We are thrilled to have had the possibility to write and publish an article about the future of law within the context of the sharing economy where we argue that legal services could exploit the positive effects of being delivered through the sharing model (matching the need to supply by making services more convenient and affordable).
The article is published as part of a monograph by Zavod 14 and the European Liberal Forum entitled Sharing Economy in Europe – Opportunities and Challenges, which you can download and read for free (Option 1, Option 2 or Option 3). For your convenience you can read the full article also below.
We are living in the age of the sharing economy. Its mind-set of ‘why own or rent if you can share and have it when you need it’ is permeating various aspects of the delivery of goods and services. Companies like Booking.com, Uber, Airbnb and others have transformed the way we commute, go on holidays etc. Their common underlying model may be described as harnessing technology and social media to provide information that optimises resources through the redistribution, sharing and re-use of excess capacity regarding goods and services. New companies are emerging every day, promoting a “like Uber, except for …” business model for different industries. This chapter aims to investigate whether the delivery of legal services is a candidate for the sharing-economy model. In fact, we argue that legal services could exploit the positive effects of being delivered through the sharing model (matching the need to supply by making services more convenient and affordable), while the negative aspects of the model might not ultimately emerge due to the specific checks and balances built into the legal sector.
Characteristics of the legal profession that make it a perfect candidate for the sharing-economy model
Central to the sharing-economy approach is the notion that providers have available resources that can be put to productive use if only they can find a willing consumer of these goods and services. In the area of legal services, a lawyer makes him- or herself available to an array of clients and serves them within his or her capacity. As such, traditional legal services today already reveal some features of the sharing economy. But there is still room for improvement that might significantly alter the access to and delivery of legal services.
The sharing-economy approach looks at the provision of services from two angles. First, what are clients’ potential legal needs? Second, what is the best way to deliver services to meet those needs in a timely and efficient manner? Key features that might appear in a sharing-economy approach to the delivery of legal services and would promote its efficiency and access include the following: (a) an independent workforce that does not fit within the traditional employer–employee relationship; (b) a matchmaking function – directly connecting a consumer with a willing provider by virtue of technology-enabled platforms; (c) an optimised process for identifying clients’ legal needs so as to find their perfect match among legal service providers; (d) lawyers becoming specialised to meet clients’ specific needs to ensure the most efficient and streamlined delivery of services possible; and (e) the need to balance innovation with regulatory oversight and the desire to instil consumer trust.
The presumption of the sharing-economy approach is that a Just in Time/Just Enough response to the demand for legal assistance would provide exactly the right level of services, at the appropriate time, to the appropriate client. The proposed features are considered more closely below.
a) A Network of Independent Lawyers
The delivery of legal services has a substantial problem with distribution. While (too) many graduate lawyers find themselves unemployed or underemployed, there are ever more people around the world who face legal problems and have no qualified legal help. What a sharing-economy approach could do for the industry is to match demand with supply by making services more convenient and affordable. A sharing approach connects different independent lawyers, specialists in various legal areas, within a network (usually a platform) through which they can offer their services (as many types as they want) to prospective clients. For a client, the network would operate like a big law firm, able to deal with all sorts of legal or business problems. For lawyers, this way of delivering their services would give them independence and allow them to set their own pace of work (since younger workers increasingly seek a work–life balance as an important aspect of work, such sharing companies are more appealing to them than traditional law firms). It also gives them the opportunity to specialise their practice through the process of client selection (as explained in greater detail below).
b) New Technologies
What is new about the sharing economy is its creative use of Internet and mobile technologies to directly connect consumers with providers, at the click of a mouse or tap on a smartphone. Such technology-enabled services take the responsibility of marketing and matchmaking away from individual providers, meaning they can devote their efforts and energies to supplying the service on offer. As a result, they can spend less time building their brand and finding customers and more productively use their time and assets.
What is more, technology can further improve the customer experience during the performance of the legal service. It facilitates the use of different communication channels, video conferences, process tracking, document sharing or document formation tools – means that are (with the exception of a few bigger law firms) rarely employed by law firms today.
c) A Triage
To optimise the legal services delivered via the sharing-economy model, the process of identifying a client’s legal needs deserves special attention. This process distinguishes the different stages along on the continuum of legal services, such as: delivering information, making pre-prepared forms available, providing brief advice and assistance, making unbundled services available, and furnishing full and direct representation. By identifying a client’s legal needs (depending on the complexity of their legal problem), the client would be directed to the appropriate stage to provide the services required. This feature relies on the assumption that not all legal problems call for the same level of services. There are areas in which written information, forms and quick legal advice are able to satisfy a large number of clients. By building on economies of scale, legal providers can cut the costs of such services considerably. For clients who need full representation, the sharing-economy approach would provide a network of trusted attorneys with appropriate, in-depth knowledge of a certain legal field. The premise of the sharing-economy approach is that it reduces information asymmetries and finds a better lawyer (or other legal service) for a client than they would be able to find themselves (which usually occurs through word-of-mouth referrals).
d) A Specialisation
Another aspect of the sharing-economy approach is that lawyers and legal staff will be able to develop deep expertise in a particular area of law, enabling them to offer more streamlined services at a lower price because they can spend less time researching each client’s predicament. By focusing on just a few areas of law, lawyers would be able to become highly proficient in these areas, meaning they could serve more clients since they would need to spend less time researching what for them are new areas of law.
One feature common to the sharing economy is that providers (i.e. platforms) need to generate trust. Without doubt, this also holds for legal service providers. According to interviews we conducted with our clients, they all value trust over a lawyer’s specialisation. A network for the sharing of legal services should therefore establish an entry check for all prospective legal service providers. A certain degree of monitoring of the services they offer would also be needed to ensure quality. As recognised by similar platforms, client feedback offers important quality guidance for future users. It would be beneficial to give feedback to providers according to specific metrics – responsiveness to client questions, thoroughness of advice, ability to anticipate problems etc. This sort of review is rarely accepted by lawyers in today’s legal services market. However, in comparison to some other sharing-economy models, the legal services industry already contains particular safeguards to protect consumers from the risks that are present in the sharing economy generally. Such quality assurance measures are monitoring entry to the field (bar admission), policing abuses and disciplining bad actors (so long as the ultimate legal service providers are attorneys-at-law). These checks and balances make the legal industry a perfect candidate for a sharing-economy model and sets it apart from others where such approaches are testing the limits of the existing regulatory and administrative regimes.
The rise of alternative legal service providers
As shown above, the delivery of legal services could be structured to fit with the sharing-economy model. Companies already exist whose business model is somewhere along those lines. Some operate as a peer-to-peer marketplace, giving clients a mere opportunity to find an attorney who practises in the area of their legal question (i.e. Lexoo in the UK, Upcounsel, Priori Legal and others in the USA or Advocado in Germany), while others are offering new, alternative forms of legal service delivery. Axiom Law, for example, offers agile teams of lawyers and other specialists to serve as in-house lawyers for limited time periods. Another set of alternative legal service providers specialises in tech solutions, developing programmes for intelligent document automation (like Neota Logic), document review or similar. The market of alternative legal service providers is evolving at such a pace that the term “alternative” might not correctly describe some of them anymore due to their mainstream role, with the term “law companies” perhaps being more appropriate. IURALL is the first law company in the CEE region. It has developed a tech-supported triage process for identifying clients’ legal needs and offers a network of legal practitioners to transparently meet those needs.
A sharing legal system of the future
A technology-enabled, sharing-economy approach to the delivery of legal services can improve the provision of legal services for both consumers and the legal profession. First, it promises to reduce costs for the consumer, enhance the accessibility of legal services, and improve access to justice. By making legal services both less expensive and easier to access than offered by traditional law firms, consumers could utilise 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. Second, it holds the possibility of making client acquisition easier for lawyers, allowing them greater flexibility in their work schedules, and enabling them to focus on the actual legal work. Third, and most importantly, unlike other entrants to the sharing economy, the legal profession has pre-existing tools for monitoring entry to the field, policing abuses and disciplining bad actors, which should ensure a certain level of quality control and enhance trust among users.
Ana Jereb, Primož Rojac
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