The client is always right

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In a world of downward budget pressure, the bottom line is king.

Today's legal consumers don't just want more for less, they demand value for their money — they want to know where, why and how it was spent; they want their issues taken care of in a timely manner; and they want a better-than 50/50 chance of winning. And anyone who still thinks the power in the lawyer-client relationship rests with the former had best be quickly disabused of that notion. Law is no longer a seller's market. The budget-conscious client will be satisfied, or will move his or her business elsewhere.

Those are some of the early findings of the Canadian Bar Association’s Future of Legal Practice Initiative, a multi-phase project that seeks to establish where the profession is today and help to position it for the future. Its end game is to help lawyers adapt to the legal profession's changing reality.

As it undertook the first comprehensive study of its kind in Canada, the Futures steering committee commissioned original research on the topic. The result was seven background papers looking at various facets of the industry, including an examination of how and why client expectations are evolving, and what that means in terms of changes that can be expected in the legal sector.

The wealth of information available on the omniscient internet is an example of the way technology is changing client expectations. Just as medical professionals often hear diagnoses provided by "Dr. Google," the legal system can look forward to arguments from John or Jane Google, J.D.

There are also a growing number of para-professionals willing and able to provide some legal services for a deeply discounted fee. That's empowering to clients — particularly to individual consumers for whom cost concerns are "paramount."

That was one of the conclusions of the online study conducted by an independent research firm in which legal service users — in-house lawyers and individual clients — were asked about trends in the sector.

"The belief that legal services provide expensive value to individuals will remain a barrier to using those services. People may avoid them, seek other alternatives or use them only as a last result," the study reported.

"Value for money" is key for in-house counsel, who are often required to defend their legal spend to other parts of the organization.

Both individual and in-house clients want to remain in the loop, which in a perfect world means jargon-free information customized to their needs. They’re also willing to do some of the work themselves if that will keep costs lower.

Individuals want lawyers to be patient, willing to explain unfamiliar processes and procedures, and able to give an honest assessment of the expected outcome. In-house clients want some control over who does the work and how it’s done; and they want the external counsel to add value.

"External counsel need to have a very good understanding of our world, including budget constraints, reporting structure, corporate values, stakeholders," said one in-house participant.

Transparency; standardization; de-lawyering; alternative business practices and alternative fee arrangements – these are some of the bywords of the changing environment. Clients who see these ideas as adding value while reducing costs tend to embrace them. Others worry that standardization of routine processes, out-sourcing and de-lawyering will have a negative impact on quality and risk for clients.

"I always believe the more competition the lower the cost, but more competition can also lower the value. Everyone wants in on the deal so less reputable folks are in the mix," the study quotes one participant, described as a more-experienced user.

In a nutshell, many clients focus on the perceived up-side of reduced costs in a changing legal services environment, while lawyers – and some clients – focus on the perceived downside of degraded quality.

Lawyers will have to find a way to work within the new normal to find a way to please their clients and while continuing to provide advice of an acceptable quality. As Charles Darwin might have said, evolve or become extinct.

"Forward-looking providers that embrace the future and their clients’ expectations will continue to be most successful," the study concludes.

The CBA is eager to hear how client expectations have changed your practice.


April 30, 2013 |
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