It's a typical occurrence in the life of a criminal lawyer in Canada's largest city: On the way to a trial in far-off suburban Newmarket, a call comes in from a client jailed overnight and up for a bail hearing the same morning in downtown Toronto.
Being needed in two places at the same time is a universal problem for criminal lawyers across Canada and the United States, most of whom operate solo or in very small firms. Most of the time, they make phone calls and pull in favours to get a friendly fellow lawyer to "stand in" for them at a conflicting bail hearing, "set date" or other procedural court appearance. Sometimes they pay a junior lawyer or a paralegal a fee of $50 to $100 to attend on their behalf.
But a group of legal entrepreneurs has launched a new iPhone app designed to update this informal process for the 21st century's "sharing economy." It's called StandIn Law, and it's like a version of the taxi app Uber, but for criminal lawyers.
StandIn Law, already being used by invited test lawyers in the Greater Toronto Area and Detroit, works like this: Lawyers or paralegals who sign up will be tracked by location, meaning that if they are near a particular courthouse, another lawyer looking for a stand-in there can immediately contact them through the app.
Court documents or other confidential information must be exchanged via phone or e-mail. But the app automatically sends payment via a credit card, taking a $7.50 transaction fee on top of whatever the stand-in lawyer charges. Hiring lawyers are also asked to rate the performance of their stand-in for the app to display.
In the past, some Toronto area lawyers have been forced to find colleagues for stand-in appearances via messages on the Criminal Lawyers Association's e-mail listserv, although this is now frowned upon, said Anthony Moustacalis, president of the Criminal Lawyers' Association. He says he plans to use the app, and imagines it will be used by many of his colleagues, some of whom pay for stand-ins but many of whom simply rely on informal exchanges of favours.
"My fee is a coffee or a beer when I meet with them again and vice versa," Mr. Moustacalis said, adding that seeing quickly who is available via the app will make things much easier. "Sometimes you phone your stand-in friend, and, oh, they are on vacation this week."
It's the latest in a handful of legal apps developed in recent years aimed at a profession that is notoriously old-fashioned and for the most part wary of new technology. Most court files in Ontario are still kept on paper, and some judges' offices still send out decisions by fax.
"I think, more so than ever, people are starting to become more accustomed to doing more on their phones, and hopefully that comes over to the legal side as well," said Andrew Johnston, a master's student at Osgoode Hall law school who came up with the app concept for a student competition while attending Michigan State University law school last year.
The app itself was created by Toronto developers Tiny Hearts, a product of Ryerson University's Digital Media Zone (DMZ), a startup incubator. Also backing it is Peter Carayiannis, a Toronto lawyer who launched a no-frills law firm called Conduit Law and who is an alumni of Michigan State. He met Mr. Johnston while acting as a mentor for the university app competition.
Other apps targeting lawyers in the U.S. include Shake, which creates legal agreements from templates that can be signed digitally and remotely, and various jury tracking apps that allow litigators to record juror behaviour during a trial in order to guess how a jury is leaning.