Shpoonkle: Employment opportunity or ethical dilemma?

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“Just because a lawyer can afford to buy a $10,000 billboard on the highway doesn’t make him a better lawyer,” said Robert Grant Niznik, the founder of an unusual online legal service.

Perhaps even more unusual is the name. Spotlighted in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, Shpoonkle allows potential clients to post legal problems, and lawyers from around the country bid to offer the lowest priced service. Since Niznik started the site over a year ago, more than 5,000 members, including 2,100 attorneys, have signed up. The service seems ideal for those who can’t afford the cost of hiring a local lawyer, but who still want qualified legal advice at a reasonable rate. On the other side of the spectrum, recently graduated law students and attorneys hurting for work in the economic downturn have benefited from a growing database of potential clients looking for their services. Lawyers can find out more about a potential case, contact the client, and win a few hours’ wages without ever stepping away from their computer.

Of course, Shpoonkle has generated its fair share of controversy. Many lawyers are skeptical at best, derisive at worst about a service that generally promotes how cheap you’ll work over the quality of that work. Although lawyers on the website can provide information about their experience before the client chooses a bid, money-strapped clients might have a tendency to go with the lowest bidder, regardless of experience. Attorneys who join the site must provide proof of bar membership in order for their registration to be validated, but there’s no guarantee that they’re qualified to meet the needs of a case – the anonymity of the Web isn’t helpful, in this case. All of this can give Shpoonkle the appearance of a legal black market, where clients and lawyers make shady deals with undisclosed amounts of cash and vague promises.

Despite this criticism, Niznik is confident that his site will be successful and writes off negativity as jealousy-driven. The website is free to use – a bonus for anyone tired of a growing array of pay-for services, and he believes that cheap services don’t necessarily equal bad services. So far, the numbers seem to be in his favor.

This brings up an interesting dilemma for law students: Should you be willing to do freelance work and sell your services as cheaply as possible, even in a tough economy? Scott Greenfield, a prominent New York attorney and founder of the blog Simply Justice, doesn’t think so. Shpoonkle, he said in the Chronicle article, “offers lawyers yet another opportunity to assess just how down and dirty we want the profession to go.”

Indeed, most future lawyers probably don’t envision outbidding each other for clients on a startup website upon graduation. It’s not an ideal scenario, and it’s one that must be approached with caution. But whether you can’t find full-time work for a few months or you’re looking for a bit of extra income to supplement your salary, sites like Shpoonkle have their benefits – if used ethically. Really, it’s a form of freelance lawyering, which has become more popular over the last few years as the Web has become more sophisticated. A simple Google search for “freelance lawyer jobs” comes back with dozens of matching websites. There’s even a National Association of Freelance Legal Professionals, boasting an online directory of 145 members, and the ABA Journal devotes a section of its website to Contract Attorneys. For lawyers who want a flexible work environment and more control over the cases they represent, freelancing can be ideal.

But if you’re eager to jump on Shpoonkle, keep a few things in mind. First, make sure that clients are choosing you based on your experience, not based on the amount of money you’re willing to accept. It may be tempting to get in a bidding war with a hot-shot lawyer from Florida, but all clients deserve the best possible representation for their cases, cheap or not so cheap.

Second, make sure that you portray yourself accurately online. It’s easy to fudge a year of work here or a qualification there when you’re essentially anonymous, but it’s doing a disservice to the legal profession and anything you’ve ever learned in law school.

Third, make sure you are licensed to practice in the jurisdiction at issue. Each state has its own bar, and if you are not admitted and dispense advice in or to a client in that state, then you are effectively practicing without a license.

Finally, make sure you know everything about the case before agreeing to take it on. Shpoonkle allows you to correspond with the client before agreeing to the job, so take advantage of it. The last thing you want is to fill your plate with cases if you’re not qualified enough to take them, and since you probably won’t meet any of your clients in person, background research is critical.

From discovering great music to keeping up with your hometown team, the web makes it easy to do just about anything. But easy isn’t always better. If you do choose to use online services like Shpoonkle, a little common sense – and remembering what you learned in Professional Responsibility – goes a long way.

Sarah Shebek, KU Law