arrive on my desk in Hong Kong. A generation later, Amazon has put a tentative toe in the online legal services market. My sense of excitement is much the same. Given its global consumer reach, international brand recognition and enormous reserves of investment capital and technological know-how, the only question is: why did it take them so long.

Amazon’s first foray into legal services has arrived with the launch of Amazon Intellectual Property Accelerator, an online network of IP law firms which provide trademark application and registration services at pre-negotiated rates. Amazon says that it ‘helps brands more quickly obtain intellectual property (IP) rights and brand protection in Amazon’s stores.’

The Accelerator’s unique approach to combatting fraud is specifically targeted at small and medium size businesses (SMEs),

Initially, Amazon has approved 11 US-based law firms that specialise in trademarks and copyright to participate, labelled by the IP Accelerator site as ‘trusted intellectual property law firms’ offering services ‘at competitive rates.’ Amazon has vetted each participating firm for their experience, expertise, and customer service with more firms to be added in the coming months. The firms approved so far are: Dunner Law; FisherBroyles; Hovey & Williams; IdeaLegal; Loza & Loza; Maven IP; McCormick, Paulding & Huber; Neal & McDevitt; Peretz Chesal & Herrmann; and The Sladkus Law Group.

Sellers who participate by using their services, irrespective of whether their products are available on Amazon’s retail stores, receive discounted rates from the law firms. In addition to trademark applications, these firms can also provide other IP services, such as copyright registrations, design patents, and broader IP protection strategies. After engaging a firm, businesses can then access Amazon’s suite of fraud prevention tools.

The IP Accelerator site reads: ‘Talk to a law firm today. Start discussions about filing a trademark for your brand and receiving early access to brand protections.’ But it adds an important disclaimer: ‘Please be aware that Amazon is providing these listings solely as an informational resource. If you choose to retain a service provider, you will be contracting directly with that provider, which will be providing services to you at your direction. Amazon does not endorse any service provider or its services.’

In a blog post announcing the programme, Dharmesh Mehta, Amazon’s vice president of customer trust and partner support, wrote: ‘Expert legal guidance is critical for businesses to protect their brands and avoid costly mistakes in the trademark filing process. IP Accelerator solves this challenge by connecting businesses with a curated network of trusted IP law firms that provide high quality trademark registration services at competitive rates to help brands secure a trademark.’

The tech trade media has hailed IP Accelerator as a service that will assist sellers in protecting their creations. Mehta told GeekWire that while 99.9 percent of what customers see on the site is legitimate, Amazon wants to eradicate all fraud from its marketplace. ‘On one end, I can look at that and say the vast majority of what customers are encountering are genuine, authentic selections,’ he said. ‘On the flip side, we’re not going to be happy until it’s 100 percent and there’s zero counterfeit.’

In a low-key announcement, Amazon has said that it plans future expansion of IP Accelerator in other countries to support trademark applications. The opportunity for a roll-out of IP law firms tying up with Amazon to offer their services across dozens of jurisdictions is self-evident. Over time, it can easily be replicated in nearly every country in which Amazon operates.

But it does not stop there. The potential for Amazon to clone a multinational LegalZoom type service would be a natural development: Starting a business? Buying or selling a home? Making a will? – then Amazon has the lawyers for you. LegalZoom claims to have 4m customers worldwide with 1.5m companies launched and 500,000 homes bought and sold. Given that it already has nearly 170 million customers in the US alone and more than 500m active customers worldwide, just imagine the sort of numbers that Amazon could reach once a broad range of legal services gain traction under the Accelerator brand.

The brand’s potential reach in legal services is further supplemented by an Amazon customer ranking and review analysis provided for each law firm. In the few days that IP Accelerator has been operational, data is already available on the site for each firm’s popularity alongside customer reviews. These work in a similar fashion to other products sold via Amazon with reviews and testimonials (which can run to several hundred words) only allowed for verified buyers of a law firm’s IP services. 

Potentially, the volume and value of data that this will incrementally deliver for would-be clients is without parallel. Longstanding legal directories, such as Chambers & Partners and the Legal 500, have been providing reviews, rankings and recommendations in multiple jurisdictions for more than 30 years, primarily on commercial law firms. But they do not give full client reviews. Instead, they publish a summary of short quotes on some of the leading firms and top-rated individual lawyers. As annual publications, there is also an inevitable time lag in providing the most up-to date information.

Amazon reviews, which could possibly extend from law firms to individual practitioners within each firm, would not suffer any time lag. Reviews would be published online within hours of being submitted. In scope and scale, this data would have the potential to surpass anything provided by any existing directory.

Although Amazon’s natural focus would be on the retail legal services market – individuals and SMEs – rather than general counsel in large corporations, there is no reason for them to exclude the potential of having some large full-service law firms on their roster. After all, not everything sold on Amazon is cheap: a collection of signed NFL memorabilia was recently listed for $1,963,656. In areas such as litigation, employment, family, pensions, and tax, some larger firms might find Amazon a natural home for their services to be listed.

Critically, under its initial business model, Amazon does not charge businesses to use IP Accelerator. They only pay the law firm that they choose for the work performed at pre-negotiated rates. This has an obvious appeal to law firms in many practice areas across many jurisdictions. But this may change. Once a critical mass of law firms are using an Amazon accelerator service – say in conveyancing or employment – then Amazon could charge an annual listing fee or a small percentage of revenues derived from the listing. The cost of the vetting process would justify such a fee – as no doubt, would the additional revenue for each listed firm.

As a platform from which to choose a law firm in different jurisdictions and across diverse practice areas, the Amazon model therefore has enormous growth potential. In the 23 years since I ordered my first book from Amazon, I have made hundreds of different purchases of every kind. The same could apply to legal services secured via Amazon. Think ahead over the next 23 years and it is not too hard to envisage Amazon being the natural port of call for anyone needing a lawyer to sell a house, draft a will or claim against an insurance company.

It does not take too big a leap of imagination from there to see this extending into some of the mainstream areas of work done by commercial law firms. Currently, Dentons justifiably lays claim to being the largest law firm in the world. But one day, Amazon might yet become the largest online platform for buying legal services.

Dominic Carman

Written by:

Dominic Carman, journalist, writer and legal commentator.

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Author: Dominic Carman