A popular kind of legal startup in Silicon Valley is the lawyer matching service. See, for example, Law Pivot, Rocket Lawyer, Lawdingo, and Avvo.
The basic idea is that lawyers are difficult to search for and expensive to try, but many lawyers are actively searching for business and are willing to spend money and time to meet new clients. These services sign up lawyers and charge them or get them to provide free or discounted legal content, either to the site or to potential clients one on one; and, in exchange, the services send potential clients to the lawyers. For clients, these sites provide a centralized place to find lawyers, discounted prices, an easy way to schedule appointments and compare advice and qualifications, and, eventually, reviews from clients or others.
The tech press likes these startups; traditional lawyers don’t. Why?
Finding a good lawyer is a real problem. Too many small to medium sized businesses ($100M a year or less) subsist on bad legal advice because they can’t tell the difference, aren’t willing to pay the price for good advice, or don’t know that they have to pay the price to get good advice; the problem is even worse for individuals with small civil or criminal matters; whether they get a good lawyer is basically a matter of chance.
A single place where these clients could go to find good lawyers would be a great service; it would add value both to the lawyers who used it and to the clients it served. But the main service of that single place is not merely collecting lawyers, reducing their rates, or sharing information among clients about them — the main service of that single place is screening good lawyers from bad, making lawyers better than they are, giving lawyers the resources they need to do great work, and making it easy to assemble multidisciplinary teams of lawyers for problems that require different areas of expertise.
That organization is the law firm, at least as great law firms used to be. Until these startup marketplaces do a good job at screening for quality — something that can only be done by lawyers, or by technology that understands enough of legal practice to distinguish good lawyering from bad — they will be doing a disservice to both lawyers (whose participation is, indeed, a sign of desperation) and to clients (who are not getting what they really need, which is, at minimum, a quality screen). I very much hope these startups eventually develop something like this, what might be described as a parceling out of the marketing and quality-control services that law firms once provided to clients and lawyers; but until they do, they have misunderstood the problem they are trying to solve.
A few words about quality control for nonlawyers: checking for bar membership and bar discipline is nowhere near enough. Unfortunately, in the United States, it is easy to become a lawyer and there is little or no postgraduate specialization or training as there is for doctors. The kinds of things that can be routinely checked are not adequate indicia of quality. And clients can judge bedside manner, but not the quality of the surgery; unlike real surgery, the results of bad lawyering may not show for years in litigation and longer in transactions. This is why the quality-control function of law firms is so important, because, until better technology is developed, only senior lawyers who are themselves good can tell what lawyers are good and can teach them how to be better.
Technology to determine the quality of lawyers — now that would be something!