In some jurisdictions, more than eighty percent of litigants in poverty are unrepresented in matters involving basic life needs, such as evictions, mortgage foreclosures, child custody disputes, child support proceedings, and debt collection cases.
In short, the majority of the people in the country are not getting the help they need, and public trust in legal services and the courts is “compromised.” At the same time, from the same report,
many lawyers, especially recent law graduates, are un- or underemployed despite the significant unmet need for legal services.
It has been three years since that report was published. Three years is a long time in technology, but law and the legal profession move slowly. Interesting communication and collaboration tools have emerged in the broader market, but lawyers are not using them. Consumer confidence has not increased, and employment numbers are not improving. The gap is getting worse.
However, there is opportunity here. The tools exist. We used them to build the internet. And then we used the internet to build new ways of doing business — specifically, new ways of providing what we in the legal world would call "client work." The internet calls it the "gig economy." It's the key to access to justice, and the future of legal services. That’s great for businesses that will benefit from lower legal costs, and for the millions of people all around the world who need legal help.
We’re All Programmers
Inside the legal gig economy, work will be higher volume, but lower value. We will be paid by the minute, or by the task. The hours will be flexible, and lawyers will be able to work from anywhere on the globe with a laptop (or smartphone) and an internet connection. This is what life already looks like for anyone working as a freelance programmer, and they make good money. After working in tech for ten years I went back to law school, and the fundamental realization that has driven my work since is this: lawyers are programmers, laws and contracts are code, our programming language is human, and outcomes are strictly controlled (to the extent possible within human squishiness.)
Programmers built the internet, and along the way they also built a lot of tools to make their own work easier, and/or doable from a beach. When we realize the similarities between the work product of coders and the work product of lawyers, we can look to the coders once again for a better understanding of the tools that will shape the future of legal services. Many of these tools do not yet exist.
Most of those tools programmers built had to do with solving problems of keeping a central code base intact, so the program wouldn’t break, while keeping tens, maybe even thousands of programmers modifying disparate parts of the code at the same time. Just think about the redline process with a contract, except one wrong comma will make the whole thing fail.
A tool like GitHub allows massive collaboration on code like this among teams of hundreds. It contains every tool needed to safely and cleanly build the equivalent of thousands of pages of interconnected and interdependent language, as a team. With tracked changes stored the whole way.
Another favorite of mine is Stack Overflow, where coders discuss programming problems with one another and share their expertise. You could learn to code, for free, from scratch, entirely by jumping right in on Stack Overflow. Stack works, in part, because coding answers are finite. If you want to make a button that clicks, there are only so many “right” ways to do it. Although human language and human life are less rigid than code, learning the law is a similar process. We study precedent. We use trusty old boilerplate.
Tools for Growth, not “Disruption”
When talking about these kinds of digital technologies, the word “disruption” is common. Companies like Uber have “disrupted” their markets, pushing out an old incumbent, and totally changing the way the sector functioned. In the law, we have to think differently. The law is complex and it is important to people’s lives. When Uber disrupts the taxicab business, it certainly impacts a lot of people. But when a system of law is disrupted, people’s rights are in danger. So we have to take it as a reality that in order to thrive, the legal gig economy has to work alongside the system as it exists. We cannot reboot and try something new.
A legal services gig economy calls for new ways of doing business, new ways of thinking about work and new revenue models. But, it must be thought of in an additive way, as an opportunity for growth, not as an obstacle through which we must painfully transition. It is hard to turn a ship around. It is hard to take a whole firm digital, and even harder to tell your associates that you are going to change the firm’s billing model. So I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to do any of that (yet). But I’m also here to tell you that the legal gig economy will become a growth vector for every lawyer and every firm. It can be rolled out on top of whatever you already have in place, and will only grow your numbers.
The internet is the greatest communication tool ever created. And Uber could not have existed without it, because Uber is merely a communication service. They didn't invent cars, or riders or drivers. They just gave them a new way to communicate, and Uber ate the taxi business. Because it is primarily driven by new communication tools, the gig economy is fluid. Anywhere people can be connected to fill in gaps between supply and demand, it will thrive.
We can find demand for cheaper and more accessible legal services with a look at the stats in the ABA's 2018 pro bono report which shows us that most pro bono time is simply spent giving legal advice. This gives us insight into the gap where a gig economy could fit. We have demand, and as it so happens we have a lot of lawyers looking for work, and law firms looking to grow. Closing this gap is an opportunity to bring a flood of not just legal work to be done and money to be made, but a flood of people receiving much-needed help and the protections promised by our legal system.
Adam J. Kerpelman is co-founder of Juris Project.
"Perspectives" is a regular feature written by guest authors on access to justice issues. To pitch article ideas, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm, its clients, or Portfolio Media Inc., or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.