A recent blog post by a professor at Albany Law School explores whether an “Uber for Lawyers” would work. (Longer paper, which includes triage and continuum of services, here). His argument:
By offering technology-enabled legal services through an internet- or mobile-based interface, what a sharing economy approach to the delivery of legal services can do is allow consumers of legal services a clearinghouse from which to access services easily and conveniently. Such a clearinghouse could connect the consumer quickly and conveniently to a lawyer who could offer a range of services depending on the client need. Like with other sharing economy platforms, this “Uber for Lawyers” would tap into the latent supply of lawyers while serving the overwhelming majority of low- and moderate-income Americans who do not have access to one. The services would be easy-to-access and could be offered at a reduced rate or on a sliding-scale basis, with profit margins maintained by the increased volume of services offered. By making such services both less expensive and easier-to-access than traditional legal services, consumers could utilize them earlier in the life cycle of a legal problem, catching them before they spiral out of control, meaning such problems would likely be less costly to address.
The problem is that people are deeply reluctant to hire a lawyer without feeling that they “know” them. Thus personal referrals are trusted far far more than websites or other sources.
I think the reason for this is the deep ambivalence that all of us (including perhaps many in the profession) feel about lawyers. It is summed up for me by a phrase I heard in a focus group uttered by one woman, and immediately endorsed by the group: “Bad, but good to have on your side when you have a problem.” So if anything we start distrusting anyone who is a lawyer and trying to “sell” themselves to us. In particular, we fear that the lawyer will add rather than reduce conflict, particularly, but not only when the lawyer has an economic incentive to increase conflict.
So the question becomes how such a “Uber for Lawyers” would feel more like a personal referral than an advertising driven hunt. How can we transcend that tension so that people feel that they trust the “law driver” they are choosing.
One way, obviously, would be to put up the kind of content that would give the person seeking a service the kind of information that would give them comfort. Here are some thoughts (although without expressing any view as to the extent to which these would currently be allowed under varied state ethics codes.)
Providing videos in which potential clients can see the lawyer engaging in the kinds of activities that show their approach — client interview, negotiation, court appearance, explaining a difficult concpt, etc.
Similar videos in which the lawyers talk about their philosophy, perhaps with clients (and even opposing clients!) describing how it felt to engage with that lawyer
User feedback systems that focus on the things that people care about, and that would be customizable, so that any person looking for a lawyer could indicate which factors are most important.
Case examples with total fees as predicted and as they came in at the end. Listings of average total fees. Same with times to resolution.
Two concluding thoughts:
Perhaps the Commission on the Future of the Profession should look at how the ethics rules could be changed to encourage that kind of outreach generally.
And, is there any way to leverage the need for such systems, and indeed the huge benefits to the profession of providing them, to assist access to justice? Maybe a percentage of membership fees in such a system should go to an “access to justice lockbox” that would fund or subsidize the costs of the referred services for low and middle income folks. Perhaps Access to Justice Commissions could operate these systems, and use the profits to fund ATJ activities.
An exciting time.