Will Online Legal Services Overtake Lawyers?
With the legal profession being slow to move with the times, will online legal services overtake and replace lawyers?
Earlier this month the demise of UpCounsel was announced despite the fact the online lawyer marketplace had raised $26 million from keen investors. The company was accused of flouting ethics rules and competition laws following a 2018 lawsuit, and even though the case settled in 2019, UpCounsel were also accused of ‘brazenly’ violating a Californian bar rule that prohibits lawyers from sharing legal fees with non-lawyers.
UpCounsel sold themselves as being an “Uber” of legal services, linking freelance lawyers with small businesses or other would-be clients. The ‘online lawyer’ would assist businesses with their legal needs; from a one off consultation to being available as a freelance legal department, UpCounsel maintained a network of over 5,000 lawyers specialising in an array of legal sectors, from immigration to IP.
From consumers being able to click next day delivery and being able to set up your weekly medical subscriptions online, the worldwide web has thrust itself into every profession, mostly, for the better.
Since the news broke of their shutdown, the Upcounsel’s co-founders managed to find a way to keep their doors open by reaching an agreement where the company will be under new ownership. This was good news for many as stakeholders, freelance lawyers and businesses using their services were concerned about what impact their closure would have.
With the reliance on technology and its advantages growing, we cannot dismiss the impact it is having on our social construct and our demands. Remember when you had to fight to use the landline to phone your friend when someone else was on the internet, or locate your nearest hardware store which may be miles away, instead of simply clicking on Amazon Prime? We are now in an era where everything is fast-paced; we demand things almost immediately, with no delays with little inconvenience and no extortionate added costs.
From consumers being able to click next day delivery and being able to set up your weekly medical subscriptions online, the worldwide web has thrust itself into every profession, mostly, for the better. But how has the legal sector adapted to this? With the legal profession being slow to move with the times, famously clinging onto tradition, will online legal services, like UpCounsel, that sell itself on ease, on-demand advice and responses, with smaller bills to pay at the end of it, overtake and replace lawyers?
There are, however, consumers relying on online services, but again with some apprehension.
Perhaps the question is a little dramatic, especially when considering AI. Lawyers will always be needed. In fact, the US Bureau of Labour Statistics state that the employment of lawyers is projected to grow 6 per cent from 2018 to 2028, about as fast as the average for all occupations. But when it comes to legal advice, from a human, rather than a bot, we can see why an SME would rely on a freelance, online lawyer – especially if there is little difference between the level of professionalism and outcome of their service.
In 2019, 8/10 of top UK firms identified technology as the key challenge to growth in the next 2-3 years. Research has also found that consumer confidence around engaging with the legal services market, and the decisions needed to do so, is low.
There are, however, consumers relying on online services, but again with some apprehension. This is likely due to being presented with an array of answers for one simple question. With the law being precise, we need to make sure our online searches correctly guide us, as it is often difficult to navigate yourself to decide what is best. Therefore, there is somewhat a higher demand for online legal services as consumers do see potential in a more valuable, official and independent ‘legal advice and guidance site’, which they could recognise as the ‘go to’ site for legal advice.
Thus, the introduction of online lawyers and sites like UpCounsel. But what about the companies challenging a bigger, often overlooked part of the legal sphere: the tense conflict between parties and unwanted legal fees. Take online divorce services company amicable, for example. Kate Daly, alongside her good friend Pip Wilson, wanted to offer a tech-enabled, lawyer free alternative to divorce, separation and co-parenting. Uniquely, amicable focuses on the emotional journey as well as the law, and is different from traditional services because they work with the couple, when lawyers only work with one side. They also write up all the legal paperwork (where mediators do not).
Although, nearly 8% of the UK population do not access online services, so clearly there is a small proportion of people that online services will not reach.
Kate’s messy divorce motivated her to start amicable, leading us to question the current divorce process.
“My divorce was about as messy, unpleasant and expensive as it could get. We outsourced our communications to two different lawyers. The battle lines were drawn and both of us were set for the long and bloody fight ahead. I paid almost £80,000 in fees”, shares Kate.
“At the end of the process all that was left was a huge conflict and a financial settlement neither of us was happy with.”
A twist on the traditional approach to law, amicable aims to eliminate the adversarial approach in divorce and separation and provide an end to end divorce service.
Are they replacing the need for lawyers in divorce? “There’s no need to seek separate legal counsel unless there are danger signs. amicable uses a combination of technology, para-legal staff and non-practising solicitors to draft all divorce and financial paperwork. Customers remain Litigant in Person and sign and submit all their documents to the court themselves”, explains Kate.
Making a complex system simpler and friendlier seems to bode well for amicable, leading us to question if lawyers need to address this in order to make the current, traditional system easier for those undergoing divorce.
Clearly, the object at hand here is trying to simplify an often heated and complex process.
Although, nearly 8% of the UK population do not access online services, so clearly there is a small proportion of people that online services will not reach. However, as a digital service there are significant benefits that outweigh this such as, as Kate explains:
- Reduced costs (technology does what lots of legal firms still charge expensive professional fees to do)
- The ability to access the service from the comfort of your own home and not having to take time off work to come and arrange meetings
- Online negotiation also has advantages in reducing conflict too, as you don’t have to be physically together when you access the service (but you can choose to be if you prefer).
With emotions and not the assets that complicate a case, HNWI also rely on the service as amicable happily refers their clients to specialists for information or neutral advice in the case of complicated Trusts or offshore assets as part of our process too.
Clearly, the object at hand here is trying to simplify an often heated and complex process. Whether it is finding an ‘amicable’ way to resolve conflict or lessening fees, client’s demands are changing.
We cannot predict where technology will take us, but what we can say is that more and more people are now looking for an easier way to interact with their lawyers. From having instantaneous conversations and being able to maintain that connection whilst on the other side of the globe, the internet and technology will have a big part to play in the legal sphere. Law firms and lawyers alike should look for ways to constantly update their working lives, in order to meet such demands.