How to stay off list of endangered professional species

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Published on 4/27/09

Travel agents, stockbrokers, librarians, print journalists … these are just a few of the once-respected and efficient professions that are increasingly endangered by recessions and by customers with access to the Internet. The issue is the customer's evaluation of cost versus benefit.

With incomes shrinking and access to information on the Internet expanding, there is a great temptation for people to assume that they cannot afford a lawyer and that they can do just as good a job for themselves using what they find on the Web.

Do-it-yourself websites purporting to offer legal advice, research and forms are, at best competition and, at worse, sources of misinformation and unrealistic client expectations. Wills, bankruptcy filings, patent filings, even divorces are offered by such sites at low fixed prices. Software programs even claim to make the purchaser his own lawyer in these practice areas.

Their effectiveness may be debatable - ask the secretary of the treasury if he will use tax preparation software again - but they pose a real threat to lawyers.

Meet the Value Challenge

Lawyers must bring creativity, judgment and experience to their clients to maintain their position in the affairs of business and the community. Being a commodity just isn't enough anymore. And a major differentiating factor for most clients is the "care and feeding" offered by lawyers.

Impersonal and expensive (a relative term) legal services are no longer accepted when the cost is substantial. As a profession, we must move past the point where the single largest complaint against lawyers is their failure to return phone calls and to respond quickly to the concerns and needs of the client.

Consider this example, which I came across several years ago: General Electric's aircraft sales force negotiates deals around the world. The salespeople submit purchase contracts to their prospective customers. When terms in the contract needed to be changed to meet customer requests, the sales force formerly had to send the proposal back to GE lawyers for review and change. This process often took weeks and sometimes results in lost sales.

Then GE created a "tool kit" of clauses available on the company's Extranet for its sales force to address situations like the one just described. Allowing the sales force to make contract changes saved GE many millions in legal fees and increased the speed of the negotiation process and the company's "closing" rates.

It's innovations like this that give weight to the Association of Corporate Counsel's Value Challenge. Corporate clients want and need the same things other clients are seeking: value-driven, high-quality legal services that provide solutions at a reasonable cost, delivered by lawyers who show personal care and concern.

To describe oneself as a good lawyer no longer holds weight. Truth be told, clients do not care about the differences among lawyers' credentials. Once you have the law degree and the license from the state, clients see you as competent as the next lawyer.

It is essential to communicate to clients and prospects why they need a lawyer's professional services and why you are the one to provide them. Otherwise, the legal profession is in jeopardy of losing its franchise.

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