Despite traditional resistance to change in legal professions, pro-competitive “disruptive” innovations are beginning to transform legal services and the manner in which they are delivered. Online service delivery is allowing both legal professionals and unlicensed providers to serve clients remotely while taking advantage of the scalability of digital platforms. In addition, ranking and review information regarding legal professionals is becoming increasingly accessible, and is allowing clients to assess the quality of professionals before retaining them – a previously difficult proposition. Further, the unbundling of services, partially driven by increasing client awareness and fee pressure, is transforming the distribution of tasks in legal services and ending traditional “black box” models of service delivery. As a result, standardized activities are being outsourced to low-cost providers (including unlicensed ones), and new billing models are being introduced. Finally, automation is changing the nature, and volume, of tasks that legal professionals perform. Although the extent to which the work of legal professions can be automated is subject to debate, automated systems have been introduced which offer new capabilities and, in at least some instances, improved performance relative to legal professionals.
As a result of these innovations and the new competition they bring, the regulatory framework in which legal professionals operate is under pressure. The exclusivity enjoyed by legal professionals, and the precise scope of activities to which it applies, is becoming unclear as unlicensed entrants offer a widening range of services. Restrictions on the quantity of professionals that can operate in specified regions are being questioned at a time where the services they provide could easily be made available online. Further, legal professional self-regulators may be unable, or ill-suited, to identify accommodations that permit innovative entrants to serve consumers.
Competition authorities, which may have limited experience in legal services markets given that enforcement issues have been rare, should be aware of the challenges described above. Authorities can play a role in advocating for regulatory systems that reflect current market realities and ensure market access for pro-competitive disruptive innovations. Such a role could include advising policymakers who may be seeking to balance the benefits of competition with other policy objectives such as consumer protection. This process will require consideration of the objectives of legal professional regulations, particularly those addressing market failure, as well as the current design of those regulations.
Mancini, James, Protecting and Promoting Competition in Response to ‘Disruptive’ Innovations in Legal Services: OECD Background Paper (March 9, 2016). Working Party No. 2 on Competition and Regulation,