From the time that I graduated law school until I opened my own law practice, I researched and pondered the way to develop a law practice that fits the modern era and makes the legal profession more accessible to everyone. My vision of what it means to be a lawyer has always extended beyond the courtroom.
Throughout law school, we are taught in broad terms about the role of lawyer as legal counselor and adviser. In court, the judge refers to lawyers as "counselor" and lawyers refer to each other as "counsel." When we speak with clients, we give them legal advice based on our research and knowledge and counsel them on the legal issues at play.
What puzzles me is that, while attorneys are taught and trained how to be a legal counselor and adviser, we see ourselves and the public only knows us as "lawyers as litigators" - defending and bringing lawsuits in the courtroom. To me, that is like only going to see a doctor when you need surgery. Courtroom attorneys and surgeons are equally important, but, unlike the medical profession, the legal profession has notably limited itself in what it provides to and how it interacts with the public. As a natural consequence, people are hesitant to see lawyers, or even consider that they have a legal problem, because they think that lawyers cost too much and only handle lawsuits.
Because we as attorneys are reluctant to make systemic changes to the way we practice law and bill for our services, we are becoming a last resort, at best, and irrelevant at worst. Laws change slowly, and for good reason, too, but, I argue, the practice of law must not change slowly if it is to be useful and relevant in the long-term.
How the Medical Field is Getting it Right
To exemplify what exactly I mean, I am going to explore what the medical profession has done to modernize its model to change with society. Before someone even gets to the point where they are being wheeled into surgery, there are a series of important, discrete intermediate steps.
First and foremost, they see the doctor for an annual physical, or because they think they have a cold. The doctor is a general practitioner who, more or less, examines the patient, gathers information about their general health and lifestyle, and makes a recommendation. General practitioners provide a variety of medical advice, such as preventative measures, tips on how to live a healthy life, treatments for less severe conditions (such as a mild cold or flu), and recommendations for "next steps" (i.e., "See me or give me a call in a week if you're still not feeling well").
If the patient is seeing the doctor because they are sick, and it is not something that the general practitioner "specializes in," then he or she refers the patient to a specialist who practices in that sub-field. From there, the specialist may recommend surgery, so the individual will have tests done and then consult a surgeon.
What I see as the glaring opportunity for the legal profession to catch up to the medical field is the continuum of legal services. A patient doesn't go straight to the surgeon or the specialist. The progression from initial doctor's visit to specialist to surgeon is broken up into discrete steps. Each stage is important and there is more transparency, predictability, and affordability in the medical model than there is in the legal profession. Seeing a general practitioner costs less than does seeing a specialist, which costs less than seeing a surgeon. In some cases, seeing a general practitioner regularly postpones or negates the possible need to have surgery or see a specialist.
Where The Legal Profession Is Getting It Wrong
To catch up and modernize its practices, the legal profession must revive (or create) the role of lawyer as legal counselor and adviser. The public would benefit from having legal services broken up into affordable, transparent, and "demystified" stages. Instead of only seeing a lawyer when you were sued yesterday or need to file a lawsuit in an hour, why not seek out the legal advice of an attorney before you need "surgery" (so to speak)? Wouldn't it be great if you could afford to see an attorney to research your legal options or handle a discrete portion of your case? I argue it's not only possible, but it's something that the legal profession needs to do in order to effectively serve the public and survive.
Under the old model of the practice of law, the public is limited to the initial consultation with the attorney and hiring the attorney to handle the entire case. The old model of the initial consultation limits the quality and quantity of any advice that an attorney can give to someone. In most cases, it's either all or nothing. Combine that with the increasingly archaic model of high-priced hourly billing, it's no wonder why people resort to muddling through it themselves or using online one-size fits all legal self-help services. While both of those options can result in a positive or "good enough" outcome, I think that the legal profession can, and should, make systemic changes to better serve the public.
If the legal profession operated more like the medical profession, people would be able to hire a licensed attorney to serve as their legal adviser and counselor to help them through and advise them during the situation - all without committing to more services than they need or paying a bill they didn't expect for a price they can't afford.
To accomplish this, I propose a general framework for how the legal profession can revamp and modernize the way it functions and serves the public.
The Solution: Redefining the Role of Legal Adviser and Counselor to Serve the Public
Many times, people who see lawyers have problems that are nuanced, but the individual does not hire the attorney to fully investigate their situation. The initial consultation is the beginning and end of the relationship. My suspicion based on my own reasoning and based on articles that I have read is that the reasons people are not hiring attorneys to investigate their legal situation is because (1) they only want to hire an attorney if they need to sue or are being sued, (2) attorneys charge too much, so it would be more cost effective to wait until it's "absolutely needed," and (3) attorneys have not branded themselves as legal advisers and counselors to the public.
As far as reason (1), I will reiterate my point above regarding the medical profession: people typically don't always wait to seek medical help until they need surgery, so the legal profession needs to expand its services to others and encourage (by offering incentives) people to hire lawyers before they need "surgery" (i.e., to sue or defend a lawsuit). Essentially, attorneys need to work to invite people to use their legal services, not scare them away with opaque billing practices and "big ticket" legal services. In my own practice, I am attempting to achieve this goal by spreading awareness (such as by writing this piece) and developing a responsive practice model that uses lessons from other fields to modernize the practice of law.
Reason (2) is historically valid, which is why I have personally developed a new pricing model that I hope will encourage people to seek out an attorney to be their legal adviser and counselor. I aim to accomplish this by trying to be a bit more user-friendly and modern in how I bill for legal services, and what legal services I provide. Basically, I tried to develop pricing models that I would be comfortable paying. My tiered pricing options are tailored to fit the situation and clients have more flexibility in choosing what legal services they would like, with the benefit of a little peace of mind when it comes to what they will be charged and what they will receive in return.
Reason (3) is a more nuanced problem to address and will take time and effort from multiple players. In developing my own practice, I seek to create a personal brand that embraces the big picture and the continuum of legal services. To facilitate this, I have developed an initial consultation process that provides clarity to people with whom I meet, so they have an idea of what to expect if they hire me while they make their decision whether or not to hire me.
The legal profession has a long way to go before it catches up, but significant progress is being made by bar associations, individual attorneys, and other groups. As more research is conducted into this area, the legal profession will have a better idea and more concrete guidance on how to modernize their practice. Most importantly, I think, it is crucial for attorneys to communicate and consult with the public to understand what attorneys can and should do to better serve the public. Only people know what people need, so we need to have that conversation.
As for my own law practice, I am doing what I can to create a practice model that is adaptable, accessible, and affordable. I went to law school to practice law and to serve as legal adviser and counselor to the public. I welcome the challenges and opportunities to do just that by modernizing and demystifying how the public, and lawyers, think about the practice of law. By expanding the practice of law and changing how attorneys serve the public, we can propel our profession into the future and meet people where they are.