An Uber model for legal services delivery?

Some commentators have been asking whether law firms and other legal service organisations should adopt an Uber-like model for legal service delivery.

From a narrow technological point of view I think is safe to assume that this could well happen.

Looking at some of the less benign aspects of the model in practice, it seems regulators will need to ensure a good standard of ethics is adhered to if the model is to work fairly for all concerned (and there are signs they are prepared to do so).

Does legal project management facilitate the Uberisation of law? I don’t think it does. I think it helps promote a more co-operative approach to progress, competition and innovation.

I also think we should put aside fixation with the Uber model and look to other approaches instead.

Introducing Lawber

Oz Benamram, Chief Knowledge Officer at White & Case posted an article on LinkedIn recently advocating the idea of legal services delivery based on the Uber services model, which he referred to as Lawber.

The basic premise is that a technology platform – Lawber – will identify the “right lawyer” for legal work and potential clients would be able to select and instruct that lawyer easily. Oz noted that, “If another lawyer is 30 per cent cheaper or 30 per cent better than you are, they will likely get the work, even if they’re working alone out of a basement at a remote location.”

It seems the main driver facilitating a “Lawber” service would be, as with Uber, technology.

The technology will have two main general features: ease of use for end-users and detailed analytics running in the background to help select the “right” lawyer.

But other components will be used as well, either as part of Lawber itself or to help with the journey towards the Lawber destination.

As Oz explains, “At White & Case we have been preparing for Lawber – or whatever comes next – through solid knowledge-management practices, legal project management, and a dedicated practice innovation team. Every day, our business services professionals work to make our lawyers and practices more efficient and indispensable to clients.”

Take out the reference to Lawber from the quote above and it is unexceptional. Most large law firms are engaged in this kind of activity.

As you would expect I always like to see legal project management referred to as a means of helping to make law firms “more efficient and indispensable to clients”. The reference to an Uber-like model makes me feel uncomfortable though. Looking at the replies to Oz’s article on LinkedIn I am not the only one who feels like this.

Oz says there are quite a few technical hurdles to overcome before a Lawber service becomes reality. I am sure he is right but I think we can safely assume that any technical hurdles will be overcome.

Cultural change poses more intractable problems. I know from my own experience there has historically been a lot of resistance within law firms to disclosing operational performance data with clients, much less with third parties.

Let’s assume, however, that collective client (ie market) pressure will be such that firms will have to expose detailed data (all that lawyer time-recording should come in useful) to help identify the “right lawyers” for matters.

From a rather narrow implementation point of view, therefore, I think we can safely say that an Uber-like model is likely to happen.

Unfortunately, there’s a catch.

What’s wrong with Uber as a model?

For many people, me included, the Uber brand is toxic.

It’s easy to dislike a brand which has a senior management ethical violations resulting in a widely reported culture of bullying and harassment. Uber is trying to change this, but only time will tell if it is successful. Personally, I find it difficult to separate the Uber brand from the Uber model.

I think the under-side of the Uber model is that it allows, if not encourages, Uber to exploit gaps and uncertainties in regulations covering traditional (taxi) service providers.

It’s interesting to consider whether this approach of continuously pushing the bounds of current practice and regulation has helped cause Uber’s poor ethical culture or whether it is a manifestation of it. At some point continuously pushing acceptable boundaries becomes illegal, which perhaps explains why Uber finds itself subject to a lot of legal actions worldwide.

While Uber may be disrupting the traditional taxi market, it is far from providing an “alternative” means of transport. Most Uber rides take place in large conurbations by people who are relatively well off. It appears app-based taxi rides increasingly replace walking, cycling or taking public transport.

In short, the Uber model is less about finding new markets, more about trying to make money from existing markets which are already very well served. How does Uber do this?

Essentially it undercuts existing service provider pricing. Yes, Uber rides are convenient and “on demand” but it’s really the low cost of the rides which gets people to use Uber.

Ultimately, it’s the Uber drivers who pay for its low cost service. Uber drivers often make less than the minimum wage. As is well known, Uber believes its drivers are not employed by it, so they have no right to employee workplace protections. This argument is being challenged in the courts both here in the UK and elsewhere. Uber is currently appealing a judgment which went against it on this point in the UK where, as the Guardian put it, “The judges found there was a ‘high degree of fiction’ in the wording of the standard agreement between Uber and its drivers, which it argues are self-employed independent contractors with few employment rights”.

The fiction of pretending its drivers are not employees has effectively turned the drivers into a casual labour force, although I don’t think there is anything casual about driving around for hours and competing against other drivers to pick up fares.

Historically, casual labour has been easy to exploit. Uber may be all dressed up as being an example of technology-driven disruption etc, but essentially what it does is nothing new: taking advantage of people with relatively little power.

This is the principal reason why I am not a fan of the Uber model and similar business models, including the now common use of zero hour contracts by businesses of all kinds, whether they be disrupters or survivalists.

The Uberisation of legal services

Soon solicitors in England and Wales will be able to offer their services on a freelance basis. The SRA has itself referred to its freelance lawyer proposals as the “Uberisation” of legal services.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the concept of freelance lawyers. I do wonder though whether undue pressure placed on young legal professionals – especially freelancers – to meet increasing demand by working ever longer hours for lesser pay will become more common.

Poor ethical practices can be found among senior staff of even the largest and most respected law firms. At which point, a question: would senior people with poor ethical standards be tempted to take advantage of junior staff, especially freelance staff, under cover of needing to do “more for less” and being driven by technology as part of a Uber-like model?

We already know the answer: yes they will – and do.

As Ed Nally, President of the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) has said in an interview on the Legal Futures website: “There are many people who are working in unattractive environments where bosses are putting people under pressure or behaving shabbily towards them, or perhaps behaving in a very improper way and encouraging them to do things they shouldn’t be doing.”

Encouragingly, the SDT appear to recognise that sometimes when junior lawyers have acted improperly and unethically, it is not solely they who are at fault. Mr Nally goes on to say, “The only way you’ll actually treat appropriately and protect the junior end of the profession is to make sure that you hold to account the senior end.”

To be fair, there are signs that some law firms are becoming increasingly sensitive to instances of unethical behaviour, evidenced by the rising numbers of partners in law firms asked (or told) to leave the firm because of it.

Another effect of unethical practices is that they increase the level of stress felt by legal service team members, As is well known (eg see the Bellweather Report from Lexis Nexis), suffering from stress is already a significant issue for many people in the legal services industry. Presumably this would get worse if teams are put under Uber-like pressure to deliver results ever more quickly.

What of the clients?

Uber is successful (but ironically, it is not profitable) because an awful lot of people book rides via its app. Arguably most Uber users don’t care about the welfare of their driver or the wider social, environmental and economic impacts of exercising their choice. They just want a ride from A to B immediately and at low cost.

It’s assumed that in an Uber-like world legal service clients will display similar traits. They will just want their legal problem solved at low cost and they won’t particularly care who is providing the service or how.

In theory legal service clients should currently be able to differentiate their potential provider in terms of quality of service, but this is hard for them to do, especially in the field of consumer legal services.

Lawyers could try and educate their clients about differing levels of service and quality, but lawyers find this hard too so it tends not to get done properly.

It’s much easier for clients to differentiate by price and perhaps speed of delivery. Presumably these will acquire even more emphasis in a Uber-like legal service market.

Meeting the challenge

It is obvious that society as a whole is faced with huge challenges. Many of these challenges are driven by the current availability of software applications, data analytics and our preference for acquiring things on demand.

Everyone who has ever bought anything from Amazon is part of this wider phenomenon too.

The legal services industry is not immune from the trends we see all around us. In this sense, Oz’s article on LinkedIn is a fair reflection of what is going on and demonstrates an awareness that legal service delivery will almost certainly change, probably radically so, sometime in the future.

What do we – clients, lawyers and everyone else in the legal services industry – want the future to look like in practice? What action can we take to help make our future vision a reality?

Is the Uber model a fate which awaits us all?

Personally, looking at the current model in practice, I hope not.

How about following this, or something very like it, as a means of doing business now and in future?

“We will build a long-term business on long-term relationships. Competition drives innovation and contributes to flexibility, but often comes at a high human and environmental cost, especially when combined with hunger for short-term profit over long-term benefits. We will avoid a culture of short-term contracts driven solely by price, in favour of stable, long-term, trusting partnerships designed to achieve efficiency, create enjoyable relationships and avoid unnecessary anxiety.”

This comes from the Riverford Organic Farm collective. Other than being a consumer of their excellent produce I have no connection with the Riverford business. So far as I can tell, the business puts the above into practice. Shouldn’t we all?

Antony Smith is an independent consultant, providing project management services to law firms via Legal Project Management Ltd . He also writes regularly about legal project management. Email Twitter @AntonySmith_LPM.

Photo by Anouk Fotografeert on Unsplash.