What Makes Uber Tick, and What Lawyers Can Learn from It

I keep hearing people say that some innovation or other will become “Uber for law.” Personally, I have a hard time seeing it. Uber allows ordinary people to turn some of their vehicles’ extensive downtime (the average American car is idle 92% of the day) into a revenue stream. Ordinary people, however, don’t have unused lawyering capacity parked in their driveway or sitting in their garage, waiting patiently to be deployed down at the courthouse.

Instead, lawyers should consider Uber a powerful illustration of how and why traditional providers lose control of their markets. Uber doesn’t succeed because its rides are cheaper, or not primarily because of that. It succeeds because it corrects the many flaws in the traditional taxi model.

Convenience is King

An Uber passenger sees the name, face, vehicle, and rating of her driver, approves her fare before pickup, watches the driver approach via an interactive map on her phone, and pays automatically by credit card upon her arrival. Taxi passengers call a cab and wait, and they wait some more, not knowing who’ll pick them up, when, and driving what, or how much the ride will cost them. A taxi company that provided Uber’s level of customer control and convenience would have nothing to fear. Very few do.

The lesson for lawyers, especially those in sole practice and small firms, is this: the many new competitors in our market are not beating us on quality. They’re beating us first on service and convenience, and then on price. We’re not being out-lawyered in this market. We’re being out-customered.

When you apply this analytical lens to the legal market, many of the changes we’ve been experiencing start to make sense. The billable hour (which shifts all the risk of unexpected developments onto the buyer) is convenient for lawyers while fixed fees (which provide welcome predictability around the final price for a legal service) are convenient for clients. Guess which one is in ascendance? (Especially among corporate buyers.)

Then there’s online legal document providers. Whatever the quality of their offerings (which I think are higher than many lawyers believe), they are affordable, they are priced upfront, they can be customized online, and they can be accessed 24/7. Legal documents sold by lawyers tick few if any of these boxes. The lawyer’s “seal of quality” is great, but it’s also clearly not enough to win the day. Customers in the legal market are willing to risk quality if they can guarantee affordability and ease of access.

Understanding the Appeal of Affordability and Convenience

If you don’t understand why features like convenience and affordability attract millions of consumers and small businesses to these new providers in this economic climate, then you’re not paying attention to your markets. And if you don’t think these competitors’ market share will continue to grow, then you’re simply in denial. They’ve found a winning formula, and they’re going to keep using it—until someone else starts doing it better.

I don’t have any real doubt that certain segments of the traditional legal market will fall away from lawyers. Software, systems, or para-professionals will take practical control over the most straightforward and routine legal tasks, and those tasks will prove to be greater in number than we now suppose.

But equally, a very large segment of the legal market will not only remain open to lawyers, but will actively need us. Whatever paralegals and machines might be able to do someday, human lawyers are still required to do now and in the foreseeable future. Given the enormous opportunities contained within the multi-billion-dollar legal market, we shouldn’t even consider ceding the field to new providers.

Not All is Doom and Gloom

The good news for the legal profession, and for the people and businesses we serve, is that we don’t have to cede the field to new providers. Lawyers are still in this game, and if we take the right steps now, we will still be the favorites to win it. We already have the expertise and the ethics to provide high-quality legal services. What we need are much better delivery models, based not on our own convenience and financial interests, but on those of our clients.

We’ve seen the futility of traditional law firm business models whose services are simply out of reach for more than 85% of potential clients. But we can equally anticipate the impact of allowing the legal market to chase lawyers into serving purely the corporate elite, or into a spiral of corner-cutting and eventual collapse. We need solutions that can give both clients and lawyers at least some of what they need.

Those solutions, happily, are already out there. They include a range of entities, some established and some emerging, that connect lawyers and clients in ways that are affordable and convenient for clients and effective and profitable for lawyers. Here are a few:

  • Legal insurance companies (such as ARAG) charge policyholders (either individual consumers or employees of participating companies) a monthly premium in exchange for full access to a range of fixed-fee legal services from an exclusive panel of lawyers who’ve agreed to receive referrals and inquiries in their areas of practice.
  • Online legal information sources (such as Avvo, LegalZoom, and Rocket Lawyer) draw in consumers with access to lawyer directories or basic legal documents and offer them referral opportunities to (or even fixed-fee legal services with) their branded networks of affiliated lawyers throughout the United States.
  • Lawyer content aggregators (such as JD Supra) circulate articles and blog posts created by lawyers to vast audiences of individuals, groups, and media outlets, helping put people who are seeking specific types of legal information directly in touch with the legal professionals who created that information.
  • A growing array of online platforms, virtual and distributed law firms, and project lawyer agencies (such as Axiom and Direct Law) either help law firms implement technology and process improvements to serve clients profitably at lower prices, or help clients access specialized yet affordable expertise on a short-term, flexible basis.

These are the kinds of solutions we’re going to need: ways to conveniently connect people and businesses that have legal problems with accessible lawyers who have legal solutions. Because right now, what we’ve got is a system-wide disconnect. The legal profession is fundamentally misaligned with the buyers of its services and has been for a while. It’s in lawyers’ direct and immediate interest to repair that.

I know many people who support Uber and use it frequently. But I don’t know anyone who thinks taxi services should be provided exclusively by amateurs driving their own cars in their spare time and that the cab industry should be driven into the ground. It’s much the same with lawyers. It would be in nobody’s interests for the legal profession to fade into irrelevance, yielding the legal market to less qualified providers, because it couldn’t figure out a way to deliver its expertise sensibly, affordably, and conveniently.

Lawyers, like cab drivers, are useful and capable service providers who nonetheless are sabotaging themselves through their own lousy delivery models. Let’s take this one lesson from Uber and come up with better ways to be accessible to the people and businesses that need us. It’s not too late to answer the call. But we’re already late in starting.

Jordan Furlong
Jordan Furlong of Ottawa, Canada, is an internationally recognized consultant and legal market analyst who forecasts the impact of changing market conditions on lawyers and law firms. He has addressed audiences throughout Canada, the U.S., Great Britain, Europe and Australia over the past several years, including law firms, state bars, courts, law schools, and numerous legal associations. Jordan is a Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management and a member of the Advisory Board of the American Bar Association's Center for Innovation.