Denver Bar Association
July 2011
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Shpoonkle: Justice for Legal Professionals?

by Nicole M. Mundt


or an attorney who opted for a career in social media, I shouldn’t be surprised to learn about Shpoonkle, a new website where clients advertise their issues and the services they need and lawyers bid to take their cases. While its name choice may be questionable, Shpoonkle is reporting success after going live in March. The site has been referred to as the "eBay for Lawyers," and its release has proven incredibly controversial.

Shpoonkle’s critics are grumbling about how the site is ruining the legal profession. Their argument that Shpoonkle "devalues" our profession—a race to the bottom, if you will—leads to questions about quality of practice. I would argue, however, that the billable hour structure effectively follows the same model. More experienced attorneys charge exponentially more per hour than a second or third year associate in the same field. All other things being equal, it’s fair to say the greener associate would also likely take longer to complete the project.

The point is, this all becomes a cost-benefit analysis for the client, who would otherwise shop firms to find the highest level of expertise for the lowest hourly fee. Where the experience line intersects with the cost line is different for every client and every situation. One may opt for a lower hourly rate for a less experienced associate for a routine issue, while choosing to pay a premium for a named partner to draft a complex shareholder’s agreement. That concept doesn’t change simply because the attorney-client relationship is cultivated online. Shpoonkle also eliminates the need for free consultations or debates about the terms of an engagement letter.

In my opinion, Shpoonkle’s greatest attribute is that there are a number of talented, unemployed attorneys out there who would be happy to use Shpoonkle to bide their time between firm gigs. Not to mention the attorneys who have "unconventionally" chosen to practice law part-time while raising a family, who have decided to switch states and enter a new legal market, or are beginning to building their own client base and ultimately their own firms.

The backlash over Shpoonkle reiterates just how antiquated the legal profession remains: The GOOD lawyers are the ones who work for the BIG firms. Not anymore. Ask the lawyers of recent generations whether they would rather work for a big firm, billing 2,200 hours a year or have their own firms and the ability to work from home with a flexible schedule. Shpoonkle is simply facilitating this paradigm shift.

The well-known legal blog Above The Law wrote a scathing critique of Shpoonkle, but in the same breath noted that those in the profession shouldn’t be too surprised by its creation: "You can’t charge exorbitant hourly rates to wealthy clients for routine legal work and still call yourself a ‘profession’ instead of ‘just another business.’ You can’t raise the price of legal education to the point where young lawyers have to mortgage their financial futures before they even sit for the bar and still attract cautious and temperate professionals. You can’t advertise on television and Twitter [and] turn courtrooms into reality shows … and yet still expect there to be some ‘professional dignity’ involved when somebody dangles the opportunity to make a buck in front of some lean and hungry legal service provider. In short, you can’t do all of the things the legal profession has done over the past 20 or 30 years and expect to get anything other than a big pile of Shpoonkle."

Despite ATL’s conclusion that Shpoonkle is nothing more than what its name implies, it’s hard to ignore the point that there simply aren’t enough jobs to support the number of lawyers out there. And a lack of jobs doesn’t mean the law school debt magically disappears. For young and seasoned lawyers alike, the fact remains that the big firm model isn’t working anymore and lawyers have bills to pay. I actually think Shpoonkle (despite its awful name) is an alright concept. I will be curious to see how (not if) the legal profession adapts to incorporate social media. Change isn’t always bad, my friends … even with a name like Shpoonkle. D

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