Could 'Uber for Lawyers' Be a Thing?

It is a common trope in the startup world: claiming one's company will be "like Uber, but for..." Fill in the blank: parking, Chinese takeout, babysitters. Indeed, when this pitch becomes a part of a comedic trivia sketch on NPR, or its own Twitter feed, perhaps it has jumped the shark.

It turns out, though, there is one industry that might still benefit from a sharing economy approach, where easier access and less expensive alternatives to incumbent providers might mean consumers will take advantage of the services offered through this industry like never before. This is an industry that is in the midst of a paradox: tens of millions of Americans are priced out of its services, while, at the same time, there are thousands of underemployed service providers in this industry. What a sharing economy approach could do for this industry is match need to supply by making services more convenient and affordable.

The industry that is ripe for sharing economy disruption is the legal profession, where the yawning "justice gap"--the fact that tens of millions of Americans face their legal problems without a lawyer--calls out for new models of service delivery that leverage technology to improve access and affordability. The promise that a sharing economy approach to the delivery of legal services holds out is not just that many more could get access to a lawyer, helping to meet the honorable objective of equal justice under law; it might also improve lawyer job prospects at a time when the profession and the law schools that educate it are struggling to ensure that lawyers can still find meaningful and rewarding work.

A number of ventures are exploring ways to provide legal services using aspects of a sharing economy approach, like LegalZoom, Avvo, Rocket Lawyer, JustiServe, and LawDingo. What these companies understand is that new technologies can improve consumer access to lawyers, creating opportunities for the lawyers affiliated with these companies to increase their client base and expand employment opportunities.

Some of the considerable benefits of a sharing economy approach to the delivery of goods and services generally are that consumers can get easier access to such goods and services not just because they are more convenient to obtain, but also because they are typically less expensive than when offered by incumbent providers using traditional channels of advertising and distribution. In contrast to such incumbent providers, sharing economy platforms connect peers to peers, reducing the costs associated with delivering those services.

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.

Just as with other sharing economy ventures, the national presence of a platform for legal services would give the individual lawyers connected through the platform the advertising muscle no one lawyer, or even collection of lawyers in a firm, would typically enjoy. This would enable the platform to advertise aggressively, making sure every potential customer of the platform would know about it and would know how to access services through it.

By generating more business for lawyers, because more consumers could access and afford the services made available by them, it could improve the job prospects of lawyers, particularly where those prospects are weakest at present: for our newest lawyers, those just graduating law school. This could come about due to the phenomenon known as induced demand. Just as we often see increased traffic on a highway when it is expanded, there is a large and latent market for legal services that is currently dormant because services are so expensive to access. This is occurring at a time when lawyer job prospects, typically new lawyer job prospects, are weaker than they have been for some time.

As I explain in more detail here, an Uber for Lawyers would tap into the benefits of the sharing economy to deliver legal services in a more convenient and affordable fashion. Such an approach might just help close the justice gap and connect the latent supply of clients to that supply of underutilized lawyers who are looking for ways to practice their craft, help the community, and address the legal problems of those in need of assistance. Because no one should face his or her legal problems without a lawyer, though tens of millions of Americans do today, particularly those of low- and moderate-income, connecting the supply of lawyers to the demand for justice is not just good for business, it's also good for society.