The modern legal landscape has changed dramatically since I became a lawyer nearly 20 years ago. Some changes have been obvious, like the impact of the Internet, while other changes are more subtle, like the impact of the Great Recession on how legal services are provided (and billed). Regardless of the reasons, the legal industry is changing and good lawyers have to change with it. Those changes should also lead clients to evaluate how they interact with their attorney and prompt a review (and perhaps a frank discussion) about how the lawyer represents the client. Good lawyers will welcome such a dialogue and it will help the attorney-client relationship grow stronger.
The following are three areas good, modern lawyers are addressing with their clients and likewise, areas for clients to question their attorney.
1.Make the Unclear….Clear. Most people have heard the term “legalese” and it has a negative connotation for a reason. Think of glazing over when you read the fine print in almost any contract, document, or invoice you sign. While humorous, those lightning-fast voice-overs of the terms and conditions on a radio commercial point out a serious failing of much of the modern legal system…what should be made clear for clients is obfuscated. While legislatures (both federal and state) continue to pass consumer (and other) legislation designed to give information to people so they can make informed decisions, too often the disclosure is so densely and complexly drafted that no one can understand it. Who really understands a set of loan documents? Thankfully, a movement is growing that seeks to replace complex and outdated methods of drafting with modern English. I liken it to the difference between the King James Bible and the NIV. One of the foremost (in my opinion) proponents of such drafting is Ken Adams at adamsdrafting.com. I highly recommend not only to fellow practitioners, but also to clients to review Ken’s blog for insight into making your legal documents more clear. Clear and understandable legal documents make negotiation easier and lessen the risk of misunderstanding and perhaps, litigation…something all business owners want to avoid.
2. Add Value, Don’t Subtract Value. Unfortunately, I’ve often in my career seen lawyers who view clients or cases as rich, virgin territory….ripe for plundering. Too many lawyers simply see clients as a means to make money, rather than focusing on adding value to the client’s enterprise. In a complex, modern economy, lawyers should be able to legitimately make the case to clients that legal services are not only a necessity (which is sadly how many clients view lawyers), but also a way to add value. I talk often to my clients about the need to identify the mines in the minefield by NOT stepping on them. Analyzing and avoiding potential trouble spots for clients and their companies is infinitely cheaper and more effective than only reacting to the problem. Unfortunately, many lawyers train their clients never to want to call them or involve them early, because (as I’m sure many of you have said)…..every time you call your lawyer, even if for only a quick call, you get an invoice. I prefer to train my clients to want to call me and involve me in their companies. House calls, surveys, corporate reviews, lunch and learns, and attending directors/officers’ meetings (at no charge) are good ways to add value to your client’s business and help them identify problems without killing the client with a bill. My experience has almost always been that those kinds of value-adds end up generating substantive legal work in the long run….a win-win for both the client and attorney.
3. The Death of the Billable Hour? For decades, one of the main culprits that has lead lawyers to seek to extract value from clients rather than add value is the billable hour, the decades-old linchpin of legal billing. The typical pyramid-shaped legal model (with a few partners at the top and a broad base of associates and paralegals at the bottom) necessitated a constant need for billable hours to feed the machine….billable hours on which to train associates, pay paralegals, and put profits in the pockets of partners. The missing part of the equation is the client….the ostensible reason for the legal profession in the first place. During and after the Great Recession, more and more companies have been reviewing their budgets and legal line items and demanding legal services be delivered in a more cost-effective manner. Different firms have sprung up to meet those needs, from e-discovery firms that focus on massive litigation projects to my own firm, that provides the value of an out-sourced legal department without the huge cost of hiring in-house counsel.
The modern legal landscape has changed dramatically in many ways over the last decade, but in many ways it has caused good lawyers to return to first principles. We need to focus on providing clear value, good counsel, and fair rates. Clients should expect no less.
If you would like a free consultation regarding the state of your company’s legal needs, please contact me using the contact page.