Paul L. Caron

Monday, December 12, 2011

Law Grads Auction Their Services to Clients on Shpoonkle -- eBay for New Lawyers

Shpoonkle-1024x321Chronicle of Higher Education, New Lawyers Hang a Shingle on Shpoonkle, to Some Colleagues' Chagrin:

Robert Grant Niznik had commiserated with other third-year law students about the lousy job market and was wondering what he was going to do after finishing his courses at New York Law School this month. At the same time, he'd read about middle-class people who didn't qualify for Legal Aid services but couldn't afford high-priced attorneys. So, in between going to classes and studying for exams, he came up with the idea of a matchmaking Web site where recent law graduates could hone their legal skills by bidding alongside other lawyers for clients seeking affordable counsel. ...

Mr. Niznik, who says he owes more than $140,000 in student loans, thinks that with the depressed job market and the number of people who can't afford legal services, the time is right for his service to succeed. The Association for Legal Career Professionals reports that by nine months after graduation, only 64% of law graduates in 2010 had full-time jobs that required a J.D.

The result is Shpoonkle, a reverse-auction site where potential clients describe legal problems and lawyers bid to see who can solve them for the lowest price.

Perhaps alerted by the silly name, the legal establishment sat up and took notice. As Shpoonkle grew—Mr. Niznik says the 10-month-old venture now has 25 employees and more than 5,000 members, including some 2,100 attorneys—a backlash began to brew. "Any lawyer who signs up for this service should be immediately disbarred, then tarred and feathered, then publicly humiliated," Scott H. Greenfield, a prominent criminal-defense lawyer in New York, fumed on his blog, Simple Justice.

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What's that I smell radiating off of Greenfield's posting? Why that's the smell of fear. He's like the old grey wolf used to stalking his deer in peace suddenly surrounded by hundreds of young, hungry wolves and he knows Just. Exactly. What. That. Means.

I recommend the following reference for parsing Greenfield's paniced screed:

Exercise: Try and find the elements of his arguments that do *not* fall into one of the above categories. You'll have to look hard.

Posted by: jms | Dec 28, 2011 10:42:01 AM

Although I have some reservations about this idea, it's one of the few attempts at a solution to a problem that has been around for decades and is part of how law practice is changing. Even in the 1990's when I first started practicing, I volunteered at Volunteer Legal Services' advice clinic. The advice clinic was for people who were being turned down for free legal services. Either their income was just a little too high, the other party was already being represented by the group, or they just did not have a category of claim that VLS or Legal Aid could handle. These people were often in desperate Family Law situations that involved the health and well-being of their children or involved their own survival in some way. Their cases would be hotly contested enough that they would run into the thousands even if they hired an attorney at reduced cost, and they did not have thousands. And their cases were also hotly contested enough that they really needed an attorney to represent them. Instead they were getting a thirty minute advice session.

In response to this situation, through Austin Young Lawyers Association, I developed a Family Law pamphlet that pointed these people to various resources, forms sources, and advice. But that was a band-aid at best.

Do I have reservations about baby lawyers taking on cases out of their league for a price that won't sustain litigation? Need I even answer that question?

Despite my reservations, the fact of the matter is that these people will likely have no lawyer at all otherwise. And they need one.

And as for the lawyers, I think a lot of them will get in over their heads and will not make more than poverty wages once litigation costs are figured in. But that being said, they'll get valuable experience in the process. I hope that they will seek out mentors, attend lots of continuing education, and consult with local agencies to get forms guides. If they do, some of them may become outstanding attorneys and later get good, stable jobs.

And as for law schools, we need to start preparing our students to hit the ground running. It's a different world for them when they graduate.

Posted by: Cathren Koehlert-Page | Dec 13, 2011 1:02:33 PM

Sorry people, but ANY state-endorsed credential is only a guarantee of minimum competance. This was told to me when I earned my PE license. The state accepts the results of an exam as proof you meet the minimum requirements for licensure.

It is as true of driver's licenses as it is for medical licenses.

Now, the quality of the practicioner may (and does) vary, and you should be on the lookout for the ability of the licensee. But a state-issued license only shows that you are a good test-taker.

Posted by: Dr. K. | Dec 13, 2011 2:43:54 AM

The more he talked of his honor, the faster I counted the spoons.

Posted by: Donm | Dec 12, 2011 8:45:50 PM

I remember the Old Days, when lawyers were prohibited (probably by peer pressure) from advertising. Doctors, too. Today, though, we have a well-known (Southern California) DUI defense lawyer flogging his wares in the air and in print.

Is there really anything wrong with advertising one's services? Or with offering them out in the marketplace? Does Mr Greeenfield, Esq., think that lawyering is such a sacrosanct profession that any new graduate who isn't immediately accepted into the corporate boardroom is a hopeless loser? (He probably loos down on Public Defenders as caterers to the hoi polloi.)

Posted by: ZZMike | Dec 12, 2011 6:56:21 PM

As I am not seeking to compete, perhaps to aleveate the "lowest bidder" problem there could be a "purchase this attorney now" button like other auction websites. If the customer likes one of the bidders (say based on a LinkedIn profile, a self-run website, Facebook, whatever), and is willing to pay that bidder's price, the client could click and end the auction. Seems like something that can be implimented rather easily.

Posted by: tax guy | Dec 12, 2011 6:44:00 PM

Let's go back to minimum fee schedules. Those were the days.

Posted by: Skip | Dec 12, 2011 6:27:01 PM

Caveat Emptor

Posted by: Lt. Dangle | Dec 12, 2011 5:53:48 PM

Bobby B. is perfectly right about Scott Greenfield. I commented on "Simple Justice" that bill padding is one of the dishonest practices that has given lawyers their reputation for dishonesty, but lawyers who compete on price can scarcely afford that since they will be undersold. Greenfield's reply said I am irrational, simple-minded and illogical. Offer him an argument and he'll give you a rant.

Posted by: John Olson | Dec 12, 2011 2:20:41 PM

@ Ron Coleman "Maybe what's new here is the entry into the seller's market of fresh law school graduates, offering services they typically have no clue how to provide."

As has already been observed, heaven forfend that market be brought to bear on "the bar". Lawyers should be more concerned about the bar they will all pass, and less concerned about seeking rents. After all, if your services are really worth what you've been charging, you'll still make your money.

Posted by: Tom Perkins | Dec 12, 2011 1:47:07 PM

Lawyers reworked healthcare because it was "too expensive".

Now the $1,000 shoe is on the other foot, isn't it counselor?

Posted by: Brian | Dec 12, 2011 11:29:51 AM

Anon at 11:08:45, no, he hasn't. He says something about ensuring quality legal services, but in my experience, the correlation between quality and price of legal service is 0.000. You have just a good a chance of finding a decent lawyer on shpoonkle as by calling up a random lawyer from the Yellow Pages, or from selecting from some list of supposedly elite law firms in their city.

Posted by: Anthony | Dec 12, 2011 11:02:53 AM

To be honest, I just want to be able to hire Saul Goodman from Breaking Bad if I need him.

Posted by: Geoff | Dec 12, 2011 10:49:05 AM

Poor babies cry me a river. So the legal profession will finally be subject to competition and might even make legal representation affordable Legal advice should be a commodity.
Lawyers have rigged the system in their own favor and very few deserve any more than minimum wage.

Posted by: David OHara | Dec 12, 2011 10:46:10 AM

I read the Scott Greenfield blog post, the comments, and his reply to the comments. As I non-lawyer, I am always amazed at how willing some lawyers are to confirm all of the worst stereotypes about lawyers. It takes a special kind of arrogance to explicitly demand civility while simultaneously reserving (and exercising) the right to be uncivil. Also, it seems like Greenfield's objection to this venture seems to be "I just don't like this". Again, I am no expert, but I think I would recognize an actual legal argument if I saw one.

Of course, I shouldn't be all negative. I will close by saying I have no reason to believe that Greenfield bills his clients for the time he spends maintaining his blog.

Posted by: Paul from Hamburg | Dec 12, 2011 10:22:44 AM

One of the more curious things about any mention of shpoonkle is the sudden and inexplicable appearance of a swarm of commenters, none of whom have ever been to the blog before, have legit emails or provide any links to demonstrate their bona fides, both favoring this bit of brilliance and attacking its naysayers. I see it's happened here. A similar bunch of shills have stopped by my blawg. By my estimation, there are a dozen or so.

The good news it that their comments are fairly transparent. The bad news is that this may be the new way of marketing on the internet, and provides a clear reflection of the nature of such "concepts" and their concern for both honesty and ethics.

Posted by: shg | Dec 12, 2011 10:04:20 AM

If your most important value is price, and you choose based solely on price, you'll likely get the lowest available price.

If you think price is the only -- or the most important -- aspect on which lawyers compete, you don't have the first foggy clue what lawyers are for.

If you think having a JD and having passed the bar exam guarantees that a lawyer can competently do even something as simple as a name change, I will tell you from personal experience and observation that you are badly wrong.

The difficulty isn't that lawyers don't compete. The difficulty is that comparing their services is inherently difficult and incredibly subjective.

What is changing is the availability of raw, mostly unfiltered information. When I began practicing law, stodgy old Martindale Hubbell -- bound, yearly volumes in which lawyers pay for listings -- was about all that was available. With the internet, one can now find an amazing abundance of information about individual lawyers, their qualifications, and their experience online, especially for lawyers in adversary practices (like my own). But it's frankly the rare consumer who's in a position to evaluate that information more than superficially.

Posted by: Beldar | Dec 12, 2011 10:01:02 AM

Great idea! Too bad the medical profession can't be doing the same thing. But then, part of our health care problem is that doctors have been very effective at limiting the supply of doctors.

Posted by: Milwaukee | Dec 12, 2011 9:51:00 AM

Reverse-auctioning of legal services has been going on on various sites for about ten years, with varying degrees of success, Paul. Maybe what's new here is the entry into the seller's market of fresh law school graduates, offering services they typically have no clue how to provide. This is in keeping with our new standards for experience and competence demonstrated by that famous Harvard Law School graduate in Washington, no doubt.

Posted by: Ron Coleman | Dec 12, 2011 9:27:02 AM

OMG!! Market forces come to the legal profession! This must be stopped at all costs!!

Posted by: JorgXMcKie | Dec 12, 2011 9:02:00 AM

Wow! Go read the comments - mostly by the blogger himself - in that Simple Justice" blog you referenced. What hate! What vitriol! Lawyers signing on to this service are "scum" who ought to die! They're lawyers who just can't cut it, who must be lousy, awful lawyers and probably pedophiles too!

And then you step back and see the blogger write things like "I don't get my clients from WalMart", indicating his complete unconcern for the 80% of the country who can't afford his rates for criminal defense, while he makes a few throw-away comments about how "the bar" should probably look at ways that legal services can be found for those without huge bank accounts.

What an ass.

You can always tell which lawyers are going to have tantrums about "protecting the honor of the profession", and who then talk about everything except the price of lawyers. They're the people who are, at heart, salesmen - the ones who can sell anything and make a pile, who just happened to go to law school and who really aren't good lawyers at all, but they're top-notch at signing up customers.

Yeah, we should worry about protecting the "honor" of this Scott Greenfield blogger. His contribution to the honor of the legal profession seems to have involved getting his name known by a ton of skanky druggies with lots of stolen cash available to pay his outrageous fees. Let's all ridicule Shpoonkle so that Scott can continue raking in drug money to keep his customers out there working. Honor demands no less!

(Sorry for the rant, but his outrage over "honor" is just one more smarmy way for this guy who lives on sewage to make sure he can still have his yearly new Jag. China finally started to become livable when the fee-sucking mandarins who kept all but the rich from government help were taken out. He's our version of them.)

Posted by: bobby b | Dec 12, 2011 8:58:15 AM

Yes, how DARE they bother to compete on price, when the established legal framework is for collusion and a tendency to create more work than necessary...

Posted by: cirby | Dec 12, 2011 8:42:40 AM


Of course, having a job done by the lowest bidder has its problems...

Posted by: luagha | Dec 12, 2011 8:31:11 AM

Other than outrage, has Mr. Greenfield offered any basis for his views?

Posted by: anon | Dec 12, 2011 8:08:45 AM

I thought the public humiliation was already covered when you had to admit to people that you mortgaged your life to become a *shudder* lawyer.

Posted by: Render | Dec 12, 2011 8:05:15 AM

This is a great idea! Good luck to this venture. We have had too many attorneys for too long.

Now if we can break up the monopoly and exorbitant fees of title companies.

Posted by: jgreene | Dec 12, 2011 7:48:46 AM

Perhaps we should look for a good "tar and feathering" business model.

Posted by: Shag from Brookline | Dec 12, 2011 3:02:39 AM