Priori Legal LLC

The business of law continues to evolve post-Great Recession. Law firms are dealing with clients who are trimming legal budgets, shunning expensive hourly billing rates and subsidized training of associates, and opting for smaller and more cost-sensitive legal options.

These trends have had a ripple effect. The job market for lawyers—while showing signs of improvement in small pockets—remains depressed, resulting in intense critiques of legal education, downward-trending law school applications, and law schools adapting or closing. Presumably, law students and new lawyers notice these trends and are strategizing accordingly, thinking commercially and entrepreneurially about their careers, and seeking the best legal experience and ROI in a rough macro legal market.

Entrepreneurs recognize these trends and a few startups—UpCounsel, Lawdingo, Priori Legal, and LawTrades—are riding a robust tech (and derivative branding) wave to disrupt the increasingly vulnerable legal industry. Each (i) strives to provide a frictionless and transparent platform for cost-conscious clients to quickly acquire legal services, and (ii) offers lawyers an alternative avenue to monetize their degrees free of typical infrastructural and administrative burdens of solo or small practice. This new crop of startups has earned the label “the Uber of law.” What is their value proposition for lawyers? Are they truly Uber-like providers of legal services, or is that just opportunistic branding? Should lawyers care?

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Today’s Wall Street Journal reports on the growing new crop of online matchmaking services designed to help small and mid-sized business clients connect with qualified and affordably priced lawyers.  The sites profiled include UpCounsel, which allows clients to bid projects, handles payments, and collects feedback (sort of like Elance for legal services); Priori Legal, which provides clients a list of pre-vetted attorneys with 5+ years of experience and negotiates discount rates; and IP SmartUp, which also charges discount rates for patent services.

From what I can tell, in the short term, these sites make money through various ethically permissible transaction fees (read: no referral fees, though some of the models tread dangerously close). My guess is that in the long run, these sites’ greater value will derive from big data gleaned from transactions that may shed insight on the factors that inform lawyer hiring (and in turn may hold value for lawyer marketing operations).

No doubt, from a small business perspective, these sites are golden. With their clean modern look and easy navigation, these platforms give prospective small business clients a far better user experience than any bar referral or local chamber of commerce site I’ve ever seen. Plus, many of the lawyers registered for the sites so far boast stellar credentials.  And the price is right — the WSJ piece shares the experience of one happy user who procured legal services at a price of between $100 and $600 per project (though the average cost of a transaction on UpCounsel is around $1000, the story notes).

Still, do these sites work for solos and smalls?

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