Enough of the hourly billing rates spiraling upward to where they sometimes need a comma. Enough of the documents laden with legalese and obfuscation and pomposity that makes a real person say, "A lawyer wrote this." Enough of the office memorandums and dissertations on arcane caselaw when all you want to know is how to fix your problem. Enough of the first-year associates who make $160,000 a year and work under constant pressure to bill ... more ... hours.
There is a conflict between law firms and their clients that is built into the legacy systems that most firms cling to. Legal services are sold under a cost-plus pricing model. There is no incentive to be efficient; in fact, the law firm is penalized for efficiency by not being able to charge as much (because it would be billing fewer hours). When a law firm pitches to a client, the lawyers focus on their experience and expertise — how good they are. ("And did we mention that we have an office in Prague?") And that's fine, to a point. But they never talk about how they can save the client money. Or how they can fix the client's problems faster.
Legal advice is about the only product where you must agree to purchase it before you know what it's going to cost. (Imagine going to a car dealership where the price stickers were covered up. "I'd like the red one. How much does it cost?" you ask. "Can't tell you. It depends. You have to agree to buy it first.")
Ever ask why they can't tell what the work will cost? Usually, you get an answer along these lines: "Because there are too many variables. We just don't know what it's going to cost."
Look: if you need a lawyer, that means you're already facing some uncertainty. Why must the lawyer give you more uncertainty? If the lawyer doesn't know what it's going to cost, and the lawyer's the "expert," then who does know?
Other service providers face variables in their lines of work. If you fly from Boston to Chicago, you pay a certain price for your ticket. That price might vary based on a host of factors, but at least you'll know the amount before you agree to fly. What if you hit a big headwind over Ohio? The plane's going to burn more jet fuel than expected. What if there are delays at O'Hare? More jet fuel. What if a snowstorm causes you to get rerouted to Atlanta? Even more jet fuel, overtime, maybe even a hotel room. The airline's not going to hit you up for all these extra costs. Why should a lawyer?
Part of the reason that lawyers are different is because lawyers believe they are different. Many lawyers don't think of themselves as businesspeople. Instead, they are "practitioners." The law is a "profession," not a "trade." This way of thinking, this guild mentality, leads to arrogance, and a failure to focus on the clients' needs.
This blog is all about reversing that trend. We have some experience in this. Our law firm, Shepherd Law Group (a Boston firm that fixes companies' workplace problems), hasn't billed a single hour in over two years. And there are other voices out there, too. Look down the right side of the page at the blogs and books that are carrying the torch for clients.
Below are some client-related posts republished from our sister site, Gruntled Employees, which is a blog for people who deal with employees.
We want to hear from you. If you're a law-firm client, and you have something to complain about, or something to praise, email me (the link is at the top right). If you're a lawyer (or other professional) who's casting aside the legacy systems and sticking up for clients, let me know. And if you disagree, and want to defend the Old World model, I'm happy to hear you out and have an open dialogue.