Commoditizing The Acquisition of Legal Services — An attorney in 15 minutes or less

June 17th, 2011

The TImes reports about a new service, called LawyerUp, that allows someone in a pinch to obtain an attorney quickly and easily in 15 minutes or less.

How does it work?

The service’s personal plan, aimed at young people, costs $4.95 a month. Those who do not have a subscription can pay a flat fee of $100 for the first call, which the company calls its “pay-in-a-pinch plan.” For all clients, an operator checks contact information and processes the lawyer’s initial fee of $250 on a credit card for the first hour of service.

Lawyers do not pay to sign on to the roster, or for the client calls. Legal ethics rules frown on arrangements in which lawyers split fees with nonlawyers, and especially when lawyers pay people to round up clients — a practice known as using runners. A Connecticut lawyer who signed on, Patrick Tomasiewicz, said that when he got the call from the company, his main question was whether he would need to pay LawyerUp. The company satisfied him that its structure avoided runner issues.

Lawyers, who are usually resistant to these types of changes, are somewhat tepid.

The legal profession tends to be wary of innovation, he noted, adding that he had found the LawyerUp process to be far less questionable than many forms of legal advertising he sees on billboards and late-night television. “I don’t have my name on a cab,” he said.

No one has called him yet, Mr. Tomasiewicz said. “It may pan out for us. It may not.”

Ralph J. Monaco, the president of the Connecticut Bar Association, seemed a bit ruffled in an interview when asked about the company, calling the name “so tasteless.” He said he fretted that it might create a relationship that an unscrupulous lawyer could use to gouge the new client.

Does that mean lawyers like Mr. Tomasiewicz should worry about getting involved? “I don’t think so,” Mr. Monaco said. “I would want to see how it’s put into action.”

I think this is an extension of what Professor’s Ribstein and Kobayashi had described as Law’s Information’s Revolution. This is a legal information service, almost as if a commodity. A client needs legal services, and doesn’t really care where it comes from. With a single phone call, the client can be connected with a willing attorney. I include a lengthy string cite from my Article on FantasySCOTUS that explores this.

See Richard Susskind, The End of Lawyers? Rethinking the Nature of Legal Services 31 (2009) (“In summary, a commoditized legal service is an IT-based offering that is undifferentiated in the marketplace (undifferentiated in the minds of the recipients and not the providers of the service). For any given commodity, there may be very similar competitor products, or the product is so commonplace that it is distributed at low or no cost.”); Larry Ribstein, Law’s Information Revolution (noting that technology could be used to “create legal knowledge,” and “reengineer[] the underlying idea of what legal research entails.”). Michio Kaku  Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100 (2011) (“When technologies become widely dispersed, such as electricity and running water, they eventually become utilities. With capitalism driving down prices and increasing competition, these technologies will be sold like utilities, that is, we don’t care where they come from and we pay for them only when we want them.”).