Bringing the Gig Economy to Legal Practices

 


Rising as a well-deserved pillar in our nation’s economy, the gig workforce continues to make significant contributions to the US job market and GDP. Last year, the gig economy contributed close to 5%, or $1 trillion to the U.S. GDP. This year, the Bureau of Labor estimates 42% of Americans as gig workers, a 6% increase over last year. Given these facts, the gig economy can no longer be seen as a unique niche market, but a legitimate player with valuable contributions. 

As gig roles become increasingly popular, the global pandemic and resulting economic crisis have presented a new opportunity for businesses and professionals to tap into the gig economy as a way to sustain their livelihood. The opportunities and benefits of gig work are particularly relevant as industries navigate the current volatile business climate.

The legal gig economy, along with progressive technology, has allowed legal professionals a means to pivot, allowing them to maintain operations, and ensure seamless continuity for their clients during uncertain times. Innovative companies in the industry are already making the most of these opportunities, paving the way for additional legal professionals to access skilled work and deliver services their clients demand.

History of the Gig Economy 

Understanding of the history of the gig economy through the lens of labor regulations is a critical step for legal professionals who are considering starting a gig role or partnering with gig specialists.

On a national scale, labor regulations differ across states, and as a result, classify contracted professionals differently. For example, a 2018 landmark case in California (Dynamex Operations West, Inc. vs. The Superior Court of Los Angeles) had a significant impact on the future of the gig economy in the state. The unanimous ruling resulted in the adoption of the new ABC test, offering more stringent guidelines than its predecessor. 

Building on this ruling, California Assembly Bill 5 (AB5), popularly known as the “gig worker bill,” expands on this case. AB5 was signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom in September 2019. AB5 requires companies that hire independent contractors to reclassify them as employees, with some exceptions. Together, the ABC test and AB5 put the burden of proof on employers to ensure fair labor practices in the state. New legislation and legal precedents such as these have tremendous implications for how gig professionals can access work, especially while the U.S. employment market navigates turbulence.

Notable players in the gig economy – Lyft and Uber, are advocating for ride-sharing professionals and continue to heavily impact the future of the gig workforce. For example, the rideshare leaders announced they would halt operations in California unless the courts intervened on the AB5 verdict. In August 2020, the courts temporarily responded, preventing thousands of professionals from immediately losing their primary source of income. However, that preliminary injunction only lasts until voters decide their fate with Proposition 22 in November.

Impact of Gig Legislation on the Legal Industry 

As Uber and Lyft continue to appeal the initial ruling, some gig professions were successful in winning exemptions to AB5, given they met certain criteria. These exemption standards include the ability of contractors to negotiate their own rates, have direct communication with customers, and earn at least twice the minimum wage. These exemptions did include attorneys but left process servers in the gray area. Meaning, process servers have a current lack of clarity around whether they can maintain contractor classification in CA.

Driver with an Apple Watch; image by Luca Bravo, via Unsplash.com.
Driver with an Apple Watch; image by Luca Bravo, via Unsplash.com.

Process service is a profession where a limited, registered workforce supports courts to ensure proper notice of legal proceedings. It’s common for professional process servers to accept gig work assignments from several sources. The process server is traditionally a freelancer looking to optimize their earning potential inside their desired weekly hours by accepting and fulfilling work through their preferred driving route. For this profession to be attractive, the process server must be able to accept and fulfill work from multiple sources – there just isn’t enough controlled market share to justify limiting or being denied the ability to work for multiple job originators. It’s a logistics business with a uniquely professional delivery agent.

New Opportunities for the Legal Field

The rise of the legal gig economy is being pioneered by agile technology companies that have harnessed SaaS platforms to offer industry-specific gig roles. Currently, the legal procedures best suited for the gig economy include alternative service, appearance counsel, e-filing, messenger service, and service of process. 

Process servers have driven the recent surge in the legal gig economy thanks to the prominence of cloud-based legal platforms that make it convenient for these professionals to deliver services anywhere around the world. For example, a request for service can be sent to a process server in practically every location, with real-time updates on the status and completion of the serve. The process server, with the use of technology, can offer immediate proof of service that will stand up in any court of law. Additionally, expanded use of technology by the courts has allowed for increased use of e-filing as a legal service, offering greater speed and accuracy in accessing the judicial system. 

In addition to process servers, appearance attorneys are well-suited to thrive in the gig economy. These legal practitioners represent large companies, banks, and other law firms who need a lawyer to appear in court for them. The arrangement fosters a relationship founded on necessity and professionalism. In many cases, companies require representation in multiple jurisdictions which presents complications in the standard single-attorney representation model. 

Overall, the increased use of gig workers in the legal industry is improving access to the legal system, while minimizing costs and burden for all parties involved.

Advancing Gig Work for the Legal Sector

Harnessing the power of the gig economy in the legal sector offers a more diverse group of skilled workers an added level of flexibility and accessibility. Professionals in older generations looking to supplement retirement income, current lawyers looking to stay active in their legal careers on a part-time basis, or younger professionals looking to start their own legal service business, all find technology one of the greatest resources in forming partnerships with gig economy companies. 

Equipped with new and emerging tools, legal professionals of all ages, backgrounds, and skill levels will be well-positioned to make the most of what the gig economy offers. As businesses continue to adapt to the challenges posed by the pandemic, the legal industry is advancing automation technologies aimed at improving access and opportunity to the judicial system. This, along with the repositioning of legal professionals to remote and virtual operations will further solidify the gig workforce as a significant contributor to the U.S. economy.