Canada: Tech Central: Technology Continues To Impact Legal Practice

Estate plans should address online assets

Recent moves by the IRS and the Canada Revenue Agency seeking to tax owners of the virtual currency Bitcoin have highlighted the difficulties of reconciling virtual assets with real world legal constructs. Now, bankers and estate professionals are awakening to the value such assets may have upon the "owner's" death.

Most wills today don't address such assets. With many North Americans accumulating substantial credit in virtual accounts like Bitcoin, PayPal, Air Miles and other loyalty programs, the potential for confusion and conflict after death is growing. Even Twitter accounts are now considered to have actual dollar values, with websites and apps available to help track and maximize such value.

More and more, estates lawyers are looking to inform themselves on these new tech issues. With virtual values continuing to climb, a complete estate plan should address how these assets are to be treated upon death or incapacity. Full details, values, website addresses and passwords will be critical for executors, beneficiaries and powers of attorney seeking to manage a person's affairs.

Look for more discussion on this topic soon in another issue of Lawyers Alert. 

Do more legal apps mean bad news for lawyers?

In the fall 2013 issue of Lawyers Alert, this column looked at the emergence of mobile apps designed to assist lawyers in their practices. But are some apps now seeking to replace lawyers altogether?

Shake could be the start. The app is available for free in the Apple App Store for iPhone, iPad and iPod touch. It claims to "simplify legal contracts," allowing layperson users to "create, sign and send documents right from your phone." Highlighted areas include hiring a freelancer, purchase and rental agreements, loan agreements, and confidentiality/non-disclosure agreements.

Though the app is clearly geared – at least for now – toward relatively uncomplicated matters, we can likely expect to see this type of service expand quickly with tech improvements and user interest. Some lawyers argue that there is a practical ceiling for the uses of this type of service; once agreements reach a certain level of complexity and dollar value, the liabilities and necessary subjective elements dictate that a flesh-and-bone lawyer will be required.

Finding that point may be the key. For now, Shake appears to be starting from the bottom and working its way up to that point, with a 4-star rating from 165 reviews. Though Shake is not yet available for Android, the Create Contracts Legitimo app claims to provide many of the same features, with a 4-star rating from 29 reviews in the Google Play Store.

We'll keep an eye on how this trend progresses.

More lawyer-shopping

In fall 2011, we reported on Shpoonkle, a then-new website that allowed prospective legal clients to post a description of their legal concerns and then sit back and watch as lawyers bid for the opportunity to service those problems. The Shpoonkle site is still active, apparently allowing (registered) clients to sift through bids to find the one that best suits the services and fees they desire.

A Canadian lawyer has added a new twist to this concept of online lawyer-shopping. Addison Cameron-Huff, a technology lawyer in Toronto, recently founded, a website that allows lawyers to advertise their flat rate pricing for specific, routine legal tasks. The site purports to provide clarity, efficiency and certainty to the prospective client trying to understand what a particular legal problem will cost. It claims to be "a win-win for lawyers and clients."

There are lawyers from most of the major city centres in Ontario, advertising flat rates across most areas of practice. Advertised rates range from as low as $70 for Consent to Travel documentation to $3,000 for mediation services.

This is yet another example of the strategies some lawyers are finding necessary to compete in the progressively more competitive legal market.

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