Yesterday, John Goddard (Business Reporter) of the Toronto Star wrote an article entitled “On this site, justice can go to the lowest bidder“. John was talking about a website called Shpoonkle. That website, launched in the U.S. and now with a Canadian presence, allows everyday people to post their legal issues and have lawyers compete. Sound familiar?
Well, for those of you who don’t know, I am a Toronto lawyer and I created THIS WEBSITE to improve access to justice for everyday Canadians. We started off in 2008 with the same idea that Shpoonkle is now launching: have users post their cases and have lawyers compete. After a little while, we realized that others could simply copy our model (i.e. there were low barriers to entry), so we decided to shift gears into a new space: offering legal forms with video tutorials and written guides. Interestingly enough, we were not the only ones to shift away from this space (Lawyer Ahead no longer seems to exist, and they came out in the same year as we did).
And, as I predicted, more and more bidding websites have been popping up – such as Law Pivot, Lawtomatic, and Shpoonkle. In the US, websites like Case Post and Legal Match have been doing this type of thing for a while.
Look, I am happy to see anyone trying to improve access to justice. The problem is that lawyers are too busy charging by the hour and many clients out there are quite happy to pay. So there is little incentive for a lawyer to charge less or compete for a case unless they’re new and desperate. Indeed, a report we conducted in 2009 showed that many lawyers in Toronto were still holding on to that hourly rate (at $338 per hour), which puts them out of reach for many people. FYI, the Chief Justice has been recently citing the findings of our report and it was mentioned by the Globe and Mail.
That’s why this website’s focus is now almost entirely on providing legal forms for everyday situations (e.g. Wills, Cohabitation Agreements, Leases, Employment Agreements, etc.). The forms are lawyer-prepared, easy to read and customize (they’re written in humanese, not legalese), and very affordable (between $17 and $97 plus tax). The guidance is also a great bonus: users can watch an example of how to customize the form and read helpful legal information about the legal form (sometimes, the written guides are over 50 pages long!). All of this would normally cost thousands of dollars of a lawyer’s time, but I am putting myself out there so that the masses can ‘access justice’.
The reason I’m doing this is because of what Richard Susskind (noted UK Law Professor, Legal Futurist, and author of “The End of Lawyers”) has advocated for many years. Legal services are currently undergoing a paradigm shift: from a reactive, one-to-one, hourly-rate billing system to a proactive, one-to-many, commodity based billing system.
Remember: access to justice means more than just resolving disputes in cost-effective and convenient way (a la Richard Susskind). It also means educating everyday people about their rights and obligations and preventing disputes from arising in the first place (which I hope my legal forms try to do).
Finally worth mentioning is that I am not the only lawyer out there trying to do something innovative. Monica Goyal has created a website (www.mylegalbriefcase.com) that offers legal services for those going to small claims court. Bob Berman also created a website (www.myontariodivorce.com) that helps people prepare and file paperwork in family court through his law firm. And Lloyd Duhaime (www.duhaime.org) has an online legal dictionary that offers tons of free legal info.