Monday, March 19, 2012

Finding a Lawyer Online – The Case of Shpoonkle

Increasingly, third party companies are creating websites offering their service in matching consumers with an attorney, often with the promise of finding the cheapest attorney available. The question becomes, are these online services good for the consumer, the potential client, and for the lawyer and the legal profession as a whole?
As opposed to a law firm’s website, which may offer information about the firm, the lawyers and the type of practices areas the firm handles and which may also allow individuals to submit information in confidence to the firm to be reviewed by an attorney, online services such as “Shpoonkle” work on the reverse auction model. Under this method, an individual seeking an attorney becomes a member of the website, posts information about his or her case, and the lawyers, who are also members of the website, review the facts of the case and “bid” against other lawyers to offer the lowest rates. The lowest bidding “winning” lawyer is then presented to the consumer.
Rather than meeting face to face as part of the traditional process of hiring a lawyer, websites such as Shpoonkle put the entire process online without allowing face to face meetings or talking on the telephone.  Additionally, Shpoonkle makes it so that lawyers reviewing the case are not given identifiable information about the individual and the individual is not given identifiable information about the lawyer or his or her firm. Unlike specifically contacting a firm to determine if you want them to be your lawyer, no one really knows who someone is until the deal is sealed and the attorney-client match is made.
Shpoonkle and similar lawyer-client matching services were recently discussed by Mark DuBois, the former chief disciplinary counsel for Connecticut, who raised several important ethical concerns for lawyers and practical concerns for clients. For instance, with anonymous bidding system, how can the attorney fulfill his or her duty to do a conflict check? What if an attorney begins an attorney-client relationship, only to find out the individual has interests adverse to an existing client? Similarly, from the individual’s perspective, what if you divulge sensitive information to the anonymous prospective lawyer, only to learn that he or she cannot keep you as a client because of a conflict?
Other commentary on Shpoonkle has ranged from complimentary, with blogger Susan Cartier Liebel calling Shpoonkle’s creator “innovative, entrepreneurial,” and well known blogger Jolie O’Dell of Venturebeat saying it is a “great idea,” to a more neutral review from the American Bar Association Journal, describing it as “no joke.” Amplifying DuBois’ concerns, however, criminal defense attorney Scott H. Greenfield wrote in his blog that “Any lawyer who signs up for this service should be immediately disbarred, then tarred and feathered, then publicly humiliated,” and he went on to express his concerns over the commoditization of the legal profession.

Questions or Comments? Contact Jared Cantor.