The expectation game

Posted by Neil Rose, Editor, Legal Futures

Conference delegates having their minds expanded

I can say with a degree of confidence that most delegates at Monday’s Legal Futures conference had an enjoyable and stimulating day (to judge by the evaluation forms, subsequent e-mails and the Twitter stream for #lfconf).

From learning what is happening in the here and now to a mind-expanding closing presentation from Daniel Katz of Michigan State University, on his vision of legal information engineering and quantitative legal prediction (ie, using data to predict the outcome of legal matters), there was no shortage of food for thought.

It is hard to sum up the whole day from the stage as I had half an eye on the clock the whole time and other administrative matters, and so on this occasion I may not be the best reporter. But various common themes struck me, irrespective of where the speaker was coming from.

One was that the well-known predictions of Professor Richard Susskind loomed large, if unspoken, above us. Much of what was said on Monday, from unbundling services to new types of legal roles, could have come straight from his books.

Then there was the role of technology in stripping out the process. This is a theme I have been banging on about for some time, and I heard nothing to dispel my suspicion that time will soon be up for lawyers who spend their days drafting standard documents. The good news here is surely that lawyers will instead focus on doing ‘real’ legal work (at least until artificial intelligence takes their role in that as well, leaving their professional judgment to interpret what the computer spits out as the key selling point).

Next, you might think it unnecessary for me to suggest that lawyers need to focus on their clients – and certainly the marketing blurb on every law firm website in the land would insist it is – but I’m not sure that’s the case, sadly. Both from my own, not happy, experience of using solicitors for various business matters in the last couple of years, and less anecdotally Peppermint Technology’s research, there remains a mismatch between what clients want, and what some lawyers think they want.

Fees are the perfect example of this. When a client asks for a fixed fee, that is not necessarily the same as asking for a cheap fee or a discount, but I think that is how lawyers interpret the request. Last year, I simply wanted to know how much a particular piece of non-contentious work would cost, and believed an experienced lawyer should be able to price it (it was a standard agreement except for half a dozen points specific to our circumstances).

It comes back to my earlier point – as a client I was prepared to pay for good advice on the tricky issues, but not cutting and pasting boilerplate. When the work was finally done (and it was not a great experience), the bill kindly informed me that the fixed fee came in way below what we would have paid had we been charged by the hour (the hourly figure was getting on for three times the fixed fee).

This was meant, I assume, to tell me I had got a bargain. Well, first I wasn’t looking for a bargain – I was looking for value – and second I actually saw the admission as an indictment of the way that firm operated. Either they had priced our job way below what they should have done, which was daft, or their hourly rates were set way too high.

As it happens, we have now signed up to one of the new legal services providers, offering fixed fees, rapid and reliable response, and good technology to keep us informed of what is going on. We also have access to a wide range of free legal information. So far, so good. Mrs Legal Futures, who deals with them in the main, is very impressed, and I can tell you better than anyone that she is not easily impressed.

The challenge is clear for law firms. I may be a relatively savvy client, but am far from exceptional (just ask Mrs Legal Futures again) – so ask yourself, do you really know what your clients want and how you are going to meet that in a way which suits them? And what does it mean for your business?

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