Changing Expectations and Changing Minds

It’s no secret that public perception of lawyers is generally poor. This was highlighted for me again when I came across the recent post 15 Things Your Clients Are Sharing About You on Twitter. While some of the clients quoted said positive things about their lawyers, many repeated a variation of the oft-heard refrain: Too expensive, too shifty and too incompetent.

Jordan Furlong recently wrote here on Slaw about the Ontario Bar Association’s proposal to enhance the image of Ontario lawyers through another marketing campaign. He concluded that the problem of poor image is a consequence of the way law is too often practiced, and therefore, attacking it with an ad campaign touting other good things lawyers do in society will inevitably fail. The solution, he suggested, is rather to shift how we practice law so that there is more emphasis on serving the needs of clients:

Make the justice system swifter, more transparent and more even-handed. Find ways to make the price of lawyers’ talents and efforts affordable to more than 20% of the population. Push harder for principled conduct rules and fewer obstructive tactics in litigation. And stop trying to put out of business lower-cost competitors who might be able to serve the very people who think so poorly of us in the first place. Think more and do more about the reality of clients than about the image of lawyers.

This seems obvious to me, and I know it is obvious to many other lawyers. But the image won’t change while we continue to hear of lawyers who “borrow” trust money, lawyers whose bills can be slashed by 70% and lawyers who fail to put the needs of their clients ahead of their own interests.

Our law schools teach ethics and professional responsibility. Canadian bar admission programs include lectures and assignments on professional obligations. Mandatory continuing professional development requirements throughout the country include a specified number of hours of training each year in practice management and ethics.

There should be no doubt of what is expected of us. The Code of Professional Conduct is mostly unambiguous and sets baseline standards that are achievable without a great deal of effort. But more than mere compliance with professional obligations is needed to change the way the public thinks about lawyers. Dan Hull, in his blog What About Clients? said it this way in a post on Rule 4 of his 12 Rules of Client Service:

Rather than “under-promise/over-deliver”, which is essentially job specific, why not change the way people think of lawyers generally and what they can expect from them generally? Get good clients–those clients you like and want–to keep coming back to you by communicating in all aspects of your work that you care deeply about your lawyering for them, you want to serve their interests on an ongoing basis and that it’s a privilege to be their lawyer. Show them you fit no lawyer mold.

Oh, yeah. One catch–and the hardest part: it’s got to be true.

If you look at the right to practice law as a privilege and you understand that the privilege is really about serving the legal needs of your clients, you will think differently about the set of obligations that flow from that privilege. Those who understand that the client is the whole game view their professional obligations as a minimum standard only and instead fix their eyes on achieving higher standards and setting best practices as their goal.

When more lawyers practice law with that mindset, whatever their model of service delivery, clients will change their minds about lawyers, and public perception will follow.

Until then, I expect that I’ll continue to hear the jokes about lawyers at the bottom of the sea.

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