Shpoonkle came in with a bang but went out with a whimper. When the reverse-auction site for legal services launched in March 2011, its aggressive PR campaign positioned it as the next-new thing, and many in the media bought in to Shpoonkle’s hype. The Wall Street Journal called it “eBay for lawyers.” VentureBeat called it “brilliant.” SmartPlanet described it as a force “of disruption and creative destruction.”
When Shpoonkle closed down, it went out so quietly that few even noticed. In fact, I’m not even sure when it shut down. The company’s last tweet was a year ago, announcing a new bidding opportunity for a client who needed an attorney in Gulf Breeze, Fla. The company’s founder Robert Niznik — who in 2011 was a 21-year-old New York Law School student — is now CEO of a drug and alcohol detox center in Miami, according to his LinkedIn profile, and has been since sometime in 2013.
Yes, this is where I get to say, “I told you so.” In my original post about Shpoonkle’s launch, I opened with the quote from George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” As I noted then, Shpoonkle was by no means the first reverse-auction site for legal services. I first wrote about such a site in 2006, and several others have come and gone since then. For whatever reason, auction sites for legal services tend to have short lives.
Even as I questioned whether Shpoonkle could survive as a business, others condemned it more harshly on ethical and professionalism grounds. “Here you have a race to the bottom,” wrote Susan Cartier Liebel, “as lawyers bid against one another to pay the lowest fee to anonymous clients with legal problems.” “Any lawyer who signs up for this service should be immediately disbarred, then tarred and feathered, then publicly humiliated,” said Scott Greenfield.
Now Comes Lawtendr
Against this backdrop comes a new lawyer bidding site, Lawtendr, launched by a lawyer in Toronto and serving the legal markets in the U.S., the UK, Canada and Australia. Here’s how it describes itself:
Lawtendr is a new website which allows individuals to post a job and get bids from local lawyers, saving them time and providing them with competitive pricing. Each bid includes the lawyer’s fee, background, experience and description of how they will complete the job. Having this information at the start of their search will make the process of finding a lawyer easier and less intimidating for clients.
Lawtendr says it is not trying to minimize the importance of the lawyer-client relationship:
The relationship between a lawyer and client holds a special place in our society and Lawtendr is not designed to reduce that relationship to a simple auction. Lawtendr is, however, designed to help make the search for a lawyer a simpler, more positive experience by providing individuals with options and information at the start of the search process. After selecting a bid, the client will still have to meet with the lawyer. Lawtendr is optimistic that in most cases, the client will be satisfied with their selection. If the client is not satisfied with the lawyer or if the lawyer is unable to perform the work, the client has 10 days to cancel their choice and may select another bid.
Lawyers can register for the site for free. Once they do, they are able to view and bid on jobs posted in their jurisdiction. In the U.S., that would mean posted in their state. The lawyer can ask the job poster questions about the job before submitting a bid. When a client accepts a bid, he or she pays the full fee to Lawtendr, which disburses the funds to the lawyer once a month. Lawtendr takes a 10% commission fee from the amount paid by the client.
Lawtendr was founded by Jonathan Burshtein, a partner with Davidzon Burshtein LLP in Toronto, and Blue Basil Studios Ltd., a Toronto-based web development company.
What is the Future for Auction Sites?
As I said, these lawyer-bidding sites tend to come and go. Last year, the legal directory and Q&A site Avvo launched a reverse-auction feature called the Avvo Legal Marketplace. Now, the Legal Marketplace is no more, replaced by the Avvo Advisor on-demand legal advice service I wrote about here in October.
There are other legal-services bidding sites still out there. Among them:
- BernieSez, which encourages users to upload a photo of a traffic ticket and have attorneys bid to handle the case.
- ExpertBids, a service for getting bids from lawyers and accountants.
- BidsFromLawyers.com, where users can “invite lawyers to bid for your business.”
The one bidding site that so far appears to be having some success is UpCounsel, which focuses on legal services for businesses, such as outside general counsel services or brand and trademark enforcement. Potential clients post descriptions of their legal needs and then receive proposals from attorneys.
UpCounsel launched in 2012 and appears to have gained some degree of traction. In a Forbes interview published just this week, co-founder Matt Faustman says that UpCounsel has 5,000 registered attorneys and has raised $2.4 million in additional seed funding. That brings the total amount it has raised to about $3.7 million, said an earlier TechCrunch article, which also said that the company had worked with more than 1,000 businesses.
Is UpCounsel the exception among a long list of legal-bidding sites that have failed? It is too early to render a verdict on that question. But as for some of the smaller legal bidding sites still out there, I’d say check back in a year and see how they’re doing.