Posted Mar 14, 2011 03:26 pm CDT
Updated: At 21 years old, Robert Grant Niznik began asking himself the same stress-inducing question looming over all law students: What am I going to do after graduation?
Niznik’s graduation musings led him to contemplate the plight of indebted law students struggling to find jobs in a bleak economic climate as well as the expensive and largely inaccessible nature of the legal profession. His answer to both issues is at once goofy and serious. The New York Law School student founded Shpoonkle, a playfully named website that allows attorneys and law firms to bid on legal requests submitted by clients. The service is free for now, but Niznik said attorneys may be charged membership fees in the future.
Though it has yet to officially launch, lawyers and clients have already started joining the site. According to Niznik, more than 20 attorneys joined Shpoonkle since the site opened Tuesday, and membership numbers are increasing daily.
The idea behind Shpoonkle is relatively simple: Clients can sift through offers made by attorneys and pick the one that suits their budget. “Privacy shouldn’t be a concern” because only lawyers can view cases posted on the site, Niznik said.
Shpoonkle’s motto is “Justice You Can Afford!” but it may not be the kind of justice some attorneys are willing to embrace. Last week, as news of the legal service hit the blogosphere, some law blogs disparaged the website, mocking everything from its name to its purpose. On his New York criminal defense blog Simple Justice, Scott Greenfield said, “Any lawyer who signs up for this service should be immediately disbarred, then tarred and feathered, then publicly humiliated.” Calling the site the “eBay of lawyering,” Greenfield argues the service will lower the integrity of the legal profession.
Susan Cartier Liebel, on her Solo Practice University blog, notes that with Shpoonkle, “you have a race to the bottom as lawyers bid against one another to pay the lowest fee to anonymous clients with legal problems.” But she doesn’t outright dismiss the concept and invited her readers to discuss whether the legal industry will consider this a viable model.
The legal community’s response to the website has been mixed, Niznik concedes. Law students are excited about Shpoonkle, while experienced lawyers who charge hundreds of dollars an hour “don’t believe in the idea,” he said. “I would think lawyers would be happy.”
The law student, set to graduate a semester early next December, said the site enables attorneys to expand their client base and gain credibility. Lawyers have nothing to lose and “everything to gain” from joining the site, Niznik said. Meanwhile, financially challenged clients who “get turned away from legal aid” can use the site to obtain affordable legal advice, he added.
With Congress contemplating significantly curbing funding for legal aid, the National Law Journal published a detailed report Monday analyzing legal assistance programs. And an ABAJournal.com post last year described how many in the middle class are stuck in legal limbo because they make too much money to qualify for legal aid, but not enough to afford an attorney.
Shpoonkle is by no means entering unexplored legal terrain. Numerous reverse auction websites for legal services—such as Tip-Mart and LawyerQuotesFast.com, which was also known as LawyersForLess.com—have launched in the past, Robert Ambrogi wrote at his LawSites blog. “If we have forgotten them, it is because they failed.”
Niznik spent around a month and a half researching similar online models before moving forward with Shpoonkle. “Everything I came across wasn’t user-friendly to me,” he said. And user-friendliness and accessibility are important to Niznik: He called his site Shpoonkle hoping the humorous name would in part make potential clients “less afraid” of seeking legal help. Niznik also had his site translated into multiple languages, including Russian, Chinese, Spanish and French. Additional features such as the “ask” section, which allows clients to pose questions to lawyers, further distinguish Shpoonkle from other legal-oriented reverse auction sites, Niznik said.
The website is set for an official launch next Monday.
Updated March 17 to include additional information from Robert Ambrogi’s LawSites.