Monday, April 6, 2020
One Gig Too Many
Professor Michael A. Zuckerman
Northwestern Pritzker School of Law
Lawyers are increasingly joining the ranks of gig workers. Just look at websites like freelancer.com and Upwork—there is no shortage of legal work and lawyers willing to take it on. Through online platforms like these, lawyers are doing things like drafting employment agreements, advising on corporate structure, and reviewing real estate deals. These legal gigs—err, matters—may be lucrative and may even expand access to justice. But ethics issue abound.
One particular problem is the unauthorized practice of law. Unlike software engineers or virtual assistants, lawyers are subject to state ethics rules, like various versions of ABA Model Rule 5.5, which significantly restrict out-of-state lawyers from practicing law in a state absent certain circumstances. Helping someone who needs a lawyer on a matter of state law is generally not one of those circumstances. For good reason, states restrict practice of their own laws to their own lawyers. So, when a client in California needs help with a California contract, a lawyer from Illinois who she found online ordinarily cannot help, lest risk the authorized practice of law.
The contours of the unauthorized practice of law vary across jurisdiction. But as lawyers increasingly enter the gig economy, lawyers must remain vigilant to stay in their lane. Merely because it is easy to find clients and practice law across borders does not give license to do so. Rather than relying on clients and third-party platforms to regulate legal practice, lawyers must be aware of the rules. And before legal regulators come down on those who flout the rule, gig lawyers should start by policing themselves, even if there might be changes on the horizon. Our professional obligations demand it.