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Can the Legal Industry adapt to the realities of the 21st century?

What’s wrong with the current state of the legal services industry, and how adopting a client-first, tech-enabled approach can benefit legal practitioners.

In a world where the internet is dominated by giants like Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Apple — users come to expect only the best from their products or services.

Low-Cost Solutions. 

Sleek, Intuitive Design.

Overnight Shipping. 

However, not all products or services have been touched by technology yet. Consumer-facing industries like retail may have been, however the more traditional spaces - Legal Services for one - still feel quite outdated. 

How does the Legal Services industry fare in the 21st century?

Legal services are currently one of the main pillars of our society, and have remained quite conservative. Big firms, who employ hundreds of people, and manage relatively few accounts, move rather slowly, and are hesitant to change.

Any evolution that occurs here, usually happens when their clients insist on adapting to the new world, or when other firms gain an edge by using new, more advanced technological tools. No one wants to be last.

Smaller practices, sometimes only consisting of one or two lawyers, employ fewer administrative staff, and have less resources. These firms spend the bulk of their time, energy, and money on marketing, pursuing new clients, and building relationships with other lawyers to tap into a referral network of leads. 

Smaller firms and solo practitioners have the flexibility to try new technology and client management techniques. Yet they often admit to still not quite understand what’s out there, or how to use it.

Many are hesitant to digitize their workflows by putting all their work in the virtual environment. And sharing thoughts and opinions on social media in order to connect with potential customers seems just downright scary to a lot of legal practitioners. 

Is there really no reason to change?

On the inside, the legal industry seems to be quite content. Lawyers and solo practitioners work long hours to address their clients’ legal needs, while making good money in the process. 

Governments and regulatory organizations are supervising the whole process, maintaining the stability of the system, and ensuring that the legal services industry doesn’t turn into a wild west. 

Everything seems to make sense. 

Yet, the industry overall finds itself at the wide and growing disconnect with the actual market: the consumers of legal services.

More and more clients wish lawyers were a little bit less like “Symantec” and a little bit more like “Amazon”. 

Fighting the perception

The common perception of lawyers by their clients can be summed up with one word: unapproachable. 

An unnecessary 3-piece suit, intimidating jargon, and jaw-dropping hourly rates north of $300/hr make it very difficult for a single mom trying to receive child support payments, or a small restaurant owner fighting a greedy landlord, to relate. 

Building trust with potential clients is a bedrock of any lawyer’s success. Yet many legal practitioners unintentionally do the exact opposite: by failing to open up, show their human side, and become more approachable. 

Need for better client experience

Then there is a whole process of being a client, which is rarely an enjoyable experience.

Lawyers’ calendars are filled with commitments and their staff exists to gate-keep them from the outside world. Instead of feeling valued, clients have a hard time getting in touch with their lawyer. Many of them disappear for weeks or months without a trace, leaving clients hanging.  

Old school lawyers are also very slow to change the mode of communication. When interaction between a client and a lawyer does happen, it usually occurs in a very outdated manner. Plenty of times documents and forms need to be faxed, printed, hand-signed, and mailed back, despite various tech tools available on the market to make that process easier.

What can be done to change the situation?

In order to fix the problem, we first need to identify what’s causing it.

Source of unhappiness

It doesn’t take a private investigator to pin-point what makes clients so utterly unhappy. 

A quick search for legal services on Yelp and browsing some of the negative reviews reveals that many clients perceive that lawyers charge too much (unexpected legal fees are notoriously common in this industry), take too long to complete basic tasks like completing and filing the paperwork, and don’t seem to be too concerned with the outcome of their work at large, once the client leaves the door. 

Of course, it is not to say that all lawyers are alike. Every industry’s got its bad apples. 

Many of them went to law school because they genuinely wanted to do good and to positively impact the community around them. 

What’s surprising is that the same regulatory bodies that are terrified of the technology to disrupt the good work that traditional lawyers are doing, are also the ones that are turning their blind eye towards poor client experience, or sometimes outright negligence, that many consumers of legal services are forced to endure.

Perhaps, instead of running away from technology, regulators should embrace it. In many cases, it brought ultimate transparency and efficiency to industries that adopted it. 

The case for technology to save the legal industry

The airline industry has reinvented itself when it adopted an online booking system. Similarly, financial markets have been fully automated with the introduction of digital exchange and clearing mechanisms. 

Legal Industry can follow the same footsteps in order to make it more consumer-friendly. 

Uber drivers, for example, are required to maintain a score of 4.6 or higher, in order to continue providing rides. Similarly, the legal system can benefit from having a public track record, where each client interaction affects a lawyer's professional score. 

In cases where that score dips below industry-accepted standard, practitioners of legal services may be required to pay a penalty, take on additional training, or even to suspend their practice. 

Price transparency

Similarly, breaking down the real cost and being transparent about how lawyers price their services needs to become more of a norm. Common, uncomplicated matters, such as an uncontested divorce or an immigration application, that follow specific predetermined procedures, should be priced accordingly. Taking the time to explain pricing to clients or moving towards unbundled prices can be a step forward towards transparency.

Just because a lawyer refuses to adopt technology to make themselves more efficient, doesn’t mean that the client needs to bear that cost. 

Firms and practitioners who adopt client-first approach, and make use of technology to provide services better, will win the race. As with many other industries, the market will dictate who is going to come out on top, and who’s going to fade away.

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