In France, European Lawyers Day will be met with another move to help the profession and clients cope with ‘Uberisation’.
European Lawyers Day is fast approaching, falling on 10 December 2016. This year’s theme is ‘Access to Justice’, with a strapline of ‘Access your lawyer to access your rights’.
The emphasis on accessing your lawyer in order to access your rights is significant, because the link between the two has never been under such stress. It would have been a truism a decade ago, but the growth in technological solutions, particularly through electronic platforms, is making the link more fragile. Unmet legal need can be met in ways other than through actual lawyers.
European Lawyers Day is celebrated mostly nationally rather than at European level. And one of the prominent national highlights will be publicity for the French national bar’s response to the growth in unregulated electronic platforms. The Conseil National des Barreaux will be profiling its new electronic platform linking lawyers and clients – ‘Never without my lawyer’ (‘Jamais sans mon avocat’).
‘Never without my lawyer’ is a response to the technological challenges of what the heck lawyers do about the Uberisation of the profession. Do they fight it in the courts as the taxi drivers are doing (see more on this below), and as parts of the American legal profession have tried not so successfully in the recent past? Do they try to regulate the unregulated, as happens in parts of the US and Europe? Or do they join the revolution? The French bar’s response is to join the revolution, and their platform is worth monitoring as a possible response to the future.
The new French platform is obviously aimed at the general public. It has three main menus: ask for a meeting with a lawyer, consult a lawyer by phone, or consult a lawyer online. Depending on which choice you make, you are led down similar paths. You are first asked in which area of law you need assistance. There are 11 mentioned.
As a side comment, I am surprised that there are so few. I was involved in the creation of the European electronic directory, Find-A-Lawyer, which is on the European Commission’s e-justice portal, where there are 20 areas of legal practice mentioned, and I remember the struggle to limit it just to those. On the French site, I note that consumer law is in with family law, social security law is in with employment law, and intellectual property law is in with IT law.
However, this point is probably answered by the next step in the platform’s process. When you click on available lawyers, you are given a list of lawyers (presumably randomly selected) who can help you. Their photograph appears against their details, along with languages spoken, and - maybe most importantly for this type of site - the price that they charge. It is not always for the same unit of time, but it is comparable: €80 for 30 minutes says one, or €30 for 10 minutes says another.
And the areas practised by the lawyer appear next to their name in a more broken-down format than in the initial selection menu, so that the items in with each other on the first menu appear separately at the second stage.
The question is whether citizens will choose this platform over one of the unregulated alternatives. The French bar gives strong reasons on the front page of the site arising out of what lawyers offer: qualifications (compétence), independence and trustworthiness (indépendance et loyauté), code of conduct (déontologie) and professional indemnity insurance (assurance professionelle).
I promised a word about the taxi drivers, since the outcome of the Uber litigation before the European Court of Justice could eventually have a dramatic impact on the legitimacy of the unregulated legal service platforms.
There was an oral hearing before the court last week (29 November) in one of the cases – Case C-434/15 Asociación Profesional Élite Taxi v Uber Systems Spain, S.L. It is of such significance that 15 judges are hearing it, and the courtroom was packed with journalists and observers.
France, Spain and Ireland are among the countries supporting the Barcelona taxi drivers that Uber should be treated as a transportation service and so regulated nationally as such. The European Commission and the Netherlands (where Uber has its European headquarters) support Uber in its claim that it is an information society service, which means it escapes national taxi rules and is regulated only at European level under electronic services law.
The next date to put in your diary is 6 April 2017, when the advocate general’s opinion in this case is due to be published. There are obvious possible consequences for us if Uber wins, meaning electronic platforms offering legal services might escape national regulations.
Bar-owned and bar-run electronic platforms offering legal services, such as that now available in France, may be the route to survival.
Jonathan Goldsmith is a consultant and former secretary-general at the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe, which represents around a million European lawyers through its member bars and law societies. He blogs weekly for the Gazette on European affairs