To compete with legal self-help sites, unbundling may be key

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Published on 11/30/09

A recent blog post by attorney Richard Granat, president of DirectLaw Inc., a company that licenses technology to law firms, contained a very powerful statement that is highly relevant in the current economic conditions: "Consumers want solutions to their legal problems. If they can get legal solutions in a different form than a traditional legal service from an attorney that is 'good enough' at much less cost, they will turn away from the legal profession and seek those alternatives."

Granat cited divorce as an example of where "good enough" representation — without charging top dollar in a fight to the finish — allows individuals to get on with their lives at an affordable cost. An alternative is pro se representation by the individuals themselves, an example of restructuring the lawyer/client relationship to achieve the objective simply and at a low cost.

It's interesting speculation. Family law is one of the last vestiges of personal, human legal counsel. There will always be room for the family law practitioner who is sensitive to the needs of the human condition, brings a sense of order to troubled situations, communicates honestly and directly about the legal and human difficulties involved, and maintains full confidentiality at all times.

Such a service is highly and rightfully valued. Yet there is broad anecdotal evidence to suggest that during the past two years, as families have coped with lost jobs, foreclosed homes and shrunken savings, the demand for divorce lawyers is down substantially. People are choosing to live in unhappiness because they think they cannot afford a resolution.

For the family law practitioner, the right client should be someone who realizes that the marital relationship has "died" and who will accept assistance to advance to the birth of a new life and its relationships. Such a person should be in harmony with the attorney to the philosophical approach on handling the death of the marital relationship. Yet this same person, under financial duress, might turn to a "do-it-yourself" website purporting to offer advice and forms to handle a divorce. Such a decision is based strictly on cost and could be disastrous for everyone involved.

How can a conscientious lawyer be "good enough" for such a client? The answer is not to cut fees, reduce the quality of service or preach an unproven message about the value of the legal services offered.

Instead, a practical solution is to take certain non-essential services off the table in order to deliver a lower price to the client. In effect, when the client wants a reduced price, the lawyer can unbundle the services to accomplish that objective.

The lawyer can offer to provide a certain service for X dollars, but for Y dollars will offer to do the same thing minus "abc." Whatever "abc" is, the client can agree to it and understand the message that the price of legal services is being adjusted to fit the appropriate level based on the service to be delivered.

It's a practical alternative that gives clients what they need and what they want. That's more than just "good enough" — it's good for both sides in the legal service equation.

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