You can’t charge exorbitant hourly rates to wealthy clients for routine legal work and still call yourself a “profession” instead of “just another business.” You can’t raise the price of legal eduction to the point where young lawyers have to mortgage their financial futures before they even sit for the bar and still attract cautious and temperate professionals. You can’t advertise on television and twitter, turn courtrooms into a reality shows, Latham careers before they even start, have partners auction themselves to the highest bidder, and outsource legal work product to India because it’s cheaper — and yet still expect to there to be some “professional dignity” involved when somebody dangles the opportunity to make a buck in front of some lean and hungry legal service provider.
In short, you can’t do all of the things the legal profession has done over the past 20 or 30 years and expect to get anything other than a big pile of Shpoonkle.
Shpoonkle is the name of a new website set to launch Monday. The site will allow clients to post their legal problems and receive “bids” from lawyers willing to represent them. The site was dreamed up by a New York Law School grad (one day, we’ll have a story about an NYLS grad who is actually a practicing attorney instead of a cupcake salesman or legal services entrepreneur). And there are already a bunch lawyers who can’t wait to join this race to the bottom…
Robert Grant Niznik is the optimistic NYLS student behind Shpoonkle. Here’s some of his interview with the ABA Journal:
The legal community’s response to the website has been mixed, concedes Niznik. Law students are excited about Shpoonkle, while experienced lawyers who charge hundreds of dollars an hour “don’t believe in the idea,” he said. “I would think lawyers would be happy.”
The law student, set to graduate a semester early next December, said the site enables attorneys to expand their client base and gain credibility. Lawyers have nothing to lose and “everything to gain” from joining the site, Niznik said. Meanwhile, financially challenged clients who “get turned away from legal aid” can use the site to obtain affordable legal advice, he added.
As a liberal who is concerned with the plight of poor clients who cannot afford legal services, I have to say: [cue Bill Cosby voice] that is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard in my life. Why are there people out there who think we can help the poor by giving them a steady diet of crap? The last thing, and I mean the last thing, poor uneducated people with no knowledge of the legal system need is some lawyer “promising” that they can handle their legal problems for $10 cheaper than the next guy. You know what’s worse than having no lawyer? Having a terrible one who doesn’t know what he’s doing who then proceeds to totally screw up your matter and still charges you for it. Seriously, you’re better off getting drunk and representing yourself then hiring some person based on the lowest bid. This isn’t plumbing, it’s the freaking law.
Scott Greenfield does a good job expressing the full horror of this idea over on Simple Justice:
Any lawyer who signs up for this service should be immediately disbarred, then tarred and feathers, then publicly humiliated. It doesn’t matter how awful a lawyer you are, how pathetic your business, how grossly incapable you may be in getting any client to retain you. Those are all good reasons to apply for the assistant manager’s position at Dairy Queen. This is worse…
The putative explanation for this effort is that legal services are too expensive for most people, and this ugly-named website will match up clients with lawyers who can provide the needed legal services for a price they can afford. It is the elevation of price over quality, on the one hand, but for consumers who can’t find an affordable lawyer otherwise, that may not be the worst thing. There is certainly an argument to be made that no lawyer is better than a bad lawyer, and that money paid to a bad lawyer is money flushed down the toilet.
Rather, the concept is a perfectly reasonable next step to the de-professionalization of legal services, where the purchase of legal services is no different than buying a widget at the big box store for the lowest available price. From the perspective of the cost-sensitive consumer, it probably seems like a great idea. The client isn’t concerned with the lawyer’s actual (as opposed to self-attributed) competence in a particular area of law or in general. The client wants one thing only: a lawyer willing to do the work at a price he can afford.
When a friend of mine brought this idea to my attention yesterday, I snarkily responded:
“I’m sure it will be a huge success and make lawyers financially available to all Americans for a relatively brief period of time. Once all the users are imprisoned, we can go back to normal.”
Given the proliferation of law schools, the constant drumbeat of television legal dramas, and the sad reality that it’s confusing to get a prescription for codeine or have sex with your secretary without first consulting a lawyer, you can see why many clients believe that anybody with any kind of law degree can do basic work. And given the fact that there are more lawyers than good paying legal jobs, you can see why some lawyers can’t wait to underbid their colleagues, even if they realize that it will result in a lower standard for the profession as a whole.
But what we have here is the kind of market nightmare that keeps progressives awake when Republicans get a boner talking about the glory of the free market. Clients (at least the kind that will sign up for this service) are not informed enough to distinguish the good lawyers from the bad. Individuals who have no other way of generating business will push prices down to the point that any reasonably skilled lawyer will avoid this thing like the plague. And all this will do is facilitate the ability of no-account lawyers to prey upon the poorest and weakest of our citizens. The very people who are most in need of extraordinary representation to protect the rights they do not even know they have will be victimized by the worst kinds of attorneys. That’s your market.
But hey, f*** the clients. This site’s mere contemplated existence says something pretty terrible about the state of the legal “profession,” doesn’t it? As Greenfield puts it:
[T]his idea offers lawyers yet another opportunity to assess just how down and dirty we want the profession to go. Are we really willing to don the hotpants and walk the boulevard? Are we that far off from actually doing so? Are we willing to close our eyes and let those among us do so, and thereby reduce our profession to the streetwalker level?
At least right now when lawyers whore themselves out it’s like a classy escort service. But with this service, I mean, you can almost see Robert Grant Niznik rolling in a black Escalade past some lawyer standing on a corner who signed up for Shpoonkle. You can almost hear Niznik looking at that lawyer and saying: “Is Bobby Niznik gonna have to choke a bitch?”
As Law Student Readies Reverse Auction Site, Law Bloggers React to ‘eBay’ of Lawyering [ABA Journal]
Shpoonkle By Any Other Name [Simple Justice]