Uber for Lawyers

Legal professionals think they control the pace of change, but innovators aren’t waiting around
Paul Paton, University of Alberta
Paul Paton, University of Alberta
Sometimes it takes a revolutionary to put a stick in the spokes. So it is with Uber, the app for booking a ride with drivers that has led to: cabbies ripping off their shirts in Edmonton council chambers; blockades on Toronto streets; applications for permanent injunctions to halt Uber’s operations in Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary; and a $400-million class action in Ontario.

For his part, Toronto mayor John Tory opposed the injunction and said that he welcomed the competition. Judge Sean Dunphy, meanwhile, asked whether a courtroom was “the right place to get political courage to change bylaws?”

Legal regulators and legislators should be asking the same questions about the legal profession, particularly as technology changes the game. Rocket Lawyer and Legal Zoom have for a while now given consumers in the US and elsewhere the ability to create their own legal documents. Both have given US legal regulators ulcers as they try to figure out how to put the genie back in the bottle. Efforts by the legal profession to quash them as engaging in the “unauthorized practice of law” have been largely seen as protectionist and self-serving.

Now we’re moving beyond both. It was only a matter of time before another app followed the Uber model, this time for legal services. And this one’s in Canada: just as Canadian legal regulators are finally figuring out that they need to regulate “entities” and not just lawyers, along comes Law Scout, which describes itself as “all about connecting businesses with great lawyers at upfront, fixed fees. ... We do not provide or participate in any legal representation.” Uberlawyer, anyone?

So what do we want legislatures and the courts to do? As the Uber cases make their way through the system, lawyers should be watching carefully, as the consequences may hit awfully close to home. The UK Legal Services Act 2007 revolutionized the way in which lawyers are regulated in England by putting in place a structure under which not only individual lawyers are subject to regulatory restrictions but also the entities in which they practise.

The legislation mapped out a series of “regulatory objectives,” which included not only the usual suspects (protecting and promoting the public interest, etc.) but, incredibly, also “protecting and promoting the interests of consumers,” and promoting competition in the provision of legal services.

The UK legislation followed about a decade of attempted reform and a report by the Office of Fair Trading in 2001 that basically signalled to the legal profession that it had better get its act together, or government would do it for them. And now alternative business structures, external investments in law firms, and other innovations are slowly transforming the space over there.

In Canada, the Competition Bureau’s 2007 report on competition in the professions raised hopes that the legal profession here might be similarly opened up to innovation. The report recommended that law societies remove barriers that discourage multidisciplinary practices and allow lawyers to split fees and revenue with non-lawyers. The Federation of Law Societies responded with a report that fiercely defended the status quo. And the regulator ignored the issue entirely in its post-study assessment in 2011.

Even then I knew, masking professional self-interest as the public interest could only lead to problems. But I had no idea how technology would also revolutionize the space. And that the innovators wouldn’t wait. It was June 29, 2007, that the first iPhone was released. And here we are, less than a decade later, with near-violent protests about what apps are doing to creatively destroy old models for the taxi industry. While prognostication is a dangerous business, it’s a fairly safe bet that Law Scout is only the first of what’s yet to come. And – unlike consumers – we’re far from ready.

Paul Paton is the Wilbur Fee Bowker Professor and Dean of Law at the University of Alberta. He can be reached at paul.paton@ualberta.ca.