SEOUL, July 9 (Korea Bizwire) — When 33-year-old Jeong got into a dispute with his company over working conditions last year, he downloaded an app on his phone to find a lawyer.
He searched for labor law, which gave him a long list of lawyers.
“I eventually chose one and got legal counsel for around 10 minutes over the phone,” said the man, who only gave his last name.
The mobile app LawTalk has become a go-to platform for tech-savvy young South Koreans who have a brush with the law by helping them find lawyers with a few swipes of the screen.
The app holds thousands of lawyer profiles that display their experience and client reviews, with options for relatively inexpensive phone and video meetings, instead of making trips to a lawyer’s office.
Since its launch in 2014, the online platform has seen robust growth with around 1 million visitors a month and serves as home to nearly 4,000 lawyers — around 13 percent of the country’s total, according to the company.
The app matched 22,770 legal consultations in March this year and seeks a slice of the legal services market worth over 6 trillion won (US$5.27 billion) as of 2019.
But the mobile platform, operated by Law&Company, is increasingly becoming a source of conflict in the country’s legal service market as a bar association claims that its service is unlawful, a replica of a previous tussle between platform operators and established players.
The Korean Bar Association, which represents some 30,000 lawyers in the country, claims that LawTalk effectively serves as a paid broker that connects lawyers to cases — an act prohibited under South Korea’s Attorney-at-Law Act.
The startup has shot back, arguing that its revenue is just a monthly fee that lawyers pay to advertise their services, similar to advertisements lawyers already make on online portals.
A company representative said the platform, which has yet to turn a profit, doesn’t take a cut when clients are introduced to lawyers and that the cost of phone and video meetings through the app is determined by lawyers themselves.
The Korean Bar Association has ratcheted up its fight with LawTalk in recent months by changing its rules in May, outlining that its members should not join such online advertising platforms.
The rule, which may punish lawyers who have signed up for LawTalk, will go into effect early next month.
In response, the startup has filed for a court injunction against the move, as well as making a complaint to the country’s antitrust watchdog.
Law&Company says the association’s measure is just the latest in a series of attacks against it over the past years.
Major lawyer groups, including the Korean Bar Association, have filed complaints in 2015 and 2016, accusing LawTalk of violating the law.
The company faces another complaint filed last year, which is currently under review by the police.
Proponents of LawTalk argue that lawyer groups are trying to curb market competition.
“The Korean Bar Association’s measure reduces access to lawyer information and legal services,” the Korea Startup Forum said in a recent statement.
The group said 62.6 percent of respondents in a survey last month said they did not personally know any lawyers, and 76.4 percent said legal tech services should be introduced.
Users say that LawTalk has helped them find lawyers, albeit for minor disputes.
A Seoul office worker, who declined to be named, said that she was able to get legal counsel for 15 minutes by phone for 20,000 won after a traffic accident last month.
“I had a bit of a problem settling the terms over an accident,” she said. “While I probably could have found a lawyer on my own, the app has made it easier.
Lawyer groups, however, have expressed concerns that such new online platforms could encourage excessive competition in the legal service market.
“If the market heads toward low-cost competition through platforms, it could suffer a decline in legal service quality,” said Cho Jung-hee, a spokesperson for the Seoul Bar Association. “This could eventually hurt people.”
Cho added that when clients do end up getting harmed by using online platforms, it is unclear whom users should hold accountable.
LawTalk’s feud with lawyer groups is the latest in a series of legal tussles between online platforms and established players.
Ride-hailing service Tada faced a huge backlash from taxi drivers, and its van-hailing service was discontinued last year after the National Assembly passed a law that made the service illegal.
So far, the government appears to be siding with LawTalk.
In a meeting with startup representatives in May, Justice Minister Park Beom-kye reportedly said LawTalk is not in violation of the Attorney-at-Law Act.
Earlier this month, the Ministry of SMEs and Startups selected Law&Company and 19 others for a potential list of unicorn companies — a startup valued at over $1 billion.
Experts still call for a more active role from lawmakers and the government.
“If platforms need to be regulated, the National Assembly should make discussions for a new law,” said Jung Hyung-keun, a law professor at Kyung Hee University. “The Korean Bar Association’s measures (to limit platform services) on its own crosses the line.”