As commentators, we often focus on those who can’t afford lawyers and are thus deprived in a tangible way to access to justice. We often focus on the very sophisticated purchasers of legal services. Large companies, for example, with full in-house legal departments. We often don’t talk about those in the middle: individuals and small businesses who, from time to time, need and must purchase legal services.
These individuals and businesses can afford some level of legal assistance. But they lack the sophistication, knowledge, and financial resources of more significant purchasers. I call this group the Middle. It should come as no surprise that the perceptions of those in the Middle of lawyers and the legal service they get and pay for are pretty poor.
Lawyers are an alien herd. They don’t go by any rules that apply to other businesses
I have a friend who falls squarely in the Middle. She and her husband aren’t particularly wealthy, but from time to time, have needed various legal services. When she thinks about her experiences with the lawyers they have dealt with, she gets angry. “Lawyers are an alien herd. They don’t go by any rules that apply to other businesses. They make money in strange and irritating ways.”
She wonders what if her grocery store did business like her lawyers. Would the grocer charge her a retainer before she purchased any products in the store? Before she could see and evaluate what the store even had to offer? Would the grocer tell her he would pick out the products she needed without her input? Would the grocer charge her by the hour for time spent picking out what the grocer thought she might need? Would the grocer bill for time spent researching and evaluating not only the products recommended but also the ones not recommended? And would the grocer do all this without even explaining to her what he was doing?
She’s right in saying no other business could get away with what many lawyers do.
When you think about it, she’s right. When viewed from her perspective, how lawyers charge and what they demand is crazy and alien. And she’s not the only one who is frustrated with what lawyers offer. In its 2019 Legal Trends Report, Clio discussed what clients want compared to what lawyers deliver. Clio primarily serves smaller law firms that often will handle the legal problems of the Middle. Here is what Clio found:
What clients want:
- 81% want a response to the questions they ask.
- 80% want to have a clear understanding of how the matter will proceed.
- 76% want a clear answer to how much the legal services they need will cost.
- 74% want to know what the entire process for their matter will look like.
What clients get:
- 65% got no indication of what should be done.
- 64% got no clue how much the legal services would cost.
- 62% did not believe they understood the process to resolve their matter.
- 61% didn’t get enough information that they could understand.
- 52% did not think their lawyer was even likable.
In short, the Middle is not well served. As my friend related, lawyers don’t play by any rules, charge what they want, and don’t explain what they are doing. Part of the problem is that those in the Middle often don’t have the sophistication to demand better. They aren’t lawyers and often don’t have the experience to know what’s good and bad. Nor is there any readily available way to contrast and compare their lawyer with what other lawyers may do. So they walk away with a poor taste in their mouths and a lack of respect for lawyers and the whole process.
In the lawyers’ defense, many of them are constantly either trying to find clients or trying to get the clients they have to pay. Hence they often overcharge to make ends meet and ask for retainers that drive business away.
But despite all this, the need for legal service among the Middle remain significant and untapped
But despite all this, the need for legal service among the Middle remain significant and untapped. Almost everyone and every business needs or will need legal services. Yet, most of these needs go unsatisfied mainly due to cost concerns and lack of knowledge. As Jack Newton, the CEO of Clio explained in his book The Client Centered Law Firm, the problem is a classic poor product market fit.
What Can Be Done?
What can be done? Greater transparency. Better rating services. As I have written recently, bar associations need to be more involved and better serve the public.
But fundamentally, until we figure out a way to make services more affordable for the Middle, those in it will either not get service or be unhappy with the service they get. Perhaps we need to look at more regulation of legal fees either through the Bar Association or the government. Perhaps government needs to provide subsidies similar those of Medicaid and Medicare for fundamental legal needs. Subsidies would enable a sliding scale of fees based on the ability to pay and the nature of the task. It would get us away from the billable hour. Subsidies would give lawyers a steady stream of income and reduce pressure to charge more than the market can bear. It would guarantee that those who need legal service and access to justice—which is everyone—can get it. Access to justice ought not to be just for the privileged.
Lawyers need to realize many of the problems of the Middle are of their own making by not being affordable and not providing good service
These aren’t easy solutions to accomplish and will generate vigorous debate. But in the meantime, lawyers need to realize many of the problems of the Middle are of their own making by not being affordable and not providing good service. Lawyers have a responsibility to alleviate some of the problems. A duty to not only evaluate and solve legal problems but to serve their clients. To answer and address the fundamental questions and concerns of their clients. To be honest and reasonable with their fees and billing practices. To solve problems as efficiently and practically as possible and not charge as much as they can get away with.
My friend put it perfectly:
“Make being a lawyer a proud privilege to SERVE. NOT a proud service to PRIVILEGE.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Photo 2 via Unsplash