Empathy for the Disrupted

I use both taxis and Uber, depending on the situation. Here’s at least one thing that differentiates each from the other.

If you’ve taken a taxi in the last few years and the subject of Uber has come up (almost certainly raised by your driver), you know how much cabdrivers just hate that company. They absolutely loathe it. In my city, taxi drivers wrecked rush-hour traffic for several days by staging massive protests against Uber before it even arrived. (They did not win any hearts and minds in the process.)

But what’s interesting is that during all the Uber rides I’ve taken, not once have a I heard a driver say anything about taxis. No complaints, no compliments — it’s like taxis don’t even exist. I imagine that if I asked an Uber driver about cabs, he might relate an anecdote about being screamed at while picking up a fare at the airport. But if he has any emotional reaction to cab drivers, it would probably be scorn. “Tough. Too bad. They deserve what’s coming to them.”

I think there’s something we can learn here about what it’s like to be disrupted, and what it’s like to do the disrupting.

When cabdrivers talk about Uber, there’s a lot of resentment and even fury, and it’s easy to assume it’s because they feel economically threatened by these new participants in their market. Certainly, the steep investment many cabdrivers have made in taxi medallions and the like means there are real financial stakes here.

But I think there’s more to it than that. Taxi drivers talk as if their personal space has been invaded, and they’re upset that their long record of good (or at least competent) service hasn’t earned them more deference and protection. They feel a sense of entitlement to the work they do, and they feel wronged and violated by its loss. It’s not an economic reaction so much as an emotional one. “Who do you think you are? This is mine. Give it back.”

The parallel I’m drawing to the legal world is, of course, obvious. Lawyers and judges have a long and deeply rooted sense of ownership and entitlement to the law and its institutions. That possessiveness helps to explain the raw nature of their pushback to changes in the legal ecosystem. This isn’t about money, not really. This is about how the very premise of a non-lawyer legal service provider is, for many lawyers and judges, a personal insult.

I’ve argued for awhile now that regulations concerning the ownership of law firms and the delivery of legal services should be liberalized, and I’ve marshalled what I think are decent arguments in favour of that position. But I’ve been taken aback by the emotional intensity of the resistance I’ve encountered from some lawyers. I always feel like I’ve brought a knife to a gunfight, and that I’m fighting a different battle than they are.

I think I understand the situation a little better now. These aren’t really economic fears I’m encountering from lawyers — LegalZoom serves a low-income part of the world that most lawyers, let’s face it, don’t really care much about. The entire alternative legal services industry occupies maybe 1.5% of the global legal market. ALSPs do not threaten lawyers fractionally as much as Uber threatens cabbies.

Instead, this is about position, status, and self-image. This is about being challenged when your entire sense of self-worth is about how unchallengeable you are, how right and true you are. This is about believing so strongly in your own professional virtue that an attempt to move into your space is interpreted as a frontal attack on that virtue.

I still remember sitting in on a focus group, years ago, of bar leaders who were asked, hypothetically: What would happen to the world if there were no lawyers? It wasn’t just their responses I remember — “There’d be anarchy. Society would collapse.” It was the intense, wide-eyed earnestness of people who truly believed, in their hearts, that lawyers were indispensable to the fabric of society.

I’m trying hard to word this not as a criticism, but as an anthropological exercise in deciphering lawyer resistance to market system change. From that perspective, lawyers’ antipathy to non-lawyer services is completely understandable. A threat to one’s sense of indispensability and high self-regard can easily be interpreted as existential — especially for lawyers, who invest so much of their personal worth in their professional identity.

So this is meant as a suggestion to all the people and businesses working hard to change the legal market, or to crack the seal on the provision of legal services: Ease off on the scorn. Have some empathy for the people who are standing where you want to be. I don’t say sympathy, necessarily: You don’t have to feel bad for them if you don’t want to.

But think about what it’s like to have something that really matters to you, something you’ve long assumed belongs to you alone, taken away and used by other people. It doesn’t matter whether this sense of entitlement is justified — this isn’t a morality play, and you don’t get to judge other people’s choices about what matters to them. This is about recognizing that what seems to you like a smart business strategy is, for someone else, an assault on their very identity.

It’s true that lawyers are more change-resistant than most people. But most people are change-resistant all on their own, and everyone has a little patch of deeply personal ground from which they feel they simply cannot be moved. Empathy, rather than sympathy, for the position of the entitled incumbent will help the change process run more quickly and more smoothly. It will help you understand the ferocity of the resistance. And it might help you when the day comes — as it will — when someone comes along to take what you cherish away from you.


  1. I’m going to venture a guess that the experience you’ve had with taxi drivers and Uber drivers differ not because the taxi drivers feel a sense of “entitlement” but because Uber drivers are very much dependent on customer ratings. Hence, the Uber driver will strive to make your ride a “pleasant” experience as they are depending not only on your payment of fare but also fear a negative customer rating would jeopardize their partnership (I hesitate to use the term employment) with Uber.

  2. I agree that there are strong parallels to lawyers here, but the way in which you characterize this as a primarily an identity issue for taxi-drivers (and mention the economic issues only in passing) is upside down and IMHO an unfair trivialization of their predicament.

    The medallion/plate issue is fundamental to all of this. To take Ottawa as an example, prior to Uber, taxi plates were selling for $200,000. Many taxi drivers paid substantially more than a full three years of U of T Law tuition just to be able to drive a taxi. Now plates have fallen to less than half of that in the city, and these people are in a tough economic position that is more tangible than “identity” and a reaction to loss of “personal space”.

  3. Verna, that’s certainly possible. I fall into the category of passengers for whom “complete silence” is the preferred ambience for a car ride, and I give high ratings when I experience it.

    But isn’t it instructive that cab companies haven’t set up similar ratings systems for their drivers? My local taxi service has a mobile app for calling and tracking its cabs, which is significantly inferior to Uber’s but is still better than nothing, which is what they had before. Adding a rating system to that app would be easy — yet they’ve not done so. Why not?

    Here’s what I know about cab service since the arrival of Uber: It has not improved. The cars are no better maintained, the drivers are just as distracted by incoming calls on their cellphones, the reluctance to take credit card or mobile payment remains. On a recent trip to Miami, I ignored local advice and took a cab from the airport rather than Uber. Within minutes, I literally had to take out my cell phone, find the hotel on Google Maps, and dictate directions to the driver from the back seat.

    The taxi industry could have studied Uber, figured out the benefits it’s offering, and tried to emulate or surpass them. Instead, it has tried to get Uber banned, so that it can continue providing inferior service in a monopolized market. Does that remind you of any other industry?

    This is why I have empathy for taxi companies and lawyers, but not much sympathy. Uber and ALSPs are not doing anything that taxis and lawyers couldn’t do equally well, if not better. For the most part, they have refused to do so. Why? The best answer I can come up with is that *they don’t feel they should have to.* And that’s entitlement.

  4. Well said. Economic disruption can take people’s pride, not just their money. It’s very hard on human beings. The rise of right-wing populism is one of the consequences, along with a lot of quiet misery.

    Disruption might happen to me, or anyone. My occupation (law-professoring) could become very disruptable within a decade or two. If it does, I’ll probably be bitter and protective too.

    A comprehensive, publicly-funded social safety net (including generous retraining) might be the only way to secure the benefits of economic progress and competition, without crushing its human victims (and suffering their inevitable revenge at the ballot box).

  5. Simona, I agree that economic issues play a bigger part in cabbies’ resentment of Uber than in lawyers’ resentment of “non-lawyer” providers — as I said in the post, ALSPs do not threaten lawyers fractionally as much as Uber threatens cabbies. I certainly feel for individual cabdrivers who bought an overpriced asset at the top of the market and are now stuck with it as its value nosedives.

    But I maintain there’s also an element of personal animus here, along the lines of “We’ve been here longer than them, we’re better than them, and people shouldn’t be allowed to use them.” The first statement is true, the second is highly debatable, and the third is nonsense. That’s the analogy I see with the legal profession: Incumbency bestows privilege and justifies protection. It will do neither cabbies nor lawyers — and their customers and clients — any good to think that way.

  6. Well, Jordan visiting Miami has been a different experience for me. I’ve encountered cab drivers who talk about places to go and foods to try – for me that’s part of the local experience and colour of the place. I don’t mind. I’ve taken their public transit as well, again a very impressive ride. I have empathy for both cab drivers and ride-share drivers but I also have sympathy for the ride-share drivers because I’m sure some would like to vent their frustrations and perhaps share their joys – maybe feel freer to be their authentic selves (that’s a luxury cab drivers may have). I suppose that’s why some are joining unions, and states are proposing or passing legislation to ensure these drivers have better working conditions to provide more job security because as useful as the rating systems are the drivers find themselves in a precarious position because of such ratings. Rating systems are fine if those being rated are provided with fair evaluation and consideration.

  7. I don’t think SC’s point has been fully responded to.

    Taxi drivers paid the government a fee for an oligopoly (or, they paid someone who in the past or through a predecessor had paid the government a fee). If the government chooses to abolish or substantially alter that oligopoly after many years by allowing ride-share services, shouldn’t it provide compensation to taxi medallion owners?

    Yes, ride-share services in part due to technology are different, but the ubiquity of smartphones makes the services essentially identical in many respects.

    I was in QC (either Montreal or Quebec City, can’t recall which) and the taxi driver I was speaking with said that when they allowed uber etc. the government paid medallion owners some compensation for loss of value, less than they thought fair, but enough that my driver, at least, recognized it as an attempt by the government to be fair.

  8. Written as a twitter response:

    …LZ serves low-income most lawyers don’t really care much about

    Lawyers r essential bc they designed the system 2 b as such in the same manner that Allopatic providers manufactured a monopoly by disparaging natural medicine
    Statistically speaking most ppl wld enjoy better health by forgoing mainstream medicine, well documented 2 cause mass damage

    Conversely we simply cannot survive w/o competent lawyers

    Just ask the irrelevant low-income human beings lawyers don’t care abt denied meaningful A@J.
    & plz mb what is @ risk 2 us, is not only our $ future & quality of life
    but the desire 2 b valued as equal members of society like the law promised us we r
    only 2 discover no one cares if we live or die.
    That’s what has already been taken away from SRL & mass legally abandoned
    I personally believe lawyers r the most critical members of a fair society
    I just wish they consider us equally as valuable

  9. Johann Drolshagen


    I liked your article very much and I do have the empathy of which you speak as well as lack the sympathy to which you refer. I have, in fact, referred to the rule changes as the “lawyers’ uber moment”. That admitted, I would like to point out a couple differences and a glaring omission – not to be argumentative, but because we still have a very large conversation to have prior to implementation.

    The first difference is: lawyers will not be supplanted by these changes. If we accept that closing the Justice Gap is the motivator for the changes then the efforts will largely be focused on the under, or not, served population. Granted there will be some overlap into a practitioners realm but that will be market driven and lawyers will remain the gold standard.

    The second difference is: lawyers are welcome to participate and even lead the innovation(s). Technology promises to bring improved scope, but mostly dramatically affect scale. Scale had not been available to anyone [lawyers or consumers] prior to these changes. These revised rule recommendations, if adopted and implemented, is opening up an entirely new way to think about doing business in the legal arena.

    The omission: the conversation has almost instantly devolved into lawyers vs. non-lawyers; and, this is a problem because it does not represent the true challenge at hand. The primary issue is that 100% of the rules [changed or not] rely on the definition of the Practice of Law. Thus far, there is no working definition and the Courts, Bars, and practitioners have defaulted to relying upon precedent, which is inherently not applicable to the new conditions.

    In order to move forward, we must: 1) Define the Practice of Law; and, determine how to regulate those practitioners [even if only to declare ‘no change’]; 2) Define the broader concept of what it is to Provide Law Related Services; and, determine how to regulate those practitioners, business entities, and technology platforms [this does not have to be a singular answer]; and, 3) Define the most broad concept of what it is to Provide Related Services that are not Law Related; and, determine how to regulate those practitioners, business entities, and technology platforms [this answer could be as simple as ‘none’].

    I hope you will find this comment helpful.

  10. The day (oh, happy day!) when regulations permit Walmart (and Target and, perhaps, even Whole Foods) to provide “retail” lawyering in-store — more cheaply and transparently priced, more efficiently delivered, then we’ll see the “terrible swift sword” of disruption wielded in protection of the consumer client

  11. The real estate Bar had an “Uber moment” in the 1990’s when the Banks decided they preferred closing re-finances; switches and HELOC’s with title insurers. The profession did not respond well. Still isn’t. Jordan you are bang on when you write the disruption did not just effect the pocketbook it was “about believing so strongly in your own professional virtue that an attempt to move into your space is interpreted as a frontal attack on that virtue.”
    Sadly our profession’s ongoing response to the “frontal attack” has not done much for our professional virtue.

  12. “LegalZoom serves a low-income part of the world that most lawyers, let’s face it, don’t really care much about.” I just recently came across one of Canada’s major financial institutions now offering the purely digital solution to register or incorporate your business as they say “for a fraction of what you would pay a lawyer”. The solution also allows startups to create (with the assistance of AI) logos ready for social media upload etc. In other words, assistance in building a brand. This is an institution with global reach and reputation. Right now it appears they are offering their service in three provinces with the promise of the service coming soon to other provinces. Surely a service or solution such as this offered by a reputable financial institution would be something for lawyers (especially the corporate types) to care about.