Since Lat tweeted this past weekend about my UpCounsel profile, I thought I would share some thoughts about my experience with the service to date. First off, compared to leaving a Biglaw partnership to open a new firm, trying out a new legal platform was easy. I first heard about UpCounsel from a former in-house client who had struck out on his own. He happens to now be back in-house, but at the time we discussed UpCounsel, he was very enthusiastic about his experience using the site. Since I happen to like trying out new things, signing up once I left Biglaw was an easy decision.
Notice how I did not join UpCounsel while a Biglaw partner. Such things are simply not done. For all of Biglaw’s talk about encouraging partners to be “entrepreneurial” or to “try new marketing ideas,” there is a lot of resistance to using “new ways” to reach potential new clients. Couple that inertia with a general distaste towards marketing individual lawyers at the expense of “firm branding” (aside from a select group of key current rainmakers), and platforms like UpCounsel face a Tough Mudder-level set of obstacles to overcome if they want to break into the Biglaw firm marketing rotation. But I don’t think UpCounsel and their “evolution of legal services”-oriented kin want to….
Rather, I think UpCounsel and similar startups want Biglaw-level attorneys signed up for their customers to choose from. Biglaw firms, in the eyes of such services? An anachronism, and unnecessary in a world where clients can choose from a selection of lawyers bidding for their legal work. How long the marketing fiction assiduously maintained by Biglaw firms that all their partners are equally skilled will survive in the face of such a challenge is an open question. One they hope they have the answer to.
There is another reason why the UpCounsels of the world are incompatible with Biglaw partners: pricing transparency. Biglaw firms compete on price all the time. With all the fervor of bighorn sheep butting heads on some remote Andean mountain during mating season. But they don’t like to acknowledge that they do so. And the idea of having to even mention pricing in trying to secure legal work from clients is distasteful. In fact, many Biglaw lawyers are not even permitted to compete on price. The firm can only be flexible for rainmakers, since only rainmakers have the best interests of the firm at heart. Or are the only ones who could take a “loss leader” engagement and turn it into the beginnings of a profitable institutional relationship. UpCounsel turns such thinking on its head, to the benefit of clients. Because when there is price transparency, clients can make more informed decisions. And the decision will not always be to go with the cheapest lawyer. But if you want to use UpCounsel as a lawyer, you need to be comfortable with price transparency as a virtue. Biglaw partners are usually not.
So what can I say about my personal experience with UpCounsel? For one, it is kind of fun to use. The interface is well-done, and my experience with the company employees has been very favorable. They have the right mix of idealism about trying to change the legal services model, along with a realistic sense of the current limitations of the platform. And I like the free “perma-advertising” component that comes with having a profile up on the site (though that effect will be diluted as more attorneys sign up). I also like that you get an email when a new job is posted that meets your criteria, at least in terms of subject matter. Makes it easy to decide whether or not to bid. You can also learn a lot from seeing what kinds of bids win, and what kinds of projects attract the most bidders.
Most importantly, there are real clients using UpCounsel, who have real legal needs that need to be met. Many of them are unsophisticated legal services consumers, to be sure, but that does not mean that they are not entitled to competent representation at a fair price. To be honest, we were a bit spoiled by our first client sourced through UpCounsel because he was being advised throughout the process by a sophisticated client (someone who had used Biglaw firms before on patent matters). As a result, we were able to get the work even though we were far from the lowest bidder. Tellingly, we only secured the representation after an actual in-person meeting with the client. Old-fashioned, I know, but our client’s advisor had the good sense to insist on having one before committing to the representation. Honestly, I don’t think my firm can compete on UpCounsel if it were not for sophisticated clients or unsophisticated clients receiving sophisticated advice. But I am glad we were able to land at least one client so far from the site. It was definitely a client we never would have brought in otherwise. There was something reassuring and timeless about being able to handle a discrete project for an actual individual, secure in knowing that we were providing that service at a fair value to both ourselves and our client.
Another thing that was very much appreciated was the speed of payment and ease of invoicing UpCounsel offers to attorneys. As someone used to being at the mercy of Fortune 500 accounting department “team members” for payment, having near immediate payment for services is a nice benefit. But even though our initial, albeit limited, UpCounsel experience was a good one, I think that the likelihood of it or similar sites being more than a complementary source of work for my firm is low. Would I think differently if I was a patent attorney with three years experience trying to build a solo practice servicing individual and small-business clients? Of course. And there is a lot of value I can see for the lawyer who learns how to best maximize their presence and reach on a platform like UpCounsel.
Ultimately, there is a serious scalability concern for UpCounsel, not with respect to its ability to attract a broad base of customers to interact with lawyers in new ways, but with respect to sourcing a broad base of sophisticated and profitable work to attract the attention of higher-quality lawyers. How successful UpCounsel is at the latter may very well determine how transformative it ends up being for our industry. In the meantime, I will leave my profile up, compete for projects that look interesting, and continue to root for them to make the most of the opportunity they have carved out for themselves. Supporting a company with the guts to try something new is an easy choice, even for someone who was born and bred by the forces intent on maintaining our industry’s status quo.
Gaston Kroub lives in Brooklyn and is a founding partner of Kroub, Silbersher & Kolmykov PLLC, an intellectual property litigation boutique. The firm’s practice focuses on intellectual property litigation and related counseling, with a strong focus on patent matters. You can reach him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter: @gkroub.