John Grisham captured a common perception of lawyers in The Client: “You advised him not to get a lawyer, giving as one of your reasons the opinion that lawyers are a pain in the ass.” Lawyers have an image problem. A 1973 Harris survey found that only 24% of respondents had high confidence in lawyers. Two decades later, that figure plummeted to 7%. A 2014 Pew survey found lawyers last among ten professional categories in “contributions to society.” Ouch!
Here are some common beefs with lawyers and how they can be settled. “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers” is off the table.
- High Cost/Lack of Accessibility
The vast majority of individuals and small businesses in the US cannot afford a lawyer–even when the stakes are high. This is commonly referred to as “the access to justice crisis.” It’s a scourge on the profession and damaging to society. How many times have you heard someone say, “I’m afraid to call my lawyer; it’s too damn expensive.” That’s when they have a lawyer. Lawyers are very expensive and seemingly bill for everything.
LegalZoom is one among a growing number of tech and process savvy legal services providers that offer different levels of legal assistance on an easy-to-access, cost-effective basis. The company is “productizing” many tasks once delivered as legal services including: legal forms, research, regulatory summaries, etc. When the self-help option is not enough, LegalZoom also offers monthly subscription services providing online or phone access to licensed lawyers to respond to questions. The company vets “panel counsel,” licensed attorneys, that render this service. And when that’s not enough, the customer can retain panel counsel on a more formal, individualized basis. LegalZoom does not receive a fee for this; however, it negotiates a price reduction for customers who retain panel counsel.
LegalZoom’s cafeteria approach to legal delivery is one way to improve efficiency, reduce price, and provide access to legal assistance. That’s why the company has already engaged more than 3.5 million customers and helped launch over a million small businesses. Technology and process are leveraged to provide access to underutilized counsel at an affordable price. And if it sounds like Uber to you, it does to me, too. This has brought millions of new customers into the market and will bring many more. It’s an approach that will be beneficial to society and remove some of the taint from lawyers’ tarnished image. Oh, and its model can be replicated in the corporate segment.
- The Distribution Problem
Derek Bok, the former president of Harvard and law school dean put it this way: “There is far too much law for those who can afford it and far too little for those who cannot.” Law school’s outdated, cost-overheated model that produces graduates with an average undergraduate/law school debt north of $150K, explains why large law firms are still the initial desired landing pad for most. It’s hard to pay off crushing student debt working as a public interest lawyer. But the problem goes beyond that. Whether it’s a small, “retail” law firm that charges in the $200-$300 per hour range or a large firm that charges several times that, the structure of legal delivery inflates fees.
Lawyers–and firms–that more efficiently leverage technology, manage process, and improve client value can substantially reduce fees if the traditional partnership model and its partner tribute are also removed from the equation. Lawyers can better leverage their time–as physicians do–leaving paraprofessionals and machines to perform repetitive, high volume, low value–but necessary–tasks. They can also collaborate with other professionals and those in the supply chain to mitigate risk, reduce cost, and promote efficiency. The days of law firms doing everything in legal delivery are over. Collaboration, better use of technology, process management, and a new structure would reduce legal costs across the board and help realign the financial interests of lawyers and clients. This would help restore confidence in the profession.
- Cost Unpredictability
It’s not just the high rates; it’s also unpredictable legal bills that drive clients nuts. It’s too easy–and misleading–to cast the billable hour as the culprit and fixed fees as the solution. The better solution is to identify the right person–or software application–with the appropriate experience level and the right price to do the work. Consider the general contractor paradigm. They determine what the customer wants, identify specific objectives–including price–and then determine the appropriate team and materials (products) that are signed off on by the customer before work commences. Why should lawyers operate differently? Different matters have different values to clients. Lawyers must elicit client goals and objectives upon retention. That aligns case strategy to client value, aligns expectations and financial interest between attorney and client, and prevents billing surprises.
Lawyers often frustrate clients with their use of language. Will Rogers summed it up: “The minute you read something you can’t understand, you can almost be sure that it was drawn up by a lawyer.” Two common–and well-founded–gripes are: (1) the absence of simple, plain speak language; (2) wordiness and boilerplate content. This also ties into the billing issue as more words and pages tend to mean higher bills–especially when the billable hour is in play. Lawyers are in the persuasion business, yet their penchant for verbosity and hyper-technical jargon undermines their ability to communicate effectively.
IBM’s legal department struck a blow for concise language in contracts. The sales team had complained to the legal department that the company’s “standard” agreements were too long, had too many boilerplate provisions, and cost them business. IBM’s in-house legal team agreed that, absent approved exceptions, the “standard” sales agreements would be reduced to two pages. This resulted in increased sales with reduced attorney time and no increase in legal disputes. As Albert Einstein observed: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
- Problem Solving
Another reason why lawyers are unpopular is because they excel at issue identification but are less adept at providing solutions. When your toilet is stopped up, you call a plumber. It’s fine that the plumber tells you all the reasons things got clogged up, but you want a fix–quickly. It’s no different with legal customers. Many lawyers would scoff at the analogy and say, “What we do is much more complex than plumbers’ work.” Sometimes it is and there is no quick fix. Still, lawyers must appreciate that clients want solutions, not an exhaustive list of issues. Certainly, understanding issues promotes informed client decisions and better results, but many lawyers should view “legal issues” as elements of business (or personal) challenges. And a positive result is accomplishing the client’s objective in a fast, efficient, and cost-effective manner, not necessarily “doing the best legal work.”
- Client Relations
Many lawyers lack in client skills. Remarkably, dealing client interaction is not something taught at law school. And if a lawyer works at a large firm, it’s not uncommon for her to have little–if any–client exposure for the first several years of practice. The “service” rendered to clients is critically important. Next to missed deadlines, poor client communication is the leading cause of legal malpractice suits. That includes routine things like promptly answering emails or calls, answering questions directly, and keeping clients apprised of matter developments. Most firms do not have customer metrics for this, but it might not be a bad thing to think about. A greater emphasis by lawyers on customer service would go a long way towards elevating their image; legal delivery is a service business.
Self-regulation has enabled lawyers to operate as a guild for decades. Lawyers are charged with serving the public interest, but self-regulation has–especially in recent years–been more of a barrier to innovation and competition than a means for protecting the public interest. The attempts of State Bars to thwart innovative legal delivery providers like LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer– to cite two of many examples–has exacerbated public distrust of lawyers and fortified the view that they most zealously serve themselves.
It’s time that the U.S., the world’s largest legal market (by spend), embrace re-regulation along the lines that the UK, Australia, and other developed markets have. This will not subject lawyers to ethical tensions that they do not already confront. But it will open up the legal market to even more innovation, capital, new models, and competition. This is critical not only in the retail segment of the market where the access to justice persists, but also in the corporate end where de facto reregulation is already in place.
Lawyers can recast their image. Plain language, improved client relations, understanding client objectives, a problem solving approach, better utilization of technology and process to reduce price and promote efficiency are all steps that will help. So too will a concerted professional effort to address the access to justice crisis help restore lawyer interest and benefit society as a whole.
Lawyers may be unable to control many of the forces propelling tectonic shifts in legal delivery, but they certainly can improve their image by returning to basics and taking a more client centric approach.
This post was originally published on Forbes.com.