Why We Need to Rebrand the Legal Profession

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.

Jenny Odegard
Jenny Odegard is an attorney with her own practice in New York working with creative small businesses. She also teaches a legal skills class for freelancers and entrepreneurs at General Assembly.

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