Lawyers are an essential part of the Silicon Valley economy but, despite the region’s reputation for innovation, the legal industry largely operates the same way it always has: through law firms that use opaque billing practices and expensive retainers.
Now, a start-up called UpCounsel says it can remake the legal profession along the lines of Lyft and TaskRabbit — companies that have created new niches in the service economy (including ride-sharing and Ikea furniture assembly) by using technology to better connect buyers and sellers.
Will it work for lawyers? UpCounsel founder Matthew Faustman says the service is ideal for engineers who need quick, inexpensive help in reviewing stock options or start-ups that need advice about incorporation. Rather than dealing with the expense and rigamarole of a law firm, Faustman says they can simply post a description of the service they need and ask lawyers on the site to make a bid.
My initial impression was that this is a recipe to hire Lionel Hutz, but Faustman says many attorneys on the platform are refugees from Wilson Sonsini and other prestigious big law firms. Its clients include individuals but also tech firms with as many as 75 employees, and popular services include contract and patent advice.
Inspired by ride service Lyft’s efforts to foster community among its drivers, UpCounsel is also offering social network tools for lawyers on the site to connect and seek advice from one other. The company, which launched in August and went through the Angel Pad accelerator, says it is pulling in modest revenue, which it earns by charging customers a 10 percent fee to use the service.
More broadly, UpCounsel’s emergence coincides with a massive disruption in the American legal industry. This week’s news that venerable firm Weil Gotshal is slashing staff comes after the complete implosion of other famous names like Howrey and Dewey & LeBoeuf. Meanwhile, do-it-yourself services like Rocket Lawyer and Legal Zoom remain popular, and a new digital eco-system — like research service FastCase and blog support LexBlog — are challenging incumbents like Westlaw in the business to provide information to lawyers.
The bottom line is that the same online technology that’s disrupting lower levels of the service economy, like taxis, is also shaking up high-end professions as well.