Why We Need to Rebrand the Legal Profession

lawyer ship sinking

In a 2002 American Bar Association (ABA) survey, 69% of respondents identified lawyers as greedy and 51% said society would be better off with fewer lawyers. A 2012 Gallup poll listed the legal industry as the one of the most hated by Americans. It is so bad that many people would rather try to do their legal work themselves instead of hiring a lawyer.

Statistics like these are why I am always baffled when I see most post-recession legal-industry overhauls that focus on new technology, outsourcing, and do-it-yourself solutions. Yes, providing some quick forms may be useful, but it ignores the bigger problems that have led us to this point, and it does nothing to create a sustainable environment for the legal industry in the future.

The focus on new technology and reducing costs emphasizes getting the task done over how well it is done and for what purpose. Legal services are and should be a premium service and consumers should get what they pay for. Despite the growing mass of underemployed law school graduates, devaluing their services and creating menial low-paying jobs is not a helpful intervention. It certainly will not help law school enrollment numbers, address graduate student debt, or attract the best and brightest to the profession.

In some ways, these mechanized interventions are like trying to replace a primary care doctor with WebMD and Internet prescription drugs. We may be able to temporarily clear up some of the symptoms of our past misdeeds, but we also risk dangerous unknown side effects and long-term complications if we devalue experts in favor of ease and speed.

So why favor technology and DIY solutions over actual industry reform? The answer is simple: change is hard. No one wants to admit the way they do business is wrong, but the evidence of decline is hard to ignore.

For example, law school enrollment has decreased by 30% compared with incoming classes from four years ago. Major layoffs at big firms have become regular news items. According to ABA data, 82 law firm mergers were approved in 2014 alone, reflecting the larger trend of a shrinking legal services industry that eliminated 1,400 jobs in the first month of this year. The time has come to admit that it’s more than just the bad economy that is hurting us.

The change the legal industry needs isn’t in outsourcing, DIY services, better technology, or even lower prices. It needs to change its brand and improve customer service.

The Rebranding Effort

I am not talking about branding as in lawyers need better fonts (although that wouldn’t hurt), I’m talking about a strategic change in the way lawyers see themselves and are seen by the public.

Here are some areas where our bad reputation precedes us:

Doing a bad job on these overshadows the reasons why lawyers are important and how they can make a client’s life better. Yes, we prepare documents, write letters, and intimidate people on the phone. But we are also trained to know how to listen, keep important secrets, and offer advice from a new perspective.

The rebranding proposition is simple: lawyers need to be seen as trusted confidants and advocates who understand the market they are serving and care about the valuable things with which they are entrusted.

Change How We Treat Clients

Lawyers also need to change the way they work to fit that new paradigm. For example, how can you trust and rely on someone who charges you a large and often unpredictable amount of money for a simple phone call? And how can you become an integral part of a client’s life or business when you are constantly watching the clock?

Fixing this problem means rethinking fees, how we bill, what we charge for, and how we inform clients about costs. We also need to keep up with changing expectations of what consumers and companies expect from professional services. Today’s clients want something different than the previous generation, and the slower we are to adapt to those needs, the further behind we fall.

Change How We Treat Ourselves

Lawyers, think about how you behave to each other. Are you a helpful colleague in pursuit of solutions for your client? Or are you a ruthless competitor who just wants to win?

Regrettably, lawyers often don’t expect much from themselves. The words “happy” and “great day at work” and “weeknight date” aren’t in our vocabulary for the most part, even though as highly educated, organized problem solvers, we should be able to find a way to reclaim some humanity.

The problem isn’t time management or the constant press of urgent matters; it’s cultural. The road to becoming a lawyer is paved with blood, sweat, tears, and sleep deprivation, which we come to wear as badges of honor by the time we pass the bar exam. The “whatever-it-takes, I’m the hardest worker” mentality follows us, and law firms and corporations reward us for the long hours and lack of personal life with promotions and money.

But like other industries, it’s time to take a step back and reevaluate what matters. It starts with smart, moderate interventions like reforming the billable hour. Then it hopefully creeps up to addressing equal pay for women and minorities, ensuring everyone is rewarded for their hard work.

The Payoff

What benefits will we reap from these efforts? Perhaps we could revive the legal job market enough to give law students a tiny ray of hope or improve our reputation for honesty and trustworthiness. While we are at it, we can get to work changing systemic cultural issues and consider making realistic changes that could improve our work-life balance.

The bottom line is that the legal industry is in desperate need of a rebranding that starts on the surface and permeates throughout our profession’s culture. It’s time to admit what we have been doing is failing on such a grand scale that we should just quit old habits and start brainstorming new ones.

Featured image: “Flat design illustration of having difficulties in business. ” from Shutterstock.

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  • Outstanding article. I could not agree more. You didn’t mention but high volume work I’ve seen from many lawyers in numerous practice areas cannot be helping the problem. Lawyers aren’t even doing the work in many cases. Secretaries and paralegals unfamiliar with the law are doing work that requires a lawyer’s eye and ear to be done properly. Their clients should be outraged, and they are.

  • Allen Mihecoby

    Thank you Jenny Odegard this is a great article. As Tina mentions there may be paralegals and secretaries who need additional supervision. LIkewise, there are thousands of us who strictly follow our ethical rules and provide legal services at a lower rate (under the supervisions of and on behalf of the attorney). We also free up the attorney to spend time on the activities that we cannot: the practice of law. The concept of your article remains true: all of us in the legal profession should do what we are able to rebrand the legal profession and to continue moving us toward better standing with the public — our clients. Thanks again for such a great article.

    • Thank you Allen. I did not mean to disrespect your hard work. Unfortunately, I have seen far too many non-lawyers doing work that really only lawyers can and should do. The practice of law includes carefully reviewing all case documents (and editing those that are being sent out), talking to clients and witnesses about what happened, not to mention court room activities. Very often document review and client discussions are not handled by lawyers, when they should be. Sometimes only a lawyer would know when a client mentions one fact that could change everything, for example.

      • I grew up working part-time at some of Seattle’s biggest firms, and often, paralegals made more than associate attorneys. No offense at all – I don’t think you mean anything bad by your statement, but I do think it’s one of the sentiments that helps reinforce the stereotype about your industry. At a job I held in Savannah (prior to starting my own web development company), on one particular case, I distinctly remember saying time and time again to the attorneys “We need to check out her Facebook…” everyone ignored me. But I just knew she was hiding something. All the lawyers scoffed at the idea (just as it sounds like you would do). Fast forward 2 months – defense summons Facebook records and there’s our client on Facebook posting statuses that totally debunked her claim. On another occasion it was my google text message records that saved the defense from being able to dismiss a huge class action suit. Saying “Sometimes only a lawyer would know when a client mentions one fact that could change everything, for example” is B.S. We all have access to essentially the same resources. Your comment (albeit unintentional) reinforces the notion that lawyer = better/ smarter. Can’t tell you how many attorney’s behinds I’ve saved. And I continue to do that, as a developer. Just my two cents.

        • I agree with the fact that you can learn everything that would help or hurt a case working under an attorney who trains you to recognize those things. Heck, in the old days, people could become lawyers via apprenticeships. There is nothing special about our knowledge that can’t be learned. But it does have to be learned. Additionally, if you are the one talking to the client, then you very well may discover things that the lawyer needs to consider.

          However, you still do not know your own limits. You do not know everything about personal & subject matter jurisdiction, evidence admissibility rules, and that sort of thing. You know *some* of those things, but not all of them. You do not have access to those resources unless you took the courses in law school. Paralegal courses are not the same, as they do not cover nearly the same depth.

          This has nothing to do with smarter, but a good & experienced lawyer would be better. Smarter would imply that the paralegals could not learn these things, which isn’t my belief at all. I remember a woman who had been a paralegal for years, in the year behind me in law school. Her number one rank in her class was no surprise to me.

          OTOH, if the lawyer is not paying attention, and an experienced paralegal is, then the paralegal would be better. But someone should seek to hire a lawyer, not a paralegal, who is paying attention to those details. Paralegals are required to be supervised by attorneys for many good reasons. You cannot analyze whether there are good reasons without having been through law school yourself, because you have no idea what you might not know.

  • Patricia E. Infanti, PP, PLS

    I do believe that the legal profession needs to be rebranded and cleaned up. Perception is reality and, if the statistics mentioned in the article are true, we have quite a bit of work ahead. Excellent, ethical work from everyone working in the legal profession must be the standard. Too often, though, the only reality seen by the public are the scandals reported and the “used-car salesman-like” advertisements, both from a very small percentage of the whole profession, which ruin the perception of the legal profession. All support staff play a pivotal role in the reputation of the legal profession and should be included in any rebranding of the profession. Great article and thanks for sharing!

    • Lawyers should also stop allowing themselves to be marketed by those who make no effort to break down their already tarnished image. I’ve got a Vegas client that had literally donated millions to various charities before hiring me to redesign his websites and for a social media overhaul. None of those acts had been mentioned before. I’m not saying go on a fake campaign just for good PR, but you should at least be able to mention the good that you HAVE done as a firm. I’ve even worked on defense lawyer websites/social media that didn’t capitalize on the good they did in the community.

  • I mentioned on Twitter but I had such strong feelings that this post inspired my latest blog post! Hope it’s okay to share: http://injuryattorneyflorida.com/hate-lawyers/

  • Cathy Cardozo

    Yes. This. Love it!

  • Agreed 100%. I find that many companies claiming to be legal marketing experts just help the lawyers to make a pickle of themselves online! I handle web design exclusively for lawyers (defense and plaintiffs alike), and have found that most of the legends aren’t true. There are a-holes in any profession, I don’t think lawyers have a higher percentage than say, doctors, but public perception of doctors is much better. I sat in on a focus group before (in Seattle no less), and a lot of the participants referenced the litigiousness of our country. Their key example? The hot coffee case. Which (10 years later) I bet they still don’t know the truth about. Here’s is my web developer’s take: http://www.createaspectacle.com/2015/03/defense-law-firm-websites-are-doing-better/

  • Rebranding won’t do it. Lawyers need to walk the walk — which many of them won’t do, because many of the incentives of law practice reward lawyers for behaving badly. The old lipstick-on-a-pig line is not inapt here. (If I could think of one more trite saying it’d be a hat trick.)

  • Walker

    I have an idea. Everyone who wants to write one of these clueless “let’s abolish the billable hour” articles has to come write and argue my fee petitions so I can get paid for winning my clients’ case against scam car dealers, scam contractors, and bad employers. I look forward to watching you explain to the judges that, no you weren’t watching the clock on those telephone calls and tracking every minute you spend working on a file (broken down by claim, so that you can be given zero dollars for claims where you don’t prevail) simply because you didn’t want to be “that” kind of lawyer.

    • I used to sue debt collectors, so I know what you mean. I don’t think judges are ready to let go of the billable hour, yet, in fee petitions. But even though I tracked my hours in FDCPA cases, I did everything else on flat fees.

      Nobody is saying the billable hour should be abolished entirely or that flat fees are one-size-fits-all. (At least I hope not.) What many of us are saying is that the billable hour isn’t one-size-fits-all, either, although lawyers have been treating it that way for years.

      • Walker

        I was an engineering and operations management consultant before becoming an attorney. Before discovering the nasty truth about fee petitions — that judges are trapped by the courts above on fee awards, and the courts above are full of people who have never once represented a real person with a real problem on a contingency fee — it never occurred to me to bill for time spent.

        But the thing is totally forced upon plaintiffs lawyer. And the defense bar wins both ways. They get paid, win or lose, the less client education they do the more work there will be for them, and when you beat them, they get to come in and object to your fee petition and argue that the case wasn’t particularly difficult, you should have settled it, you didn’t need that deposition etc. And they will be paid for all of that time, and you will end up being told that you have to accept a cut no matter how much BS the defense lawyer has spun because the judge’s decisions on fees are essentially sacrosanct under abuse of discretion review.

        So at least hours are objective.

  • IMO, law as an industry faces two public-perception problems:

    1) Many people perceive that the best lawyers too often are deployed to tilt the playing field even more egregiously on behalf of banks, big corporations, and the wealthy, enabling them to avoid paying taxes, conduct environmentally destructive operations, exploit their workforces, outrageously overpay their executives while cutting everyone else’s economic legs from under them, control the government through campaign contributions, and generally reinforce and perpetuate an oligarchy. Many people see virtually every decision, and most legislation, favor big corporations, and enabled by lawyers. These are admittedly arguable points, but they are nonetheless public perception and, as one poster said earlier, perception is reality.

    2) Useful, understandable legal services are beyond the economic reach of too great a percentage of the population. Many people live paycheck to paycheck. If people defer medical and dental care for economic reasons, as too many must do, even a $500 legal bill can be crippling, which means they won’t take the action against a predatory landlord, or get the cable company to make things right, or any number of things that lawyers can help with, and which help would be welcomed.

  • As a Brit I’ve a different take on the idea of rebranding — supposedly, we now operate a level playing field. Certainly as regards private practice, unless you remove the PEP element, I think it’s doubtful you’ll see any wholesale changes, which is no different to any and all other professions. At the end of the day, as Tom Peters has said many times, innovation (which is what we’re talking about) only happens as a result of p***ed off clients. In the UK, once the client has more choice, then that, and that alone, will drive change, i.e. when clients start leaving firms.