Call-a-lawyer web services target small businesses, individuals seeking quick legal aid

Call-a-lawyer web services target small businesses, individuals seeking quick legal aid
Screencap from the Asia Law Network website
Published: 2:55 PM, September 11, 2016

SINGAPORE — When a clause on an employment contract befuddled him, Mr Adrian Tan decided to seek legal advice. He turned to social media for recommendations, and ended up at a legal aid website, which touted a 15-minute phone consultation with a lawyer for a fee of S$49.

Mr Tan, a 35-year-old entrepreneur, then completed a form detailing his legal kerfuffle, picked a lawyer’s name off the website and paid the fee online last month. Within a day, the lawyer confirmed the appointment and called him the next working day.

The session lasted 10 minutes, he said, and “it was quite a breeze”. Having already mentioned in the form why he needed help, he did not have to repeat it during the consultation, saving him time and cost. “I managed to get the answers that I needed,” Mr Tan said.

The Asia Law Network website that he used launched the phone consultation service this June, targeting small businesses and the man-on-the-street. Founder Cherilyn Tan termed the service a “low-risk” first step to tackling legal disputes.

She said: “We are doing this because we think a lot of ordinary folk and small-and-medium enterprises like us don’t really know where to go to get good and affordable legal advice. We also want to help all the one-lawyer and smaller law firms compete with the big boys on a level footing.”

Right now, there are more than 50 lawyers onboard, covering fields ranging from family law to employment matters. Ms Tan declined to reveal the number of clients so far.

Another website, Singapore Legal Advice, rolled out a similar service in July, with a cheaper fee of S$39 for a 20-minute phone consultation, promising a call-back within two hours of payment.

Behind the scenes, once the payment is made, founder Chan Yuk Lun will send an email to the six lawyers on the scheme. It is a game of fastest-fingers-first, and the quickest lawyer to respond gets the client.

About 10 to 20 clients have used the service, Mr Chan said, and they typically need urgent advice on debt recovery or landlord-tenant disputes.

One of his clients, who wanted to be known only as Cheryl, was curious about drafting a will. “I wanted to ask about the technicalities of drafting one, but most law firms wanted me to pay before discussing, and they charged hourly. I wouldn’t want to pay an hourly fee just to make an enquiry,” said the 26-year-old entrepreneur.

All fees are channelled to the lawyers, and both the above websites do not take a cut from this service.

Via Law Corporation director Wang Yingyu has taken two to three calls through Asia Law Network. While her hourly rate usually starts from S$550, Ms Wang is willing to settle for less due to the convenience of phone consultations and because it is less time-consuming.

“Sometimes, the problems that clients face don’t need long-drawn legal advice… but I charge a minimum rate, starting from an hour (for face-to-face consultation),” she said.

Lawyer Ronald Wong, who runs Covenant Chambers LLC, partners both websites. So far, he has found two clients.

He said: “At the end of the day, these quick consultations — from a marketing and business development perspective — are a means to a greater end. It gives enough information to the client to make basic decisions about where they want to go from there, and whether they want to pursue the matter further.”

Mulling over the new service, MSC Law Corporation director Michael Chia warned of a possible risk of flouting ethical rules for lawyers, citing professional rules against the sharing of fees with unauthorised persons or paying them a commission, for example.

When referred work, legal practitioners must ensure they communicate directly with the client to obtain or confirm instructions when providing advice and at all appropriate stages of the transaction, he added. ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY SIAU MING EN