Two Toronto startups say they hope to revolutionize the way Canadians seek out legal services, launching online portals that resemble dating services but are meant to match clients with lawyers, not lovers.
While most big law firms have sophisticated websites, many small firms and solo lawyers – those that help most people draft wills, buy their first home or get a divorce – still have clunky homemade-looking presences online. Some have no website at all. However, as with everything else these days, when many people start looking for a lawyer, they increasingly look online.
It's this gap that both Kabuk Law and LawyerLinx are trying to fill. Both companies are among the very first projects housed in Ryerson University's Legal Innovation Zone, an "incubator" for legal technology startups that is headed by Chris Bentley, the former attorney-general of Ontario.
The websites are still in their early stages, and their founders acknowledge they will only realize their full potential when a critical mass of lawyers has signed up.
The entrepreneurs behind the sites say their aim is to improve upon existing Web-based directories for lawyers, such as Lawyer Locate, the dominant site in Canada. In the United States, FindLaw, owned by Thomson Reuters – whose parent company is a majority owner of The Globe and Mail – provides a searchable directory of lawyers. U.S.-based Avvo allows users to ask legal questions, get legal help on the phone and search a directory of U.S. lawyers.
LawyerLinx promises an algorithm to match clients – who fill out a quick questionnaire about their needs – with a selection of suitable lawyers. It also asks users whether they want to pay the lawyer a fixed fee or an hourly rate and how much they expect to spend.
The site was founded by Toronto business and real estate lawyer Edyta Kowalewska, an associate at Morrison Brown Sosnovitch LLP, a small Toronto firm. She says she founded the site to demystify the process of finding a lawyer. Both LawyerLinx and Kabuk also feature general advice for consumers looking for lawyers and briefings about different kinds of law.
"I really wanted to create a place that would inform and empower consumers," Ms. Kowalewska said. "… The legal profession, I would say, is not known for being very consumer-oriented."
Kabuk was first launched as a website to help people find health-care professionals, such as chiropractors, nutritionists and physiotherapists. But last week, the entrepreneurs behind it soft-launched a new version to cater to lawyers. To be listed, lawyers will have to pay a $100-a-month fee.
In addition to listing lawyers in your city who specialize in the legal service you are looking for, the site allows clients to book appointments. Kabuk also plans to display recommendations from verified clients, although skittish lawyers will be able to opt out of this service.
Asha Soares, a co-founder of Kabuk, says that using her site will be much better than just hunting for a lawyer using Google: "When you go to Google search results, you get the people that have paid for, or spent time and money on SEO [search engine optimization] and Google adverts, not necessarily the people who are the best fit for your needs."
Samantha Collier, a West Vancouver-based consultant who advises lawyers and law firms on social-media marketing, says the new sites face an uphill climb because Lawyer Locate already has thousands of lawyers signed up. But they could succeed if they offer something unique or innovative, she said, adding that lawyers are also discovering that paying clients can be found through Facebook and Twitter.
"I would say it is competitive for them," Ms. Collier said. "They need to find a niche."