Finding a Lawyer in a Law Thick World

“We live in a law thick world. To secure a benefit or avoid a loss in this world, we often find that we must somehow use the law. This is as true for global corporations as it is for ordinary individuals…” Noel Semple in Legal Services Regulations at the Crossroads

“Using the law” often requires people to hire lawyers. But, how do people go about finding a lawyer?

Although the Internet has drastically changed how people buy services, choosing a lawyer still necessitates a significant investment in time and resources. Semple remarks in his book that “both quality and price of legal services are difficult for legally inexperienced clients to ascertain…There is a startling lack of objective, verifiable information available concerning an attorney’s malpractice and discipline history and record of failure and success.” To solve this, he calls on regulators to fill the vacuum through online directories “populated with as much information as possible”, especially on quality and price. Perhaps these online directories would resemble a cross between LinkedIn and Uber.

Why regulators and not the private market?

Regulators are better positioned than private companies to facilitate connecting lawyers to clients. They can compel the participation of lawyers and mandate public disclosure of pricing (from time-based, flat fees, or contingency). And, they do not depend on advertisements from lawyers for revenue, meaning they could be more honest about quality of services than a customer review website.

Despite the benefits of mandatory public disclosure of prices and quality, I am pessimistic about law societies leading the way. Christine Parker states that “regulatory schemes are born in historically contingent circumstances of moral panic or professional politics, and then remain in place largely unchanged for decades.” I am not convinced that we are presently in a “moral panic” about information asymmetry regarding pricing and quality or that lawyers are exerting sufficient pressure on regulators to change the status quo.

What do you think it would take for a “LinkedIn-Uber” online directory to become widely adopted by clients and lawyers?


  1. Law society lawyer referral services are hampered by their extreme caution as to not favoring any one lawyer. So, don’t expect any lawyer’s complete professional history to be provided by such services. Therefore, far better for an existing national service like the NSRLP (National Self-Represented Litigants Project) to evolve to provide such a service. The law societies should co-operate by making such information available on a formal request by each person looking for a lawyer, with the help of the NSRLP formalizing the request process. And make a lawyer’s signed consent to the law society’s providing such information part of the law society’s duties.
    In addition, the NSRLP can itself obtain information from the lawyers themselves as to their fees. Lawyers would not help themselves by refusing to provide such information.
    However, as long as the current problem of unaffordable legal advice services is afflicting the majority of the population, the NSRLP won’t be highly motivated to change or add to what it is doing now, even though the 2 services are completely compatible–(1) helping SRLs be more effective SRLs, and, (2) finding them lawyers.
    My point is, we should all only live so long that a law society would change its present practices as to serving the public’s need for affordable legal services. Benchers are not elected by the public, therefore don’t expect their duties as set out in s. 4.2 of Ontario’s Law Society Act to command their attention. Were the present situation otherwise, the problem of unaffordable legal services would not exist, nor would the NSRLP be content to feed off the present situation.
    Organizations don’t change until the fear of the consequences of not changing is greater than the fear of the consequences of changing, i.e., the fear of the consequences of a failed innovation prevails until their perception says, “innovate or die.”

  2. Great comment! I agree with you. Incentives drive the direction of change and there is no present pressing incentive for change.

    I predict that the “innovate or die” conundrum will hit the legal profession suddenly in the future, and I worry that we will not be equipped to handle it with ease.

  3. Good column Heather

    Noel’s point in his excellent book that potential clients have too little information to be able to make choices about who to retain.

    Your suggestion that law societies can mandate further disclosure is valuable. Ironically, law societies (and state bars) long faced pressure from lawyers to limit advertising on the basis that competition based on quality or price was unprofessional. Much of this has changed now with marketing rules being focused on avoidance of misleading advertising.

    On the suggestion that the law societies provide an on-line directory service, there already is an on-line lawyer referral service but it doesn’t integrate client feedback. Your suggestion that it should is attractive to me.