Is law a commodity? Only if we let it become one

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Published on 4/17/06

In recent years, two Cs -- convergence and commoditization -- have become major issues for large regional and national law firms.

Convergence is the trend among large corporate clients to reduce their legal expenses by paring down the hundreds of outside counsel firms that they previously used, to a few dozen or less.

The survivors are frequently expected to provide certain kinds of work with relatively steady volume (such as patent filings or employment litigation) at fixed rates over a certain period of time, turning these matters into the legal equivalent of a commodity.

With commoditized services, lawyers focus on specific targets, like settling cases for the lowest legal cost and settlement amount where warranted.

The hard truth is that commoditization is also increasingly becoming an issue for solos and small firms. Spend any time on the Internet and you'll see a whole host of legal services used by individuals (such as wills, bankruptcy filings, even divorces) being offered by law firms at low fixed prices. Software programs even claim to make the purchaser their own lawyer in these practice areas.

Such pitches are successful because we as lawyers have done a poor job of addressing value and benefits - the worth, as opposed to the cost, of the services we provide.

The solution for our profession is to get paid for the real value and expertise you bring to the client. "Good service," "value" and "solutions" shouldn't be vague buzzwords.

All lawyers can structure what they do to consistently encourage a high-client perception of value by:

  • returning, or have an assistant return, clients' phone calls within two to four hours;
  • knowing your clients' concerns and understanding their business;
  • creating a client-friendly office environment. Have informative literature in the waiting room, and make sure it's available in languages that reflect your client's primary languages;
  • preparing your clients for interactive events such as negotiation sessions, depositions and testimony so they know what to expect and understand what might happen;
  • never making promises you can't keep; and
  • regularly asking clients for feedback about whether they are pleased with your services.

Let's apply a value-added approach to one area of practice - family law. Frequently viewed as a commoditized service, family law is actually one of the last vestiges of consumer/personal/human legal counsel.

There should always be room for the family law practitioner who is both sensitive to the needs of the human condition and knowledgeable about the business environment. Such a lawyer is ideal for the client who does not make choices on price alone.

To provide value-added services, you need a client who understands that value, someone:

  • who we believe we can help;
  • who realizes that the previous marital relationship has "died," and who will accept our assistance to advance to the birth of a new life and its relationships;
  • who understands that the attorney/client relationship is a two-way street; and
  • who is in harmony with the attorney on the philosophical approach on handling the death of the marital relationship.

When value is at the center of the engagement, low cost can never outweigh the personal relationship, personal integrity and rapport lawyers establish with their clients.

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