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Recently an article in the Guardian described family law as a “time-consuming and morally shadowy activity” and suggested that family lawyers “sleep in a bed that has been paid for by the unhappiness of others”. This was an article on “gold diggers”, a group hardly representative of the general population. But if ever a profession needed good PR, it’s family lawyers. The legal profession as a whole gets a pretty bad press, making it a pretty easy task for the government to promote other methods of obtaining legal advice and dispute resolution, as if entering the office of a lawyer who works with individual clients is something to be avoided, an easy way to empty your wallet with no obvious benefits.
Go for a trusted brand seems to be the message, bring in the corporate “big boys” and all will be fine for individual clients and the law. Of course, all of us have had personal experiences of large corporations that were less than positive, whether it was dealing with a frustrating call centre or simply a purchase of shoddy goods. A company’s raison de etre is to make profits for its shareholders. That isn’t to say that lawyers can’t learn from corporate models, a recent survey found that only 20% of those who had used law firms and solicitors in the last three years were asked to complete satisfaction surveys. Clearly this is missed opportunity to improve service and client satisfaction and this must change.
Competing on price: a race to the bottom?
So, how are family lawyers fighting back? Well, largely it seems with fixed fees and more transparency on costs. While greater transparency is to be commended (and surely something required for many years by way of costs estimates in any event) I wonder if this is the best USP for lawyers? Back in the 80s and 90s, domestic conveyancers started to compete mainly on price. The result was a devaluing of the expertise property lawyers bring to a transaction, greater use of unqualified staff, the rise (and in some cases fall) of “factory” conveyancing and an increase in negligence claims. In other industries and professions plenty has been written on competing on price alone, in this article the author suggests looking at the following before price:
A personal service
Buying legal services is not, and should not be like going to the supermarket. The areas individual client lawyers deal with are the most stressful times in people’s lives (divorce, death, moving house). There is definitely a place for fixed fees in family law but what I have seen seems to greatly resemble the model that has been loosely in place in many practices for decades: aspects that are procedural and easy to predict the time required are simple to fix, it’s the parts in-between that are not. And it’s those parts that the client may not tell their lawyer about initially (it’s not easy to tell a stranger everything at a first meeting), or they may not know about themselves (the hidden assets that emerge on disclosure) or may simply not have happened yet (the unexpected dispute over contact arrangements when a new partner arrives on the scene). Not everything can be predictable and fixed, and if anything needs to be more transparent it is that there will be uncertainties, however uncomfortable that may be to discuss.
Some clients must feel that they are on a costly conveyor belt from the minute they instruct a lawyer and that does need to end. Fixed fees can help, pay-as-you-go and greater clarity can all make a difference but let’s not pretend that there will always be as much certainty for individual clients as there would be in say a clearly defined commercial transaction. It’s a tough time going through a divorce, losing a loved one and even moving house. Lawyers can offer the reassurance of years of training, experience, and the ability to guide you through an unfamiliar process with expert advice along the way. Surely that’s the best USP?
Geraldine Morris is a solicitor and head of LexisPSL Family
0330 161 1234