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Interview of James Higginbottom
James Higginbottom is a family law attorney based in Virginia. Founder of Higginbottom Law PC.
We need to stop looking at low to middle income people as charity cases. These are hard working people who deserve a legal industry that works just as hard to find a way to make itself accessible and serve them effectively in innovative new ways.
When I first discovered "no code" app builders for law firms (e.g. Afterpattern), I thought "oh, it's a glorified online intake form builder."
How did you come to view "no code" app builders as useful for something more than online intake?
The short answer: I had a perspective shift.
I started looking at my practice as a business instead of "just" the profession of practicing law. Like a lot of others working in a solo / small firm practice, I was a jack of all trades, master of none. The first change I made was to hone in on one area of law, family law. I then went further and narrowed that focus to uncontested divorce.
Looking at your practice as a business means finding opportunities to increase efficiency, and uncontested divorce is a great place to start: it doesn't require many court appearances and it involves relatively rote, procedural work.
But it's not accurate to say that I pursued efficiency for its own sake or to simply work less for more pay, because around the time I made this shift I also became more aware of how underserved a huge segment of the consumer legal market was for divorce.
Many people rely on online sites offering bargain priced forms for an uncontested divorce. I'm not bashing those sites, because they have their place, but they leave you to file for divorce on your own with little or no guidance. And on the other side of the spectrum is hiring an attorney, which is far too expensive for most people. Solving this problem means increasing efficiency so that I can provide a service that's profitable but not prohibitively expensive.
That's when I started looking at "no code" app builders in a new way.
Do you think this perspective shift is shared amongst other lawyers?
Yes. Lawyers are evolving past the billable hour as the sole means of valuing their work, and this is freeing them to think differently. The billable hour stifles innovation; it disincentives you from exploring efficiency or anything that would reduce the cost to the consumer.
It seems like we all agree that access to legal services is a requirement for a just society. Considering that, do you think lawyers have an obligation to find ways to serve the so-called "middle market" of "everyday people" at affordable rates?
This is the Access to Justice problem. I think the market provides a solution. Meaning, I think lawyers can find a way to make their services affordable while still generating a profit and abiding by the ethical requirements of this profession.
This requires innovation, but unfortunately so many lawyers are entrenched in the attitude of "this is how it's always been done." And the classic approach to the Access to Justice problem is through pro bono, where lawyers are asked or required to volunteer their time.
Pro bono can help but only to a certain extent. After that, we need to rely on market forces. We need to stop looking at low to middle income people as charity cases. These are hard working people who deserve a legal industry that works just as hard to find a way to make itself accessible and serve them effectively in innovative new ways.
Let's talk about the specifics of what you're building. What is The Divorce Cloud?
Divorce Cloud is an online resource for all people going through a divorce. My wife described it best when she said the website is to be to divorce, what the 'What to expect when you're expecting' book is to having a baby, or what NerdWallet is to personal finance. People often don’t know where to start, they want general info and know what their options may be before they even get to the point of needing specific legal advice. For example, when someone has a baby, they don’t choose between an online resource like “What to Expect” and going to a doctor. They are often seeking both so they can put their mind at ease throughout the process. The Divorce Cloud is intended to do the same thing and supplement their relationship with their lawyer rather than replace it.
Right now, The Divorce Cloud is essentially a glorified blog, but it allows me to use my expertise to create content (articles and videos) but I think it is capable of generating revenue on its own. For example, imagine a series of online classes you can take to better prepare for and navigate the complexities of a divorce, or a legal app that helps you perform a legal service.
We recently built our first legal app with Afterpattern, called Divorce: Done with You for clients in Virginia. It starts with an eligibility screener designed as an online quiz to determine if their divorce will be contested or uncontested.If they are a good fit, another Afterpattern app will allow them to generate all the custom documents they will need to file their own uncontested divorce in Virginia. We also provide them with a large pool of customized resources to walk them through every step of the way. If they decide that they need more legal assistance along the way, we will even connect them with an attorney to help finalize the process. This gives them the level of legal access they need, while allowing them to maintain some control over the cost of the process.