the pro se “prosumer”


     [pre-launch posting; we hope to finish construction and “go public” soon]

It’s been a quarter century since futurist Alvin Toffler coined the term “prosumer” to describe the merging of the roles of consumer and producer.  (The Third Wave, 1980)   A decade ago, Don Tapscott expanded on the concept of “prosumption” in The Digital Economy: Promise and Peril In The Age of Networked Intelligence (1996) — explaining that digitalization, “internetworking,” disintermediation (removing the middleman) and other forces are blurring the roles of producer and consumer, and creating a digital frontier where the “players, dynamics, rules and requirements for survival and success are all changing.”


In The Third Wave, Toffler explained that self-help groups (for people with all sorts of maladies and personal issues) were changing the roles of psychologists, social workers and doctors from the impersonal expert, who is assumed to know best, to listener, teacher and guide working with patient or client.  (He also noted that existing voluntary and nonprofit groups that saw their role as helping others were attempting to fit into a movement based on the principle of helping oneself.) 

Toffler believed that The Law of Relative Ineffiency would make nonautomated products and services increasingly expensive compared to automated consumer goods, and that “we can expect people to do more and more for themselves” as the price of services skyrocket — so that, for example, the plumber and other repair mechanics would be reserved for major tasks or would be turned into teachers or guides for prosumers. 

DigitalEconomy  In The Digital Economy, Tapscott explores the implications of technological advances on key sectors of the economy and society, including: health care, retailing, manufacturing , government, travel and tourism, learning and education, publishing, entertainment and the new media industry.  But, like Toffler, he doesn’t discuss legal/lawyer services.  We think there is an important story to be told about the rise of the prosumer in the self-help law and pro se litigation movement. For many of their routine legal needs, self-help law already allows average Americans to play a more extensive role as prosumer than that envisioned for health care consumers by Tapscott in Digital Economy or by Brett Triuko in Healthcare 2020: Technology in the New Millennium (AllBusiness, Dec. 1999).   Thus, in nonlitigation matters, consumers have a wide selection of comprehensive “do-it-yourself” kits available, on topics such as will-making, landlord/tenant and tax preparation.  In addition, through courthouse kiosks and other self-help centers and programs (in at least 25 states), prosumers can take charge of their own legal problems, with assistance that allows them to remove the middleman and proceed with relative confidence in many family court matters (i.e., divorce, custody, child support), simple estate proceedings, name changes, traffic court and more, as well as traditional small claims disputes.  

Moreover, thanks to changes in attitudes, ethics rules, and court procedures, the unbundling of legal services by attorneys has allowed average consumers to step away from the role of passive client and use lawyers as consultants and guides, as these prosumers do much of their legal work for themselves.  Indeed, as many lawyers realize that unbundling can be a win-win situation (see ethicalEsq‘s post Un-bundle of Joy), the legal profession may, like many of our nation’s most profitable economic sectors, itself encourage prosumption more and more.   Even if they do not, politically savvy members of the public, seeing what leading-edge states have already achieved for their prosumers, may start lobbying for necessary changes in the judiciary and the legal profession, in order to make prosumption a genuine option in a broad array of legal situations.

pastDueR  An in-depth look at the pro se prosumer seems seriously “past due.”   The story of the empowerment of the poor to engage in do-it-yourself access to justice, along with the ever-growing potential of information technology, is itself quite compelling.  But, the growing participation of the middle class in the self-help law movement should serve as an increased incentive for those who need a more-direct link to law firm profitability before taking the subject seriously.  For example, a recent study of self-represented parties in Utah (via SelfHelpSupport, Aug. 22, 2006) reports that 40% of pro se litigants in Utah in 2005 made more than $36,000 per year, with 15% having an income of $96,000 or more. [Note: 60% of the pro se parties in Justice Court and 33% of those in District Court said they had not hired a lawyer because their legal problem did not appear to be complicated enough to require a lawyer.]   Beyond the expected technological breakthroughs, if Toffler is correct about The Law of Relative Inefficiency, prosumption can only grow in the legal services market.  When two hours of a lawyer’s time cost as much as an excellent laptop computer, more and more consumers will decide that their legal problem looks manageable through the use of self-help resources.  

Webloggers pride themselves on being ahead of the curve when it comes to technology trends and their impact on society and the economy.   We think they have some catching up to do on lawyers, clients and prosumption.

checkedBox shlep hopes, therefore, that the many legal weblogs that focus on technology and the practice of law will take a close look at prosumption and legal services.  We think that Dennis Kennedy, Monica Bay The Common Scold, Ross Kodner, Keven J. Heller of tech law advisor, Robert Ambrogi, FutureLawyer Rick Georges, Jim Calloway, and Denise Howell would all have very useful insights on this topic.  Because solo and general practitioners may be especially affected by legal prosumption, the perspectives of Greatest American Lawyer, Al Nye, AdamSmithEsq‘s Bruce MacEwen, and Blue Collar Lawyer, along with MyShingle‘s Carolyn Elefant, and Ernie the Attorney, would also be much appreciated.  

We also hope that law librarians such as Tom Boone at Library Laws, Cindy Chick at LawLibTech, Jim Milles and his colleagues at Out of the Jungle, the Law Dawg pack, Ron & Joe at the Law Library Blog, and Stephen Francoeur at Digital Reference will add to the discussion and analysis.  

So far, the folks over at DIY Happy haven’t looked into lawyer services, and we’d love to hear their take, too.  Naturally, there are many others in the blog-and-blawg-osphere and in the world of consumer advocacy who we hope will take a look at the issues created by and the potential of prosumerism in the legal field.



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