Friday, May 16, 2008

Looking Outside the Sandbox

Let me be frank that this post has little to do with law but a lot about lawyers, clients, how lawyers practice law and how I think clients perceive lawyers. After twenty years of practicing law in Indiana, having been computerized for the past 15 years, being connected to the Internet for the past 12 years and running this blog for the past year, I have some opinions and ideas.

First, I think that clients have certain misconceptions about lawyers. Most lawyers do not resemble the characters seen on television or in the movies. We follow our ethical rules and work for the best interests of our clients.

Second, I think that clients have misconceptions about how lawyers practice law. As a former partner once pointed out to me, we exist on the clients' post tax dollars. What does this mean? That too many clients buy on the sole criterion of price.

I say computers and then the Internet have disrupted the practice of law in ways many clients do not know and lots of attorneys do not like to admit. What I am writing about here applies not to us in Indiana but further afield in places like Scotland. The following comes from Dressed for Success published by Scotland's The Firm magazine:

“Our first purpose in creating Oracle was to achieve greater operational efficiency – by reducing overheads, for a start. This has been our greatest success. It was plain that previously we were all paying a lot for quite an extensive bureaucracy to answer phones, keep our diaries, issue invoices and collect fees for us. These are all straightforward functions and need not be expensive. We also believed that solicitors wanted to deal directly with Counsel. Rightly or wrongly, the existing arrangements were seen as cumbersome and inefficient for all involved.

“The stable system is really based on a world that has passed into history. Counsel cannot afford to be remote. Mobile phones, PDAs and e-mail have transformed our ability to communicate. Most solicitors now instruct us electronically. It is rare for us to deliver work in paper format. Electronic document control transforms turnaround times and makes diaries work for us, not the other way round. We believe our evolving business model to be both sustainable and efficient.”
We will not see more change until lawyers feel comfortable that they will not lose clients and income and clients must understand what they are getting from their lawyers.

With disruption does come opportunity and that is how I view JD Supra as a good reaction to the Internet.

Many years ago, I interviewed with a lawyer who had bought the local Indiana Bell building. Two lawyers and a secretary in a rather large building tastefully decorated for the purpose of impressing clients. He made a point of emphasizing the connection between putting on a good front that impressed clients and income. Over the years, I have come to agree with him even if I am annoyed at the idea that clients are so easily bamboozled. Being online has lead me to some strange encounters with potential clients - I am not sure if they think that being online means I am a charitable organization or not.

Take a look at Virtual Law Practice Blog. This blog complements the Kimbro Legal Services website. Which turns the idea of a large front on its head.

Business clients have the same problems. Bigger is not always better. Once upon a time there was a virtue to throwing bodies at a legal problem. Computers and the Internet changed all that. With a high-speed connection, I can get access to the news and case law just as quickly as a Big Firm without all the expense of those other bodies or the overhead of a large building for housign all those lawbooks. Take a look at Bigger Isn’t Always Better When It Comes to Outside Counsel from the ABA Section of Litigation. That article covers how business clients overlook smaller firms but also the marketing problems of lawyers.
Like James, Curley left a large firm to form his own office. He says that he and other solo and small firm practitioners have benefited from the increased use of technology. For example, many benefits that were traditionally available only at the larger firms “can be replicated through an artful use of technology in the hands of a competent solo. You don’t need the 100,000-volume law library that the big firms heavily invested in years ago. You don’t need the trappings of a class office space in a landmark building like people used to insist on years ago.” Also, with the availability of remote access, he says, clients have realized there is no need to pay for the overhead of a big firm.
What other ways are lawyers changing how they practice? Bay State Legal Services, LLC offers evening appointments. Note that they have a trademark on After-Hours Law. Which might be a little bit much but it does emphasize the seriousness of the firm. I know that many lawyers in this area offered the same kind of service for many years because of the client's have to work for a living. (One of my favorite comments about the Net is "what is old is new".)

Lawyers cannot meet clients' needs without knowing what clients think of the services they are getting from lawyers. Most clients have no idea what kind of service they are supposed to get from their lawyers. Clients have two metrics (if not only one): the lawyer's reputation for success and are the fees less than the competitors? Both are seriously flawed for judging legal services but especially looking for the lowest rate of fees. A potential client puzzled me when she asked me my hourly rate and then did not ask me to estimate the hours needed to complete the case. (I puzzled her by explaining my practice was largely flat fee). I suggest reading The State of the Legal Profession, Part 1 - Client Driven Innovation for a background on how businesses have been changing their relationships with law firms. This paragraph has given me a lot to think about:
In return, the outside firms are encouraged to advise Cisco on how to be a "better" client, in terms of communication, prioritization, and other matters aimed at increasing efficiencies related to the SLA. "Flexibility on both sides is required," Chandler said.
How do we advise our clients to be better clients? Lawyers, there is one great idea in there.

I think we need to educate our clients about what we do and how we do it. However, the clients need to help in this endeavor. I intended this blog as a way for me to expose the law and myself to the wider world. I am not sure but what I have failed in that endeavor and there are probably several good reasons for this failure. I will accept my shortcomings - a blog with a diffuse subject, posts too long, legalistic writing - if the potential clients will accept that they are looking for quick answers about something that does not provide quick answers. You, the non-lawyers, taking the time to read this must also start thinking outside of the sandbox.

Let me give an example of something related to my business practice, I have tried for years to promote a preventive law practice for my business clients without success. I do not understand why business owners are willing to pay a large fee to litigate case that might have been prevented with less in fees. If anyone cares to explain, I am quite eager to listen.

Which takes me back to The Firm's article:
At the time of the launch of Oracle Chambers Campbell and Carruthers were seen as mavericks, which in the often conservative legal profession is not always conducive to winning business. So, any regrets?

“Oracle Chambers was the best commercial idea we have ever had,” they say. “In just a year, we have seen our fee income grow significantly, and our administrative costs are now very, very low - it is the perfect economic equation. We think this is the future for Advocates, who above all must be fiercely independent, yet accessible. We are adaptable and responsive, easy to consult, and approachable. ”
I think both sides of the attorney/client relationship would benefit from changes in how we practice and with clients knowing more about what they are getting (or should get) from the profession.