Before founding grocery-delivery app Instacart, Apoorva Mehta had tried and failed to create a social network for lawyers. The reason for his troubles, he would later reflect, was that lawyers "don't like technology, and they don't like to share things." While other professions have been completely transformed by technology, the day-to-day practices of lawyers have remained largely the same.
UpCounsel, a 3-year-old startup based in San Francisco, has been attempting to change that by offering lawyers a different way to work. The company has created a marketplace where businesses can go and connect with high-quality attorneys for specific tasks. While not quite an "Uber for lawyers," it does offer both sides some of the same benefits. Businesses can get reliable, a-la-carte legal services remotely delivered at a discounted rate. Meanwhile attorneys get to focus on what they do best while UpCounsel handles their finances, lead generation, document management, and guarantees that they will be paid for their work. For the solo practitioners and small firms that make up their member base, handing off their administrative duties saves them an enormous amount of time.
The UpCounsel network now includes several hundred lawyers; but the company had to overcome some major challenges early on in establishing credibility within the legal profession. For any professional, protecting their reputation is key. CEO Matt Faustman, a former attorney himself, recalls how early conversations with lawyers were full of skepticism. He realized quickly that they would not associate with what could be perceived as a low-quality product. They placed a high importance on being able to receive a predictable income. As a platform company selling individual services, that was a particularly difficult issue to figure out. The company had to relentlessly improve their customer service, curate their client base, and figure out how to get repeat business.
UpCounsel is far from the only startup attempting to shake up the legal field. In the United States alone the market is estimated to be worth over $400 billion, and by many accounts, ripe for disruption. Entrepreneurs have been trying for years to modernize how legal research, process automation, e-discovery are done. While examples of cutting-edge technology in law are rare, there are some enterprising law firms that are using 3D-printed models in product liability cases to demonstrate flaws in design. What makes a company like UpCounsel unique in their field is the focus they've placed on establishing trust between several different parties who are all communicating remotely online.
Faustman believes we are just at the start of what he calls the "virtualization of professional services." Just as the on-demand economy has exploded in popularity, he sees the same thing happening to doctors, accountants, and many other "trained professional verticals." But unlike the disruptions we see to the taxi industry, Faustman doesn't see the demise of these professions but rather a transformation of how they work. Online platforms and networks can reduce the cost of business and increase accessibility. For the average person that will mean better service, more convenience, and less of a financial barrier. The law firm and doctor's office will still have a significant role, but they will have to adapt by moving into higher-end sectors.
Before we reach that point, platforms still have a long way to go. If they are to truly become equal to their traditional counterparts, they will need to figure out a way to properly address education and workforce training. They cannot just become a slimmed-down version of the middlemen they set out to replace. For his part, Faustman recognizes the need to build the infrastructure to help lawyers become better at their jobs. That will involve moving past providing client leads and instead building a network with resources that put the company "on the level of one of the biggest law firms."
Overhauling a long-established industry requires an alternative that is drastically better in order to even stand a chance. The on-demand economy now includes everything from Postmates, which will deliver virtually anything from anywhere, to Honor, which provides elder care within two hours of request. While their business models are similar, these companies cannot operate in the same way. People will need to be repeatedly convinced that platform companies are working as hard as possible to maintain a consistent level of quality.
This article originally appeared on Forbes -- Disruption and Democracy.
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