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Lots of lawyers, lots of choice. Choice is great, but “choice overload” or “overchoice” (it even has its own Wikipedia entry) is mentally draining and means many people prefer to make no choice at all.

You might have experienced it yourself. Even if you’re well acquainted with the law, when it comes to buying a house you’ll probably engage a conveyancer or a solicitor to help you. Why? Well, you’re not used to the work and you’d rather someone else take the risk of something going wrong.

Luckily for you there’s a fair bit of standardisation in the pricing for conveyancing and lots of specialists provide an excellent service. So, while you have to make a choice, you’re unlikely to go too far wrong.

But what happens when something more challenging arises? The Australian Bureau of Statistics says there are over 2 million actively trading businesses in Australia. Brushing up against the law is commonplace, and the questions are harder and often seem unique.

Unfortunately when you ask a solicitor or a barrister if they can help, the conversation is often the legal equivalent of:

“Can you play the trombone?”

“No, but I can master it by Tuesday.”

While not specialising in the particularly tricky issue raised, your ever-helpful solicitor or barrister will rise to the challenge.

Meeting the challenge using textbooks and first-principles reasoning is fine if you’re being paid for it. But this isn’t an efficient process for consumers. Why should a client pay more for their barrister to learn the law of defamation simply because their usual solicitor knows Mr Y, a barrister with an all-encompassing practice, when Ms X specialises in defamation and could do the work better and cheaper?

Having to pay too much can put individuals and small businesses off from asserting or protecting their rights. Even when we give rights to vulnerable people and businesses, those rights are worthless unless they’re enforced, and they’re only enforced when the cost isn’t prohibitive. The changes to the Unfair Contract Terms regime gives small businesses rights to seek to have unfair terms declared void provides an example – for a really good summary, Corrs Chambers Westgarth’s July 2016 Construction Law Update has a great article (starting at page 30). The creation of the right is great, but many small businesses won’t assert the right if they can’t readily connect with a specialist who can ask the right questions and is really on top of the law.

While price efficiency is certainly an argument in favour of specialisation, it doesn’t cure the choice overload. As a consumer I still have to find the right specialised barrister or solicitor. Either I need to find a specialist myself, or my regular lawyer needs to be really good at triaging issues and engaging the right specialist for me.

What if the market could be reversed by getting the right specialists to come to the consumer? Why can’t consumers connect with a lawyer who knows something like unfair contract terms so well that they can work for a fixed fee? Technology can help. Requests for tender through an online platform are a simple and elegant solution. Specialists and all-rounders tender for work which suits their particular skills. Ultimately, the consumer of legal services gets to choose from the solicitors or barristers who self-select and say “Yes! I want that work” and who are willing to name their fee. The field of choice is narrowed, and the consumer gets to make an informed (and likely better) decision.

It means clients:

- can make good choices about who to hire;

- don’t have to deal with “choice overload”;

- can work out what represents good value; and

- don’t need to be frightened of asserting or protecting their rights.

Legal Economy wants to see new market mechanisms that let solicitors and barristers be considered for more work which suits their skills (and not ignored because of choice overload or ingrained prejudice). We want to see a busy and productive legal economy that uses technology to achieve justice for more people more efficiently by making better use of the solicitors and barristers who are already practising.

Our initial focus is on developing a platform for solicitors to brief barristers. We will start limited testing in coming weeks, so we’re looking for solicitors and barristers who are interested in trying out our systems, giving us feedback and (for some lucky barristers) getting some work. If that sounds like you, sign up for Early Access to Legal Economy.

More generally, we want your ideas on how to help consumers of legal services make informed decisions about who to engage and how to ensure consumers are getting the benefit of using solicitors and barristers with specialised skills. It’s a key policy challenge for an economy awash with actual and aspiring lawyers. We would love to hear from you at michael@legaleconomy.com.au.

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