UpCounsel is fascinating, exciting, and terrifying at the same time. We applaud the effort to make high-quality legal assistance more accessible to small- and medium- sized businesses. Those segments are woefully under-served—priced out—and our new firm aims to fix that.

Lawyers should compete. They should charge market-wise fees. They should give clients budget predictability, keep them updated, and manage their expectations.

Lawyers = Paper Towels?

On the other hand, we abhor the Legal Zoom-type notion, fostered by UpCounsel, that legal services are a commodity like paper towels. That all lawyers have the essentially the same functions, competence level, and skill set. That the only difference between lawyers is price. That the store brand works as well as the premium brand.

We try to teach our clients that we perform to a standard, not a price. In transactions practice, doing a deal for a client involves more than ripping forms off a pad and filling in the blanks. It’s a craft.

Sure, any lawyer can learn crafts and skills. But a lawyer can’t learn talent.

Talent is what enables top lawyers to take in a client’s big picture, put a task in context, and draw on years of experience to solve problems and help clients make deals. To add value. To become a trusted adviser. To de-mystify things, break them down into digestible bites.

What Really Bothers Us About UpCounsel Crowd-sourcing

Here’s a couple of examples of what we’re driving at, and what bothers us about UpCounsel crowd-sourcing. First, suppose a lawyer hired through UpCounsel, for a low-bid $500 fee, drafts an industrial lease for a large tenant. What are the chances that the lawyer, at that price point, had sufficient interaction with the client to learn that she is a first-time real estate investor/landlord, that when she bought the building it already had another, smaller tenant, and that the leases ended up with conflicting damage restoration obligations for the landlord--so that if the building burned down, the large tenant could cancel its lease but the landlord would be obligated to rebuild the entire building for the small tenant? What are the chances that the lawyer found out that the lease had to be approved by the landlord’s lender, and built in a contingency for that?

Second, and very telling, UpCounsel offers free fill-in-the-blank forms on its site. That’s nice, but the average reading level in the US is 10th grade, and these forms are structured and written in old-school legalese—replete with “herebys,” “whereases,” “hereuntos” and run-on one-sentence paragraphs that are 100-plus words long. Modern practitioners don’t write like that anymore. These forms don’t advance the cause of client clarity and transparency. (By the way, this rant has a grade 8.2 reading level.)

In carving out its space, UpCounsel has leap-frogged over the consumer calamity that is Legal Zoom. We would even say that UpCounsel is two-thirds great.  It’s great because it will drive stodgy, traditional lawyers to wake up and sharpen their game. It’s great because it offers a way for lawyers to get work. 

But UpCounsel is one-third awful, because it stands on Legal Zoom’s shoulders. Perpetuating—trading on—the dumb and dead-wrong premise that talent and quality don’t matter. That all paper towels will sop up the mess.

Judging by what UpCounsel makes available for download, we question how, and how well, they vet their legal talent. And if UpCounsel can’t tell the difference between excellent, average, and poor work product, how can the consumer do that?

Crowd-sourcing of legal services is, in the end, not much different than crowd-sourcing a writing project. A head-long race to the bottom.

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