Low-cost legal services now being offered in Toronto Walmarts
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Behind the plastic jugs of liquid Tide stacked near the entrance of a new Walmart in Markham is an innovation in discount retailing: Axess Law.
Founded by Toronto lawyers Lena Koke and Mark Morris, Axess Law provides fast and affordable legal services to time-pressed shoppers.
Simple wills are $99. Notarized documents are $25, plus $19 for each additional document.
The Axess office in the Walmart on Copper Creek Dr. in Markham is a slim 600 square feet, branded in orange (think ING, Joe Fresh) and is open seven days a week until 8 p.m. It opened in January.
An Axess law office opened at the Walmart in the Scarborough Town Centre last June, and another this month at the Walmart at Eglinton Ave. E. and Warden Ave.
Another is scheduled to open at a Cedarbrae Walmart on Lawence Ave. E. in May.
The partners, lawyers who met at the University of Toronto Rotman School of Management while completing their MBAs, are hoping to open locations in Walmarts across Ontario within the next two years and Canada within the next four.
There is no mahogany or marble and no appointment necessary.
“A lot of people are intimidated by lawyers. This is a non-intimidating setting,” said Koke, over the sound of grocery carts slamming together and the beeping of the store exit alarm.
Evenings between 5-8 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays are their busiest times, says Morris.
“That’s when most lawyers have shut down their operations – that’s when we fly.”
Volume allows them to charge lower prices.
“We don’t fault other lawyers. If we were doing two notarizations a week, we’d have to charge $99 for those notarizations,” says Koke.
Chiropractor Karen Lumsden, 33, was able to get a document notarized in less than five minutes at the Markham Axess, with her two-year-old son in tow.
“It’s convenient, it’s fast, it’s reasonably priced. When you just need something done quickly you wouldn’t want to have to worry about booking something with a lawyer – it’s just easy,” said Lumdsen.
Traffic tickets and family law, personal injury and litigation files are referred to other firms. Axess will add uncontested divorces to the menu in the fall.
Notary services, real estate law, will and powers of attorney are performed on-site, allowing home buyers and sellers to drop off and pick up keys after hours instead of between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.
Simple personal wills are done with a lawyer using propriety software, which incorporates detailed solicitor notes, so that if the will is contested, the lawyer who drew it up can testify as to what the client wanted.
“We are careful about what kinds of wills we do. If someone came in here with their 95-year-old father and said: ‘My 95-year-old father who can’t walk by himself and can barely speak English, he wants to change his will and leave everything to me,’ we’re not touching that,” said Koke.
“You’re in a retail space, it’s a numbers game, eventually you’re going to get someone trying to take advantage of someone else. And part of our job is to watch out for that as well.”
“Legal service has to be held up to a gold standard, whether you are in retail or whether you are on Bay Street,” said Morris.
Real estate law is already highly commoditized, with Internet sites competing on lowest price, said Morris.
Alternate models for legal services exist in other jurisdictions, according to Mitch Kowalski, author of Avoiding Extinction: Reimagining Legal Services for the 21st Century.
He points to Legal Force, a company offering legal services online that opened a bricks-and-mortar location in Palo Alto and Legal Cuts, a barbershop and law office founded by a Connecticut lawyer in the belief that someone with legal questions would be more willing to share them during a hair cut or a shave.
Legal Cuts also offers a white shirt, tie and haircut for those with a court date, according to Kowalski.
Legal services in a retail context is also established in the United Kingdom. The co-operative, offers customers everything from food to pharmacy to funerals and legal services.
“I think it’s a good idea because it makes law more accessible …law is too expensive for the average Canadian and average Canadians don’t know when they need a lawyer sometimes,” says Kowalski.
“Maybe at the Walmart you can pop in and ask a general question and create a rapport because you’re at the Walmart buying other stuff. It’s not set off as a special event. It’s just part of your daily life.”
There are advantages to dealing with lawyers locally instead of through a web-based service, says Kowalski. Using Skype and online tools is convenient, but if you’re in Ontario and you want a will, you don’t want to be using a lawyer in Hong Kong or Florida – there are obvious jurisdictional issues.
The Law Society of Upper Canada has in recent years given lawyers more flexibility in marketing and advertising legal services, according to director of communications Roy Thomas.
While offering law to Canadians where they shop is a good idea, it does leave the issue of affordable courtroom representation unresolved.
“Maybe as these guys grow, they’ll be able to deal with that as part of their menu of services, but at least they’re hitting the day-to-day stuff,” said Kowalski.
Morris said access to justice is one of the drivers behind Axess – besides the business imperative of being profitable.
“Our intention is to move into that space the moment we can find a convenient, affordable and practical way of doing so.”