For 10 years now, LegalZoom has been revolutionizing the way people access the law by providing online legal document services. The company was initially conceived by two talented lawyers and an IT guru with a vision for making legal services more accessible through the Internet. LegalZoom currently offers business formation services, including LLC, incorporation, DBA, registered agent services, and annual reports; personal services, such as last will, living will, living trust, and power of attorney; and intellectual property services, like patents, trademarks, and copyrights. The most recent service to be offered is a monthly plan for businesses and families, including one-on-one personal attorney support.
Since joining the company in 2007, CIO Tracy Terrill has overseen the information management and technology strategy to support LegalZoom’s rapid growth. His initiatives have included implementing best practices for software development, recruiting and building a global engineering team, enabling 24-hour development, and redesigning the corporate Web site infrastructure. Before coming to LegalZoom, he held numerous IT leadership positions with General Electric, Universal Studios, Universal Music Group, Warner Brothers, and Gartner. He talked with me about some of the key things he has seen and expects to see with the company and in the online services business.
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1. Jeff: What is the primary challenge you face as CIO in managing the technology of LegalZoom?
Tracy: Our overall mission as a company is to redefine and simplify access to the law in the United States. To accomplish that, my team’s main challenge has been balancing our efforts between new product development and improving the customer experience. I’m fortunate enough to have an amazing team that can balance both maintaining our systems and supporting product development and growth, but it’s not easy. Let’s put it this way: Nobody in our office is going home at six o’clock. I do have to say my team is inspired and motivated by the stories we get from our customers. It’s rewarding to know you’re helping people in their personal lives and even in fulfilling some of their dreams.
2. Jeff: LegalZoom seems similar to other online services, like H&R Block and TurboTax, where a template simplifies things through standard questions that allow the user to follow an if-then logic path. Is that a legitimate comparison?
Tracy: Yes it is. With TurboTax, the person filing the return goes through a list of straightforward questions, and the software puts the answers in the appropriate tax form. With our services, the customer identifies the type of document they need, which takes them to a questionnaire that is specific to that document. The rest of the experience is similar in that they answer a series of non-legalese questions, and LegalZoom puts the answers into the appropriate places in the document.
Where LegalZoom differs from TurboTax and other online services as I understand them is that we also provide a human review, looking for completeness and consistency issues. In addition, we offer services where a third-party lawyer will do a more thorough document review, also at no cost, and can provide ongoing consultation for a monthly subscription fee.
3. Jeff: Has the proliferation of mobile apps and devices affected the way you do business or do you expect it to?
Tracy: We’ve been a bit surprised by the large number of iPad users that interact with our site. We don’t expect customers to complete questionnaires on their smartphones, but we can see the tablet devices being a significant source of our Web traffic. Smartphones may have a place in our future too, especially as we move into areas like scheduling appointments for our customers with outside attorneys. Personally, I’m excited by the aggressive movement into tablets. We have seen a significant increase month-over-month in customers using tablets.
4. Jeff: Is guaranteeing uptime on your site an issue? How do you address it?
Tracy: Being an online service is a challenge because we never close. We’ve implemented monitoring at all levels, and we have on-call employees who are designated to respond at any hour of the day or night. There is also a significant amount of coordination required to perform our regular system maintenance and upgrades, so maintaining perpetual uptime is a challenging part of our business.
5. Jeff: Is a legal review needed in finalizing a document, similar to the way online tax preparation packages offer a review of a return for red flag items before it is submitted?
Tracy: There will always be a need for lawyers to handle the complex legal issues and provide one-on-one personalized legal advice to customers who need it. For a large number of American families who don’t have a last will or other important legal documents, though, self-help legal companies like ours fill an important unmet need. Our employees review each document for completeness, spelling, grammar, and consistency of names, addresses, and the like. If a customer wants to review things more thoroughly, or to speak with a lawyer further about the details, we always encourage them to do so. That’s the point of the subscription services like Business Advantage Pro and Legal Advantage Plus we now offer in many states. For a small monthly fee, these plans allow for attorney consultations on an unlimited number of new legal matters.
6. Jeff: What are the benefits of using the technology you provide, as opposed to a purely paper-driven process?
Tracy: Some of the benefits are obvious just by the nature of being Web-based, like speed and revision abilities, and of course archiving. We provide permanent vaulting services for safekeeping of the completed copies of estate planning documents, such as last wills. Some of the other less obvious benefits include things like the ability to apply logic as you work through a questionnaire. Each questionnaire is created dynamically based on the customer’s answers in order to ask only what is relevant. For example, someone who answers that they don’t have children doesn’t get questions related to kids’ names and so on, further in the questionnaire. There are also specific definitions and help text online as you go through the interactive questionnaire process, which would be impossible with a paper-driven process.
7. Jeff: What are the major differences in the end product like a will or incorporation prepared through LegalZoom compared to one created with a preparation software package?
Tracy: There are several advantages to using LegalZoom over will preparation software. One big one is that we can immediately amend our questionnaires if there is a change, whether it’s major or minor, in state or federal laws. All the data resides on our secure servers, so we can do a human review for consistency and then send the documents with any final instructions in a high-quality package, with all of the legal documents printed out on archival-quality paper. Also, for estate planning documents, a customer can always come back to us and make revisions or get another copy, in the event the original gets lost or destroyed. Our customer care reps provide the status of a document at any time, and for business formations, such as incorporation, we can advise on any filing delays that are happening with the state government.
This point alludes to something particularly important. Not only do we print out the documents for our customers, but for documents such as incorporation or trademark that require filing, we file the document with the appropriate state or federal agency. No software program can replicate that, so all these features together put online services in a one-stop shop category that’s unlike anything else.
8. Jeff: Is will preparation the most popular service you provide?
Tracy: I can’t go into specifics of order volume, but we see strong volumes of limited-liability company formations, last wills, trademarks, and in our Business Advantage Pro membership. BAP is a brand new offering for us, where a person can get business attorney consultations on an unlimited number of new legal matters, as well as access to hundreds of business and personal documents for one monthly fee. LegalZoom has served well over a million customers.
9. Jeff: What kind of response have you seen so far from your social media connections, such as with the “Free Joe Friday” on your Facebook page?
Tracy: We’re still in the early days of our social media presence, but things are starting to come together. We want to be a company that provides really good, informative content for our fans and followers, a compelling reason for them to want to interact with us. Free Joe Friday is a good example of that. It’s essentially a legal advice radio show that spills over to Facebook. Once a week, an attorney takes questions on a first-come basis from our fans and posts answers to them to the best of his ability. Joe is clearly not an expert in every nuance of the law in every state, but he can provide a good start or a new way to think about an issue, and he does it in an entertaining way. We actually have about 10 times more followers on Facebook than on Twitter now. Joe has answered as many as 22 questions in one stint, and the fan count is up over 50,000. It’s definitely a good start, and there’s more to come.
10. Jeff: To wrap things up, how would you say your position at LegalZoom differs from the CIO role in other industries?
Tracy: Actually, I am frequently asked if I am the CIO or the CTO. At LegalZoom, the role is consolidated. My team manages projects, systems, and the infrastructure. I do think the job is a bit different in that I’m actively involved in new product development, as well as the overall strategy of the company. I know many CIOs who function in a service role to the business and have little participation at the executive level.
Tracy Terrill is the CIO of LegalZoom and lives in Los Angeles. You can hear him speak at InfoWorld’s Enterprise Data Explosion Conference in San Francisco on June 8 and follow @legalzoom.