Veteran Chester County, Pennsylvania solo, Sam Stretton bemoans the deterioration of the attorney-client relationship in the modern world, blaming the change on clients’ unreasonable expectation of perfection combined with their lack of appreciation for attorneys’ need for privacy and the cost of legal services. Yet as I read Stretton’s piece, I wondered whether all of the problems that Stretton describes flow from technology — or the fact that lawyers like Stretton haven’t kept pace.
For example, take Stretton’s complaint that “clients expect 100 percent perfection from their lawyers and expect everything to be done as of yesterday.” Well – why shouldn’t they? In a world where clients can instantly download any books or movies from Amazon to their iPad or Kindle, find an answer to a legal question for $39 in a matter of minutes or self-incorporate an LLC at no charge and on the spot at most state Secretary Office websites, why wouldn’t they have great expectations? Trouble is, most clients don’t understand that most cases are more complicated than a $39 question – indeed, if they weren’t, there’d be no need to see a lawyer to begin with. Figuring out how to address a complex matter can take more time.
Moreover, the time involved in completing a matter isn’t always within the lawyer’s control and may depend upon opposing parties and the court calendar. In my own practice, I’ve found that once I explain how a case moves through a system – and commit it to writing (either in my representation agreement or a process chart), most clients don’t complain because they know what to expect up front.
As for clients expecting 100 percent perfection, again, why shouldn’t they? Don’t we have an obligation to bring our best game to the table in every matter? Yet, I’ve used lawyers whose documents contained grievous errors – such as incorrectly identified heirs in probate materials or preparation of the wrong form for filing in a case. But worse than these mistakes was the fact that the lawyers never apologized or discounted for the error but instead, billed me to make the corrections! (obviously, I didn’t pay for that). Clients realize that attorneys are human and may not achieve perfection in every matter. But if that’s the case, lawyers shouldn’t penalize the client for the lawyer’s own error.
Stretton also criticizes clients for not recognizing the lawyers’ need for privacy. Oh, boo hoo, poor lawyer. If a true emergency arises, it’s the lawyer’s job to deal with it. Moreover, lawyers are not entirely without means to control a demanding client: a lawyer can employ an answer service to avoid interruptions from frequent callers or impose an extra fee for calls outside of business hours. Meanwhile, courtesy cuts both ways. How many times have you demanded that a client show up for a court call that the judge subsequently cancels and failed to acknowledge the inconvenience to the client? Expressing some appreciation for the toll that a case has on a client’s life often has the effect of making the client more understanding of the attorney’s time.
Further, if today’s clients aren’t satisfied with their lawyer’s responsiveness, in today’s world, they have choices – and that’s a good thing. Whereas once upon a time, a lawyer referred to a client by a banker or trusted friend may have been the only game in town, today, clients need only hop on line and find plenty of options. Customers who enjoy a favorable experience – not just a favorable result – are more likely to stick by their lawyer. Stretton seems mystified that getting a good result isn’t enough to persuade a client to stick around – but what he doesn’t realize is that a result is a commodity that can be found anywhere (heck, Legal Zoom delivers results). By contrast, a satisfying client experience is not as readily commoditized and when customers find it, they won’t look elsewhere.
Where Stretton is most out of touch, however, is when it comes to the cost of running a modern law firm. Incredulously, Stretton writes that:
…it’s expensive to retain an attorney nowadays. It’s a hard concept for a client to understand. The concept of overhead is difficult for most clients. A client sees a lawyer getting a lot of money in their pocket, not realizing the secretarial, paralegal, rent and numerous other expenses. Modern technology has only increased the expense of practicing law. A solo practitioner 40 to 50 years ago can remember the $50 phone bills a month as opposed to $1,000 to $2,000 phone bills a month in the modern practice.
I am not sure in what world modern technology has increased the expense of practicing law. In an era of unlimited cell phone plans and VOIP, I am hard pressed to see how anyone can be paying $2000 phone bills unless they’re based in China and calling U.S. clients on a domestic plan. And what’s this about secretarial and paralegal services and rent. Lawyers today can choose from virtual assistants, freelance paralegals and co-working space for a fraction of the cost of a full-time work staff and physical office. What’s more, most clients are aware of these advancements. Many most likely participate in the gig economy themselves and are unlikely to feel any sympathy for lawyers, who themselves have access to the savings associated with the sharing economy, can’t figure out a way to reduce overhead costs.
Sadly, the fact that Stretton would publish this kind of screed about today’s clients in an online publication shows just how little he understands about the modern world. Sure, many lawyers may empathize with Stretton’s complaints (after all, don’t we all privately let off steam now and then?). Trouble is, even though Stretton’s article appears in a legal publication, it’s not just lawyers who have access to the piece but also his clients who will inevitably stumble across it if they Google him, which is SOP these days, even for lawyers who come by referral. Frankly, I’d never hire, or make referrals to a lawyer (or any professional for that matter) with the kind of attitude towards clients that Stretton revealed in his article. In any event, if modern technology helps expose these kinds of lawyers, and gives clients new options, I view that as a change for the better.
Today’s technology gives us so many ways to keep clients up to date, and to allow us to automate or outsource the kind of administrivial tasks that sap lawyers of time to spend with clients. Meanwhile, the fact that today’s technology has increased client expectations of their lawyers is a challenge to us lawyers to do better, not a threat to our survival. Great lawyers say bring it on, while soon to be extinct lawyers like Stretton say turn it off and turn back the clock, besides. Which group do you want to be a part of?