Michalsons Online enriches publicly available South African legal knowledge

MO screenshot.pngI have only just started reading through the July Brainstorm magazine and began with the article about Michalsons Online, an initiative of the well known South African technology law firm, Michalsons Attorneys.

The Brainstorm article suggests Michalsons Online began making legal information available online recently the site’s archives go back to 2002. Just the same this service is a welcome addition to a range of other sources of public legal information, much of which has been made available by large and small law firms alike. Jacobson Attorneys has been publishing articles about legal principles and issues for almost 4 years now although not quite with the frequency of many of its competitors. Just the same, the more South African law firms publish articles about relevant legal topics, the richer the local, collective and online law resources become. Michalson’s content is largely behind a subscription paywall but it is still a valuable addition to the space.

The model is a variation of something I tried to implement a couple years ago with a colleague of mine (who also routinely publishes interesting articles about a range of legal topics). We asked the local law society whether we could provide subscription based legal advice to clients and we were told, a year after the request was made, that this would violate our ethics as attorneys because it would be regarded as touting. Michalsons seems to have circumvented this hurdle by creating a separate vehicle for Michalsons Online which is not Michalsons Attorneys.

The site looks like it is built on top of WordPress and has a subscription option for R299 per month. The purpose of the service, according to the Brainstorm article, is as follows:

What Michalsons Online aims to do is provide accurate and relevant information to the local market on topics that are relatively generic. As the site puts it: “We offer proactive insight and knowledge that no longer needs to be accessed exclusively by traditional consultation with an attorney.”

I subscribed for the free version to take a look at the articles and they are helpful and informative articles and should prove to be a valuable resource for subscribers. I have been working to make more of my legal knowledge available to visitors to my site in its various incarnations for some time now. I agree with Lance Michalson that lay people do not have adequate access to the law and it is important to make the law more accessible. This is one of the reasons why I publish as much of my knowledge as I can on this site and why I also created this custom search engine which references a variety of legal resources in South Africa ranging from government legal information to private law firm websites.

The one aspect of the service I am a little dubious about is the claim that the Michalsons Online service can satisfactorily replace direct advice from a lawyer:

Says Michalson: “There is a slowly emerging demand for lawyers to reduce fees and provide answers online. We’re giving away the answers and taking a big step by giving them away online. What’s nice [for clients] is that you can pay me R1 500 per hour to tell you the information or pay R200 per month to subscribe and find out online. There is lots of information plus stuff like self-assessments to see the extent to which you comply with a law. We’ve just started a document assembly offering that can put together contracts.

While I’d love to reach a point where online legal information can address all but a small subset of highly specialised needs, it is problematic suggesting that relatively generic information can replace specific legal advice. At the same time well structured, comprehensive and varied legal content can answer a number of queries but clients still need to refer to their lawyers to make sure their specific needs are catered for. Michalsons Online does recognise this challenge and has the following caveat in its Online Legal Guidance Terms:

It has been prepared as a summary and opinion on general principles of law and is published for general guidance purposes only. The content does not constitute specific legal, tax, investment, or accountancy advice. Seek advice from a suitably qualified professional adviser before dealing with any specific situation.

I don’t believe that law firms can publish legal articles and sit back thinking they have introduced sufficient change to the profession. As Lance Michalson points out in the Brainstorm article, clients are increasingly dissatisfied with high legal costs (particularly hourly billing). The traditional law firm model doesn’t work anymore and firms must adapt. One of the ways they can do that is to move off the hourly billing model and charge fees based on value (I have all but abandoned the hourly billing model for the majority of my clients). It is a relatively new concept in SA law firms but it will be the differentiator between successful firms and firms that struggle for credibility in their client’s eyes.

All in all this is a good sign for publicly available law in South Africa. Seeing services like this certainly inspires me to post more frequently and share more of my knowledge and insights, particularly as it relates to the Web and digital media. I don’t believe this firm will charge for access to these articles in the foreseeable future and we will continue to license that content under a Creative Commons license to improve access to the content. At the same time, different models are good for the industry because we get to see which ones work and which ones don’t. So, belatedly, welcome Michalsons Online to next generation legal services.

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