What Are We Selling?

February 27, 2019

By Bob Glaves | CBF Executive Director

It seems a simple question to ask, but one we do not think enough about in law and too often answer incorrectly. Getting that answer right is the first essential step towards carrying out my New Year’s Resolution for 2019 for the legal profession to tackle our affordability problem for everyday people.

Two recent commentaries in the New York Times and the Atlantic challenge us to re-examine our profession’s longstanding assumptions on this question, and offer a good jumping off point for discussion.

When and Why Does Someone Need a Lawyer?

These two articles highlight the fact that people today have a lot more choices beyond turning to a lawyer when they face a legal issue. And if our profession does not recognize this reality and offer people credible guidance and realistic options, people increasingly will choose the option of forgoing lawyers altogether.

The first article was a recent opinion piece in the New York Times featuring an interview with noted access to justice researcher Rebecca Sandefur. Her point is a solid one: just because someone has a legal problem does not necessarily mean a lawyer needs to be involved. Legal consultant Mark Cohen followed that piece with a good commentary, aptly titled “Clients Need Legal Services But Not Necessarily Lawyers.”

The second article, The DIY Divorce in the Atlantic, is a first person account of a professional woman going through the divorce process who managed to do it almost completely on her own. Her situation—involving more sophisticated litigants, balanced power dynamics, and limited issues in dispute—is a great example of where limited scope representation from a lawyer can help someone successfully complete the process far more affordably.

While the Atlantic author did in fact benefit from limited scope legal help in the form of some good coaching, her assumption that seeking further help from a lawyer automatically would cost at least $30,000 (and between $15,000 and $25,000 had she been elsewhere in the country) unfortunately rings true in the current legal market. And that perception is not limited to the family law space.

Her story also says a lot about the unnecessary complexity of the court process, another piece of the affordability puzzle I will discuss more next month.

We Are Not Selling Our Time

As most lawyers continue to sell their time, what clients really are looking for is solutions. The billable hour leads us in the wrong direction right out of the gate, focusing inwardly on ourselves rather than outwardly on the value we are providing to clients. Yet it remains the prevalent form of pricing in the legal market, and lawyers then seem surprised that clients and potential clients increasingly are turning to other options.

Good lawyers provide solutions to clients. That may be helping clients resolve a problem, manage a risk, navigate a difficult situation, or some combination of those services. We should focus on the unique value lawyers deliver to help clients reach those solutions by acting as their counselor and advocate, and guiding them through complex and uncertain situations.

Two other things that virtually all clients value are transparency and certainty in pricing, but lawyers once again are not typically known for either of those things today.

We need to look at new business models that focus on what the client wants and needs, and are marketed and flexibly and transparently priced to align with the value lawyers deliver. In other words, we need to look past one-size fits all service models and say no to billable hour pricing, two of the core principles for the CBF Justice Entrepreneurs Project.

Helping People Understand and Assess Their Legal Issues

With more clarity on what we are selling, we can do a lot more to help people facing legal issues realistically assess their legal needs. When can people with legal issues do things on their own? When is help from a lawyer preferable or necessary? And how much lawyer do they need to achieve a just, yet cost-effective, outcome for their situation?

Along that continuum, lawyers can offer more flexible and affordable options of legal help ranging from information and self-help resources to assessment and coaching to various limited scope representation options to full service. Modern lawyers need to understand these different service options and offer them to potential clients in appropriate cases. If lawyers can’t credibly lead on these evolving practice models, someone else will fill the void. It is already happening.

Taking a Hard Look at How We Market and Deliver Services

It is only after taking the above steps that we should start looking at how we can deliver our services more efficiently and effectively. As the great Peter Drucker famously said, “There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.”

That said, there is much more we can do to make our services more accessible, efficient and flexible, an essential aspect of making our services more affordable. Technology is clearly an integral part of that quest, and finding the right balance for how to incorporate it into our business model will be a core part of every law practice going forward.

So What Are We Selling?

Once upon a time, lawyers were the gatekeepers to legal knowledge and the legal system and essentially could market our services as the solution to any legal problem.

We are a long way from those days, and the starting point for fixing our affordability problem is to look in the mirror and recognize what people need from us is solutions to legal problems where our services as lawyers can help them reach the best outcomes. That is not every legal problem, and when it is, it very often will not require full representation.

New business models that offer flexible service options and value-based pricing will be an integral part of making our services affordable and accessible to the people who need our help. That is what we should be selling.