Primary Legal Care—The New General Practice

What if I told you that there was a legal practice area that was almost entirely unserved and especially appropriate for solos and small firms? What if I told you that this legal practice area also has low startup costs and does not need deep expertise?

Welcome to Primary Legal Care, a new way to practice old-fashioned law. I have a group of people who pay me to be their attorney. In exchange, I remain available to them to deal with their everyday legal problems.

The current legal system is set up to serve corporations, so individuals have a hard time getting legal services.

In the United States, we see lawyers without clients and people without access to legal services. This seems to indicate a failure in how we deliver services. A lot of work has centered around affordability, but I think we will not be able to serve most people unless we rethink our monolithic business model.

The Cravath model for law firms dates back to 1819 and it still controls the basics of most legal business. Experienced partners with specialty practices hire and train associate attorneys in their practice areas, and serve the needs of corporations. It is successful because it works, but it works best for its target market—large corporations.

While our systems are largely set up for specific high-dollar large volume legal work, other opportunities exist. Regular people often want access to legal advice, but we have created structural barriers to this kind of business, scoffing at it as “cocktail party law.” It isn’t surprising that a lot of legal products have popped up to try to serve a market we have scorned.

We, as a profession, make hiring us hard. Finding an attorney who can address your issue is not a simple task. Even if you can afford to go to a large comprehensive firm, that firm might be conflicted out of the engagement. If you try to find a specialist, you have to know what kind of law your problem falls under. We end up asking clients to partially diagnose their own problem and understand the arcane divisions between kinds of legal practice.

We need a business model that makes serving people economically viable.

Lots of people are trying to solve this problem with technology, but I don’t think the problem is, at its root, technical. I think we need a business model that lets us effectively meet the everyday legal needs of ordinary people. Once we have that, technology can help, but fundamentally we must have a service delivery model that works for ordinary people and for lawyers.

I started my practice after helping my wife though her name and gender marker change. It is a process that involves a lot of small legal questions, form filling, and dealing with courts. I wondered what people who didn’t have access to a lawyer were supposed to do when confronted with this kind of problem. Issues that are too small to justify the heavy lift of hiring an attorney, but still really benefit from legal advice, are an untapped market that I set out to tap.

Let me start off by admitting I didn’t get it right at first. I offered a flat fee general consultation. It didn’t generate enough business, but I thought I would let it grow. Then someone who had been a client had a scary thing happen, and they hesitated to contact me. I realized that I had been selling the wrong thing. Like many lawyers, I set out to sell my services when what I needed to sell was the relationship.

People are willing to pay for access to legal advice, and availability retainers make serving them economically feasible.

In trying to figure out how to set up a firm that focused on meeting individual people’s legal needs, I went back to the future and rediscovered the old-fashioned availability retainer. This is a key tool that lets me capture the value of having an attorney-client relationship. My clients, used to the idea from Patreon and similar services, understand that I charge them each month for continuing the relationship, and they pay it happily to keep a lawyer on call if something goes wrong.

I couple this with the most controversial part of my legal practice. When clients use my services, I give them an opportunity to tip. It changes the dynamics. I’m saying if I offer you value, share with me. I let clients determine the value, and I have made a lot more this way. It makes people less reluctant to use my services, and it gives me an earnest evaluation of the value of my work. Clients often see far more value in what I offer than I do.

Law has fractured into many niches, and “door law” (a practice that takes whatever walks in the door) is often thought of as a second-class ticket to malpractice. As a result, we have lost sight of the value of a legal generalist. Most of the time, my clients need a quick answer from a broad perspective to move forward. By having a good idea of what is a serious issue and what isn’t, I can help them steer clear of problems, and develop the kind of relationship where when I tell them they need a legal specialist, they listen. I cannot be an expert in everything, but not everything needs an expert.

The core value in this practice is the attorney-client relationship, so communities become specialty areas.

Lawyers have moved to selling legal work, but I think this misses much of the real value of the attorney-client relationship. Once I understood that what I was selling was a relationship, much of the existing advice I was giving fell very short and seemed obviously flawed. When you need a lawyer, it usually isn’t a good time in your life. I’ve optimized my practice to act as a security device for my clients. Things go wrong, and when things go really wrong, you need someone immediately. That’s what my clients pay for, and because they are paying for it, they are not reluctant to call.

My practice centers on the queer community and on single-person businesses. This lets me focus my marketing, capitalize on word of mouth, and most importantly, enjoy my work. As primary legal care becomes more common, I expect to see practice niches develop for a lot of different kind of communities, such as language communities, food truck owner-operators, and parents of special needs children.

This is a practice that you can feel good about.

While some people go to law school hoping to do complex mergers and acquisitions work, many of us went to school with a dream of helping people with legal problems. Primary care law is the kind of law many of us dreamed of practicing. The kind where you get to help people and be their attorney. It is a practice where people say thank you.

About the Author

HallMelissa Hall is an attorney and the founder of Smol Law, a primary legal care practice in Seattle. Contact her at Melissa@smol-law.com.

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