Retail law needs to be disrupted. We need new approaches to law, not just more of the same with a new label, or a tweak at the margins. What might this look like? One future product: instant, on-demand legal advice at 1/3 the price delivered through an app.
Article #3 in the Series
Disruption in Action: Uber & Taxis
Uber disrupted taxi markets around the world. Their model is to herd independent contractor drivers onto a single platform and connect them with people trying to get somewhere. They take a cut for facilitating the transaction. The cars, drivers, passengers, map data, credit card infrastructure, etc. - all owned by other companies. Uber stiches them all together to create a popular platform used across Canada and the world.
Uber drivers aren't licensed taxi drivers. The service have been challenged in Canadian courts for issues with worker rights, taxi licensing, etc. Billions of dollars in VC subsidies have surely been essential to Uber's success, but the model they've deployed, a marketplace for independent people to connect and work with one another directly, is a winning one. Taxi licensing has lost to consumer preference.
Tax Prep Disruption
Uber's disruption of taxi rides doesn't sound applicable to law. Surely law couldn't be disrupted like taxis? Yet similar changes have been happening in other industries, like law's cousin: accounting.
The accounting industry has for many years been relentless about bringing down costs. Enormous volumes of tax returns are processed in India and other outsourcing centres. There is even special software for managing outsourced tax work. The Big 4 accounting firms discovered this particular arbitrage strategy many years ago. But it's more than just labour arbitrage. Being able to have tax work done partly in Canada and partly in India requires careful coordination and deployment of software with the specific aim of becoming much more efficient at delivering services to customers.
The Technologies and Processes Exist
Accounting tax prep and taxi rides are two examples of the application of a suite of technologies and processes that have developed over the last couple decades. The many other examples could fill a book and sooner or later these techniques will be applied to law. More specifically, what will be applied is automated workflows, reduced costs through labour arbitrage, streamlined payments, low wait times, shared organizational knowledge, and reputation systems. How might these techniques be applied to law?
Law On Demand
Imagine an app that connects you with a lawyer in seconds - on screen and speaking to you about your facts. $15 for 15 minutes. The lawyer has been reviewed extensivley and their 4.9 star rating reassures you. They answer your questions quickly, politely, and from the comfort of your own home. Turns out your landlord isn't allowed to ban your pet poodle. No waiting at reception. No haggling over bills. No Yellowpages or calls to schedule a consultation. The efficiency of the system is passed on to the client in a lower bill and the lawyer has spent their time helping someone instead of filling in paperwork. The lawyer is paid immediately.
Sooner or later someone will make an on-demand video chat app that connects lawyers with people who have legal problems. To reduce costs, the lawyers might be those with spare time in their day looking to add a bit more billable time. The more aggressive version of this would use lawyers in other Commonwealth countries like India and Kenya, trained in local Canadian laws, at a much lower price point. A company might even go further and use paralegals or even trained non-lawyers (is law really so special that all of it can't be taught to non-lawyers?). Customer reviews, and supervision through the techniques of the BPO industry, will ensure quality, not licensing standards. Whether or not it's legal, consumer demand, as with Uber, will drive the business.
The elements of the above system are available, and are starting to be put together by a range of players from international giants to startups like Australia's Legaler. I expect the retail side of this to be the easiest market as a great many people have routine questions about law that can be quickly answered by a competent person. And those people are not being served by existing offerings. The savings would come from a combination of better utilization of extra capacity from existing lawyers, outsourcing, digital workflows, and scale.
Platforms are profitable only with significant scale, but once reached, create massive consumer benefits and increase the size of the market. By
significant scale what I mean is a business serving hundreds of thousands or millions of customers worldwide. In 2017-2018 I was the President of a software company in Toronto that served well over half a million customers globally with a team of less than 35 people. When WhatsApp was sold to Facebook for $19 billion USD they had around 55 employees. Technology enables scale.
Disruption of Retail Law
A quality-assured legal advice app would be a challenge to existing legal practices that are focussed on the low end of the market. I expect the arrival of this service to cause lawyers to migrate to the platform in order to bring in new new business and focus on the law instead of finding clients. Although some lawyers might resist it, others would see the opportunity and consumers would begin to recognize the brand. Most lawyers in Canada don't have a brand and potential customers are often confused about who to turn to. A legal video chat app would be an easy answer and a new way for services to be delivered.
But I see this largely as creating a new market, rather than cannibalizing existing legal services. I see it as addressing a consumer need that's not being met because of the realities of operating a law practice in Canada. And where there are new markets there are new opportunities, and new jobs.
Disrupting retail law is essential if we are to solve the A2J crisis. Canadians need genuinely new ways to access the law, not new civil procedure rules or new professional requirements for lawyers. There must be a significant increase in efficiency and this can only be achieved by adopting digital platforms like a video chat app for law.
I have no doubt that disruption is coming and it will be cheered by the public because it will be aimed at serving them, not lawyers.