The Missing Link: Clients

Someone is conspicuously absent from the current debate about the future of legal practice. I have not yet noted anyone seriously asking clients the very relevant questions about what the profession should look like 10, 20 or 30 years from now.

This is not surprising given there is a great disconnect between legal professionals and most clients. That divide is evident whether looking at sophisticated corporate clients or the clients of any small or mid-sized law office.

I first became aware of the disconnect early in my career when I began work in the area of public legal education. At that time, I often spoke to groups and individuals at PLEI programs or via a telephone information line and would hear a litany of complaints about lawyers:

  • The lawyer asked for a retainer and I don’t know what that is or how to get it
  • My lawyer doesn’t return my calls
  • I don’t have any idea what is happening on my file
  • It seems like my lawyer is working for the other side
  • My lawyer won’t do any more work unless I pay another retainer
  • I don’t understand why it isn’t resolved yet
  • My lawyer doesn’t talk to me (or I can’t understand what my lawyer is saying)

Many of those I spoke with were unable to afford the legal services they were receiving or needed, and had multiple questions about hourly billing, retainers and money held in trust.

Communications were another area of concern for most, with many reporting an inability to effectively communicate with their lawyer.

Though I provided legal information only, I recall that I was often asked to take on their case because, I presume, I had listened to their concerns and responded in clear, plain language. From all of these conversations, I concluded that providing basic and understandable legal information was a critical task that many lawyers were failing to deliver upon.

More recently, I provided similar services to clients as part of a workplace benefit plan that offered 30-minute legal information consultations with a lawyer. Though these clients were employed in mostly good jobs and represented a higher socioeconomic demographic than those I typically encountered through PLEI presentations, their complaints were not so different: lawyers that wouldn’t return calls, billing and affordability issues and lack of understanding of the legal processes they were engaged in.

There remains a significant and worrisome disconnect between many lawyers and their clients. This is an issue that in my view must be addressed through the current discussions on future of legal practice if those discussions are to assist us in moving toward meaningful change.

While I’ve not seen much discussion focused on the needs of clients in the future of law conversation, I am encouraged by the recent research project conducted by Dr. Julie MacFarlane to search out the stories and point of view of self-represented litigants about their interaction with the legal system. Tellingly, her Final Report identifies dissatisfaction with legal representation as one of three main reasons why people choose to represent themselves, and within that category points to five common themes:

  1. Counsel “doing nothing”
  2. Counsel not interested in settling the case
  3. Difficulty finding counsel to take their case
  4. Counsel not listening or explaining
  5. Counsel made mistakes/was not competent.

These perspectives are remarkably consistent with those I have heard from clients struggling to relate effectively to their own lawyers.

Solutions to some of these concerns are easily found. A shift in focus, for example, from law firms to client service firms could have a real impact. We are in the business of serving legal needs after all, not in the business of being lawyers and running law firms. Where there is a conflict between those two points of view (as there often is), it is the client’s perspective that should win the day.

Indeed, our governing bodies are established to protect and promote the public interest rather than the interests of lawyers as a profession. Though one might question the paternalism inherent in a system where lawyers govern lawyers in the public interest, for the most part, law societies generally seem able to differentiate between the two perspectives and actively take steps to meet their mandate.

Clients need to be a part of the discussion about the future of legal practice. If they’re not leading the conversation, and in fact are not even at the table, I don’t see the point of the whole discussion. The best solutions come from the ground up – that is, those who need legal services must have considerable input into how those services are provided to them. Any other approach is just missing the point and will ultimately serve to expand, rather than contract the gap between legal service users and legal service providers.

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