Uber, Deliveroo, Amazon Mechanical Turk, Upwork — internet-based, on-demand work platforms have successfully found their ways into various aspects of our daily lives. What has been overlooked in most discussions on online gig work is the increasing participation of high-skilled, licensed professional workers, such as doctors and lawyers. While online professional services remain insignificant in most Western countries, they are a market segment that can no longer be overlooked in China. For example, China’s Ministry of Justice has made online legal services an important part of its national strategy to construct a public legal service network. A recent study documented that, as of April 2017, there were 93 online platforms where lawyers and other legal professionals could register and provide services; practitioners estimated a much higher number at the peak time. Like Uber, many of these platforms offer affordable services, match clients and lawyers at the touch of a finger, and implement algorithms linking client ratings with future work opportunities.

Unlike most Uber drivers and food delivery riders, however, licensed professionals like lawyers can usually expect reputable employment elsewhere. It is therefore puzzling why, given the worsening working conditions of gig work, they would join online labour platforms and risk precarity. It is also intriguing what the consequences of this risk are for the participating lawyers. In a recently published study, I investigate one of China’s most successful legal service platforms to solve these puzzles.

Who are the gig lawyers and why do they join?

Because most legal service platforms target individual clients, no corporate lawyer was found in my fieldwork. Registered lawyers emerged into two groups: entry-level lawyers who lack experience and social networks to find offline work opportunities, and lawyers in less developed regions where there is insufficient demand for legal work. The workforce on the platform reflects a lack of work opportunities at the low end of the legal market.

Supplementary income and flexibility — lawyers’ main motivations to work online were not different from those of Uber drivers. Notably, with few exceptions, lawyers indicated that they prioritised offline work at their firms over platform work, because of the much higher earning potential offline. For this reason, a high level of flexibility was essential, as they needed to accommodate the unstable offline workloads.

What is online legal work like and what do lawyers experience?

While the flexibility of online work provided a high level of scheduling autonomy, lawyers often had to surrender the autonomy of working with their own professional judgements and work habits. Most prominently, client rating and its impact on future work pressured lawyers to please clients. This can be difficult when a client’s stance was not supported by the law, because such clients may likely leave a negative review as they are unhappy, not about the lawyer, but about the advice they received. Lawyers had to be very careful with their communication in such cases. Some lawyers confessed that they would slightly change their advice when they felt the clients were not pleased, admitting that doing so violated professional ethics. Moreover, low client trust in lawyers, mostly due to the absence of face-to-face contact and easy access to alternative legal advice, exacerbates the client control on lawyers’ professional autonomy. In addition, the platform also exerts its control by implementing a long list of service standards and disciplinary measures, as well as assigning sales tasks of persuading clients to renew services.

The overall online client profile was described to be of low income, of low education, or located in remote areas. Many clients tended to lack the necessary financial resources or social networks to connect with a lawyer offline. The convenience and low costs of online services attract people of low socio-economic status but often bring frustration to lawyers. Often seen on the platform were trivial cases of minimal monetary value and nonlegal issues that lawyers had to answer. Worse still, lawyers even had to deal with harassment. Typical cases included clients looking for strangers to chat with and law students asking for help on assignments.

How is the emerging digital legal market interrupting the traditional market?

Unlike the disruptive impact Uber had on the traditional taxi industry, the digital legal market is not yet imposing a significant influence on the traditional market. The affordability and accessibility of online services are realising a large amount of low-end demand that did not exist. One quote from an interviewee summarises the impact of the digital legal market very well:

“It [online legal service] developed a market that did not exist previously — a market for [cases] under 1,000 RMB. This market used to be nil, or negligible. Now [online service] expands it by minimising transaction costs. Of course, it has little impact on high-value cases and high-quality clients.”

Why China, and what are the implications for the Western legal professions?

China provides unique conditions to foster this innovation. First, its market size enables even niche services to survive and thrive. Second, its national strategy ‘Internet Plus’ enhanced the digital economy across various industries. As a heavily state-influenced profession, law directly benefited from it. Third, Chinese lawyers in general enjoy much lower income and socio-economic status than their Western counterparts. Many of them are therefore open to precarious and low-income work opportunities.

For Western legal professions, Internet-based service provision offers a promising solution to the prohibitively high cost, ‘the greatest pressure’ on traditional services. Moreover, new technologies and market forces are also pushing legal services to be increasingly task-based and sourced in alternative ways (e.g. outsourced, offshored, passed to paralegals). By lowering costs, these innovations may also realise latent and low-end demand, increase client control, and lower lawyers’ professional autonomy, just as the platform-based crowdsourcing arrangements do. My findings may therefore shed light on global challenges facing the legal profession.

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Yao Yao is a PhD candidate at Centre for Industrial Relations and Human Resources, University of Toronto. She is interested in the impact of technological advancement on specific occupations. Her thesis investigates the emergence of online legal service platforms and its impact on lawyers’ everyday work and life. The paper she introduces here received the Allen Ponak Best Student Paper Award from the Canadian Industrial Relations Association in June 2019. Email: yaoyao.yao@mail.utoronto.ca