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Disruption is coming to retail law

And the public will welcome it, because it will better serve their legal needs.

Chatbot concept

Retail law needs to be disrupted. We need new approaches to law — not just more of the same with a new label, or a tweak at the margins. What might this look like? One future product: instant, on-demand legal advice at a third the price delivered through a video chat app.

When Uber first disrupted taxi markets around the world, it did so by herding independent contractor drivers onto a single platform and connecting them with what would otherwise be taxi customers. It then took a cut for facilitating the transaction, without having to invest in cars, drivers, passengers, map data, credit card infrastructure, etc. Uber excelled at stitching together existing services to create a popular platform used across Canada and the world.

Uber still faces challenges today, but the lesson for the legal industry is that the model they deployed — a marketplace for independent people to connect and work with one another directly — is a winning one.

Some lawyers scoff at the notion that law could be disrupted the way taxis have been. Yet we’ve seen it happen elsewhere in professional services. Consider the accounting industry, which has for many years been relentless about bringing down costs. Enormous volumes of tax returns are processed in India and other outsourcing centres. There is even special software for managing outsourced tax work. The Big Four accounting firms discovered this particular arbitrage strategy many years ago. But it involves more than just labour arbitrage. Being able to have tax work done partly in Canada and partly in India requires careful coordination and deployment of software with the specific aim of becoming much more efficient at delivering services to customers.

Accounting tax prep and ridesharing both illustrate how a mix of technology and processes can upend an industry. There are many other examples that have filled books.  Sooner or later, automated workflows, streamlined payments, shared organizational knowledge, reputation systems, and all of the other standard tools of other industries will become a part of legal services delivery.

Law on demand

Imagine an app that connects you with a lawyer in seconds — on screen and speaking with you about your facts. The cost: $15 for 15 minutes. The lawyer has been reviewed extensively and their 4.9 star rating reassures you. She answers your questions quickly, politely, and you are listening from the comfort of your own home. It turns out your landlord isn't allowed to ban your pet poodle. No waiting at reception. No haggling over bills. No Yellowpages or calls to schedule a consultation. It’s efficient, affordable, and the lawyer has spent her time helping someone instead of filling out paperwork. Payment is completed immediately (and assured).

Sooner or later, there will be an effective on-demand video chat app that connects lawyers with people who have legal problems. To reduce costs, the lawyers might be those with spare time in their day looking to add a bit more billable time. A more aggressive version of this might call on lawyers in other Commonwealth countries, such as India and Kenya, and trained in local Canadian laws, at a much lower price point. A company might even go further and use paralegals or even trained non-lawyers. Customer reviews, and supervision through the techniques of the BPO industry will ensure quality, not licensing standards (which are rules about the minimum standard, not what customers expect in 2019). Whether or not it's legal, as with Uber, consumer demand will drive the business.

The elements of the above service are already available, and a range of players from international giants to startups like Australia's Legaler have begun to stitch their own marketplaces together. It is the retail side of legal services that will be the first push in this direction, as a great many people have routine questions about law that can be quickly answered by a competent person. People who are not being served by existing offerings. The savings will come from a combination of better utilization of extra capacity from existing lawyers, outsourcing, digital workflows, and scale.

Platforms are profitable only with significant scale, but once they have achieved that — serving hundreds of thousands or millions of customers worldwide — there are massive benefits for consumers. But it takes technology to enable that enable that scale.

Disruption of retail law

A quality-assured legal advice app would be a challenge to existing legal practices that are focused on the low end of the market. However, the arrival of this kind of service would cause lawyers to migrate to the platform in order to bring in new business and focus on the law instead of finding clients. Some lawyers might resist it; others will see the opportunity and consumers will begin to recognize the brand, creating a virtuous cycle of growth. Most lawyers in Canada don't have a brand and potential customers are often confused about whom to turn to. A legal video chat app would address this gap and provide a more convenient platform for lawyers to help people.

But a video chat app for legal would likely involve creating a new market, rather than cannibalizing existing legal services. It would have to address consumer need that's not currently being met because of the realities of operating a law practice in Canada. And where there are new markets there are new opportunities - and new jobs.

Disrupting retail law is essential if we are to solve the A2J crisis. Canadians need new ways to access the law, not new civil procedure rules or new professional requirements for lawyers. There must be a significant increase in efficiency and this can only be achieved by adopting digital platforms like a video chat app for law.

There’s no question that disruption is coming because the pieces are there to be assembled. And the public will cheers its arrival because it will serve their interests, not lawyers.