Part 1 of a series
When you go to Google and fill in the search line with the phrase “Lawyers who sue other lawyers,” you won’t find much—four ads for lawyers in medical malpractice, a listing of law firms and, four stories in, this headline from The New York Times:
“Lawyers Who Sue Lawyers.” The story relates: “Some lawyers call it professional fratricide. Others denigrate those lawyers who do it as being on the fringe of the legal world with nothing better to do. A few label it bad form.” The date it was published: June 26, 1977.
Four decades later, lawyers suing other lawyers remains taboo. Yet I am a lawyer in California, and in the past few months I have filed almost a dozen lawsuits against more than two dozen attorneys and their firms or businesses, alleging such offenses as unfair competition, unauthorized practice of law, false and misleading advertising, negligence and breach of fiduciary duties. Also, I have sued three state bar associations (in Arizona, California and Texas), the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Washington D.C. and the giant gorilla LegalZoom.
My defense: Somebody had to do it. My goal is to provide excellent, affordable legal advice to more small businesses, entrepreneurs and mom & pop proprietors. The biggest obstacle is the legal industry itself. State bar associations’ antiquated regulations, purportedly aimed at protecting clients, in reality were erected to keep out competition and build a moat around the legal profession.
Most of this effort has been filed in the past five months in federal court in Santa Clara, Calif., seeking to prompt reforms and updates to the legal profession’s inefficient rules. These provisions have changed little in the three decades since the internet began disrupting dozens of industries and professions. Today this outdated regimen raises my costs unnecessarily and hinders my freedom to expand my practice and reduce my rates.
The drawbacks affect my business. I am CEO of LegalForce, my law firm in a bustling Main Street office on West El Camino Royal in Mountain View, Calif., in the heart of Silicon Valley. Ten lawyers expert in trademarks and patents help innovators and entrepreneurs take some critical, early steps to creating new technologies and companies.
Also, I am the CEO of Trademarkia, which I founded in 2009, one of the first websites to harness the power of the internet, relational databases and public records to enable trademark search and registration online. For as little as $199, some 60,000 people have been able to secure new trademarks on Trademarkia. Each year, the site draws over 23 million page views and almost ten million visitors and logs more than 8,000 new trademark applications in more than 80 countries. When clients hire us for U.S. trademark filings through Trademarkia and want more advanced legal advice, they are represented by my law firm, LegalForce RAPC Worldwide P.C. Synergy, baby.
After we invented the online trademark-search business, a raft of rivals large and small followed our path, competing on price, often without full-fledged lawyers in their employ and sometimes handing out wrongheaded advice. (We have this on tape.) We adapted to keep costs low and retain our edge, hiring several dozen lawyers in lower-cost markets—Tempe Arizona, India, China, Poland, and South Africa.
At every turn, however, we are hampered by my status as a practicing lawyer. Rules of the bar restrict me in trying to raise capital, forbid me from selling equity to anyone who isn’t a licensed lawyer, block me from giving stock to the non-lawyer in my law firm who co-founded Trademarkia and impose unnecessary requirements that raise costs without improving quality of service.
Regulations of the bar (and the U.S. trademark office) require me, as a lawyer, to abide by rules that aren’t imposed on my non-lawyer rivals. Cue: LegalZoom. Although lower-paid, non-lawyer staff capably can handle most client requests in trademark firms (the LegalZoom approach), the bar forces my firm to have a more costly lawyer involved at all phases.
If I were allowed to function on the same terms as LegalZoom, I could cut the rates LegalForce charges by 50%—and I would do so, immediately. If I disregard these rules to better serve clients, my state bar association could discipline me for ethics violations, leaving me vulnerable to malpractice lawsuits and even criminal charges.
At the same time, however, the bar associations do almost nothing to rein in the unauthorized practice of law by LegalZoom and other interlopers: trademark-filing corporations that flout bar rules and are owned secretly by lawyers who mask their roles; other firms that employ no lawyers and give unauthorized (and inept) legal advice; and brazen online scams with false street addresses and untraceable ownership.
And so, I sued them. It is the best, fastest way for me to seek court rulings and clarifications of the anticompetitive and sclerotic regulations of the bar, the questionable methods of some firms and the unfair and legally dubious practices at the biggest competitor of them all, LegalZoom.
Filing a spate of lawsuits against my fellow attorneys, however reluctant I am to do it, is the right thing to do, so long as it is in the pursuit of justice. Lawyers shouldn’t hold a monopoly on trademark filings or on access to the law. Many things they insist only lawyers can do are, in reality, simple procedures requiring little legal advice.
Let us compete on the same grounds as our competitors outside the legal profession, free to provide excellent counsel to as many clients as we can, at rates that are affordable for even the smallest mom & pop businesses that employ most of the workers in our economy. Everybody wins.
NEXT- Part 2: A Sneaky Shell Game.
Part 1: When Lawyers Sue Lawyers
Part 2: A Sneaky Shell Game
Part 3: Taking On LegalZoom
Part 4: Trial of the Century
Part 5: Patently Offensive
RAJ ABHYANKER, is the founding partner of LegalForce RAPC Worldwide. Raj is a winner of the American Bar Association Legal Rebel award, and the Fastcase 50 Legal Innovation Award. In addition, Raj was an economic policy adviser to the Chief Technology Officer of the United States White House for the America Invents Act, and invited speaker at the Association of California Bar Associations conference, and an invited speaker at the U.S. District Court (9th district) Judge Aiken conference on Innovations in Law, Science, & Technology. He has been quoted in the ABA Journal, New York Times, Bloomberg, Fox News, and Fast Company magazine.