eBay of legal services: clients can seek lawyers' lowest bids

Legal profession, meet the forces of disruption and creative destruction.

Legal profession, meet the forces of disruption and creative destruction.

Will reverse-auction lawyering disrupt a pricey market? Possibly, but the jury is still out on this question.

A new service, called Shpoonkle, offers the opportunity for lawyers to bid for the business of clients needing legal services, eBay style. It's a win-win, site organizers say, because clients get access to legal services at the lowest possible price, while out-of-work law school graduates can get some casework. There apparently is a glut of newly minted lawyers in the market who can't find jobs, as documented in a New York Times article back in January:

"Since 2008, some 15,000 attorney and legal-staff jobs at large firms have vanished, according to a Northwestern Law study. Associates have been laid off, partners nudged out the door and recruitment programs have been scaled back or eliminated. And with corporations scrutinizing their legal expenses as never before, more entry-level legal work is now outsourced to contract temporary employees, both in the United States and in countries like India. It’s common to hear lawyers fret about the sort of tectonic shift that crushed the domestic steel industry decades ago."

Shpoonkle was started in early 2011 by Robert Grant Niznik, a New York Law School grad, who seized upon the idea of connecting hungry law-school graduates with working and middle-class clients who can't afford high-priced attorneys.  The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that Shpoonkle now has 25 employees and more than 5,000 members, including more than 2,100 attorneys. (Paul Caron provides highlights at his site.)

There are no fees for membership, and clients post legal issue details in privacy, to which both mediators and attorneys can respond with price bids. Participating attorneys must provide state bar and/or other public records to confirm they are licensed and in good standing.

Typical legal issues posted at the site include:

  • "My son would like to change his last name to my maiden name."
  • "A friend of mine is looking for a Russian-speaking attorney. Can you recommend someone?"
  • "How can I pre-sell a service provided by my startup?"
  • "What lawyer from Illinois, Cook County would like the job of representing a defendant in an employee retail theft case?"
  • "What will happen to our Corporation when declaring personal bankruptcy?"
  • "What type of lawyer handles dental negligence cases in California?"

Not everyone enamoured with the concept of bidding for justice, however. As Robert Ambrogi posted in his blog, LawSites, earlier in the year, there's nothing new about Sphoonkle, other than an odd name. The online, reverse-auction concept has been applied to lawyering several times before, with zero success, he says:

Way back in 2006, I wrote a post here about the launch of just such a site. Called Tip-Mart, it promised that its reverse-auction system “eliminates extraordinary market inefficiencies, drives down prices, increases sales, and provides new value to both buyers and sellers.” Coincidentally, it too was created by a college student who believed he had the next new thing. Today, the site no longer exists.

Another such site went by the name LawyerQuotesFast.com (and also by the name LawyersForLess.com). This one, too, is no longer to be found.

As a matter of fact, there was even once a law review article written about reverse-auction sites for legal services. At the time, the author noted that there were six such sites when she finished her first draft of the article, but that two had already shut down by the time the article was ready for publication and a third had abandoned its auction component.

But Ambrogi penned his piece back in March, and Shpoonkle is still around and going nine months later. The site also just announced it has expanded into Canada. Maybe the concept finally has legs.

(Photo Credit: US District Court for the Western District of Michigan.)

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com