A Room, a Ride, or a Trip to Court: the Rise of On-Demand Lawyers

The legal profession is about to meet the sharing economy. Just watch out for those robot assistants.

The on-demand economy has often been regarded predominantly as a reliable way to deliver goods and services that cater to our basic needs: A ride. A meal. A place to stay.

But the potential uses of the on-demand economy are rapidly expanding in the world of business, and they soon may transform the way legal advice is dispensed, as well as who — or even what — is dishing it out.

The UK-based platform Lexoo, for example, allows businesses to get quotes from multiple lawyers, who are reviewed and starred on the site, Yelp-style. Users can quickly survey cost estimates for a wide a range of legal services, then are put in touch with lawyers who are looking to supplement or replace full-time work at a firm.

According to a recent PwC report titled “The future of legal services in a sharing economy,” that’s just the tip of the legal iceberg. Other business variants include a Lawyers on Demand service provided by the firm Berwin Leighton Paisner, which offers a hybrid of the on-demand market and the more traditional firm model.

In an interview with Reinvent, Harvard Law School professor Yochai Benkler explained why the sharing economy has been more successful at making inroads into some fields than others. There was a time not too long ago, said Benkler, when every new app wanted to be described as the “Uber of X,” but the reality is that the sharing economy works best for services that “can be broken up into small uniform chunks” that are fairly standardized.

This could be said to apply to the law: the law is the law, after all, and many clients just want someone who is competent in understanding it. Other clients want to develop and maintain longer term relationships with their lawyers. For these people, the services they receive do not come in discrete, standardized chunks. Given this, it seems unlikely that all lawyers will be jumping on the gig economy bandwagon anytime soon.

Yet the sharing economy isn’t the only foundational change approaching the legal profession. Jerry Kaplan, author of Humans Need Not Apply: A Guide to Wealth and Work in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, has written about the technological products like Judicata and Fair Document that have automated portions of the jobs performed by lawyers and paralegals.

We know what you’re thinking — but lawyers are so fun and personable! Why replace them with robots?

The impending automation of the legal profession also has some intriguing positive implications. One is a chatbot created by a Stanford undergraduate, originally designed to overturn parking fines, but now retooled to provide legal advice to refugees seeking asylum. The chatbot uses Facebook Messenger to ask questions of refugees in “plain English,” as opposed to convoluted legalese (though refugees do need to have access to the Internet to use the service).

Thanks to the on-demand economy, the phrase “see you in court” just got a whole lot more complicated.