The name is absolutely awful. The concept far worse. And the question remains, which of you will rush to join Shpoonkle, the eBay of lawyering.
The concept is simple enough, people seeking legal help post their issues, and lawyers bid for the work. The limbo concept applies, how low can you go.
It’s founder(s), facially anonymous though, according to Susan Cartier Liebel, it was created by an “entrepreneurial law student” (but she doesn’t want to hurt his feelings by telling him his baby is butt ugly), who sees a chance to make money by claiming to offer affordable legal services to the masses by having lawyers bid against each other to see who can offer their services cheapest.
Any lawyer who signs up for this service should be immediately disbarred, then tarred and feathered, then publicly humiliated. It doesn’t matter how awful a lawyer you are, how pathetic your business, how grossly incapable you may be in getting any client to retain you. Those are all good reasons to apply for the assistant manager’s position at Dairy Queen. This is worse.
Aside: If you require further explanation why this is not a responsible means of acquiring business, then I urge to run, not walk, to the nearest street corner in short shorts. This is not at issue.
The putative explanation for this effort is that legal services are too expensive for most people, and this ugly-named website will match up clients with lawyers who can provide the needed legal services for a price they can afford. It is the elevation of price over quality, on the one hand, but for consumers who can’t find an affordable lawyer otherwise, that may not be the worst thing. There is certainly an argument to be made that no lawyer is better than a bad lawyer, and that money paid to a bad lawyer is money flushed down the toilet.
Rather, the concept is a perfectly reasonable next step to the de-professionalization of legal services, where the purchase of legal services is no different than buying a widget at the big box store for the lowest available price. From the perspective of the cost-sensitive consumer, it probably seems like a great idea. The client isn’t concerned with the lawyer’s actual (as opposed to self-attributed) competence in a particular area of law or in general. The client wants one thing only: a lawyer willing to do the work at a price he can afford.
When a friend of mine brought this idea to my attention yesterday, I snarkily responded:
I’m sure it will be a huge success and make lawyers financially available to all Americans for a relatively brief period of time. Once all the users are imprisoned, we can go back to normal.
The fact remains that there will be lawyers who will use this service, no matter how low they have to go to put a few bucks in their pocket. When the phone doesn’t ring, and the kids are hungry for dinner again, something has to give. People do a lot of crazy things for money, and as crazy things go, this isn’t even in the top ten.
By no means does the need for money make this a justifiable mechanism. It is anathema to what the legal profession is supposed to stand for, implicates a wide variety of unpleasant ethical considerations and reflects a further step, maybe giant step, away from excellence toward commodity. Yet my fear is that the lawyers who would sign up for this mutt couldn’t care less.
That many people are incapable of affording quality legal services is a given. Lawyers are expensive, and the need for legal assistance has, unfortunately, become pervasive in everyday life. People take a huge risk not obtaining counsel. They take a huge risk in obtaining counsel at bargain basement rates. It seems like there’s a huge risk no matter where they turn.
The need to resolve the overarching problem, that quality legal counsel is financially out of reach to many, is a problem, and the legal profession has yet to make any serious effort to come to grips with it. The solution of flooding the market with lawyers of dubious merit and even more dubious ethics isn’t the solution, but neither is bizarrely-named schemes that encourage lawyers to do anything necessary to score a case from some detached name on the internet.
I find it hard to blame some anonymous entrepreneurial law student from putting together this horrible idea. He’s just trying to make a buck, and the creation of this new concept doesn’t compel lawyers to sign up, lawyers to outbid each other to see how low they can go, lawyers to try to glom up cases in areas where they lack competency or lawyers to provide less than stellar services. It doesn’t require that things go horribly wrong. But we all know they will.
On the other hand, this idea offers lawyers yet another opportunity to assess just how down and dirty we want the profession to go. Are we really willing to don the hotpants and walk the boulevard? Are we that far off from actually doing so? Are we willing to close our eyes and let those among us do so, and thereby reduce our profession to the streetwalker level?
It’s now in our face. What do we plan to do about it?
Update: Proving yet again the value of institutional memory, Bob Ambrogi notes that the idea behind Shpoonkle is not only old news, but has failed numerous times before.
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.
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.
And while none of the failed predecessors had great names, none were nearly as horrible as this mutt. Bob asks where now is the time for nasty lawyers to strut down the boulevard. If there is a God, history will repeat itself.