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Karissa Onye explores the ‘uberization’ of the legal industry, its impact on workers and the possibilities for further innovation in the future.
The rapidly expanding economy of flexible, temporary jobs, known as the ‘online gig economy’ has permeated into the professional legal field. Globalization and digital evolution is transforming the legal ecosystem, and a direct result of this has been the liberalization of the ways solicitors practice. Previously, the majority of solicitors who practiced individually were approved by the SRA (Solicitors Regulation Authority) as RSP’s (recognised sole practice). These accounted for 25% of law firms authorized by the SRA.
In November 2019, a new type of solicitor was created, known as the ‘SRA- regulated independent solicitor.’ This new bracket permits individual solicitors to provide legal services without the need to be an authorized independent office or law firm.
The SRA itself has termed this development as the ‘Uberization of legal services.’ The change results from the SRA’s belief that solicitors should be allowed to operate on a similar model as barristers, who are self-employed.
So, what exactly will this entail?
As a freelancer, one would be unable to have employees or hold client money and would need appropriate indemnity insurance. This deregulation of solicitors will likely result in the emergence of online platforms where these so called ‘freelancers’ will advertise their services. Due to heightened competition, the service would be available 24/7 and would grant clients access to legal services for reduced time and cost. Sites will make use of algorithms to find adequate solicitors based on the data entered which relate to the relevant area of law, ratings from previous clients, and the lawyer’s pedigree.
There are several advantages to this new model. The increased flexibility regarding legal consultations and resultant reduced costs will allow smaller businesses and individuals to employ legal services. This will also increase accessibility to the law, a feature that was significantly reduced by the recent cuts to legal aid funding. Additionally, reduced legal fees may curtail the number of people who choose to neglect professional legal advice in favour of self-advising. As a result, instead of poaching customers from the traditional market, the model would appeal to a whole new clientele.
Larger firms would benefit from the ability to employ freelancers on special short-term contracts. They will thus be able to hire specialists from required fields and engage in projects which they may not have had access to originally. Proponents argue that the uber model would result in lower costs for all parties involved and the increased focus on client satisfaction can only have beneficial rewards.
The potential uberization of the legal industry has been met with resistance and scepticism from established law firms and professionals; they associate it with a decline in quality. There are concerns that reduced regulation and increased informality will lead to reduced professional standards of business. These freelancers are usually not bound to the same professional codes and checks. Opponents of this development further argue that the lack of connection between platform owners and service providers will mean a lack of motivation to protect the reputation of their representing organizations. The Law Society were vehemently opposed to the development of the uberizaton model due to fear that it would mean reduced consumer protection which would contaminate the professional reputation of solicitors.
Mental Health and Ethics
Furthermore, there is concern that the new model would lead to a decline in ethic and/or moral standards. The president of the SDT (Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal) has admitted to concerns over senior officials using the model to exploit freelancers.
Mental health and issues of stress are already prevalent within the legal industry. Yet, an uber based model may exacerbate this even further. Similar to Uber riders, some clients may not be interested in the solicitor’s welfare or have regard for the wider socio-economic impact of their decisions. Many clients value, and therefore seek, low costs and maximum efficiency more than anything else. This may result in increased pressure on freelancers to meet demands by working even longer hours for less pay.
Oz Benamram, Chief Knowledge & Innovation Officer (CKIO) at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP, released an article promoting the concept of an Uber-like legal service delivery which he termed ‘Lawber.’ The platform would have clients fill in a form detailing their requirements and will match them to appropriate lawyers. However, this is only visionary as there are various technical obstacles that need to be dealt with before his proposals can be realized. Nevertheless, based on the current rate of technological growth, it is a safe assumption that these obstacles will be overcome.
It remains to be seen whether the advent of the ‘freelancer’ will have as widespread an impact as predicted. It may be that virtual legal counselling may become the new normal and, just like the birth of FinTech was for the banking industry, disrupt legal service provision. On the other hand, legal innovation is not a new concept; similar claims of disruption erupted during the rise of digital platforms such as Rocket Lawyer and LegalZoom, yet the industry remains largely unaffected.
Cynics doubt the ability of the uber model to survive and thrive in the legal industry and believe that the traditional law firm will maintain its physiognomy. However, it only took a few years for Uber to completely transform the taxi industry. As convenience becomes increasingly important to modern clients, the value of web-based services continues to rise. The coronavirus pandemic and the transitioning of law firms to virtual platforms proves that change is not only possible, but imminent.
~ Karissa Onye, The Student Lawyer