Taking the Mystery Out of Legal Practice

I don’t know about you, but when I’m hiring a service provider, I want to know what I’m getting and how much it’s going to cost. If I’m choosing between the service provider who tells me what my problem is, how they can fix it, and what it will cost, and another provider who assures me they can fix my problem without any additional details, I’m choosing the first provider 10 times out of 10. I’m guessing most of you are nodding your head in agreement and saying something along the lines of “duh.”

Given that lawyers are service providers, why then is it so rare for lawyers to be transparent about how they will work and what their work will cost? Are our services so hard to predict and define because of the many variables that we just can’t provide clients with expectations or anticipated outcomes? Is it a deliberate effort to keep clients in the dark so that we control the delivery of the services and reduce scrutiny related to billing and inefficiency? Is it a consequence of the hourly billing model and typical attorney compensation structures? Is it a general fear of the risks that come with being transparent, namely that you might be wrong? Is it the “friction” that comes along with explaining the scope of the services in advance? Whatever the reasons, I’ve found that people generally tend not to trust attorneys, and I believe that lack of transparency is largely to blame for this and has led to many of the negative perceptions of attorneys. I think it’s time we change these negative perceptions.

To do that, we need to put ourselves in our client’s shoes and treat them as we would want to be treated. We need to help clients understand in advance what they are getting and how much it is going to cost. But many (perhaps most) clients perceive the legal services industry as a black box. Clients enter the black box with a “problem” and hope for a resolution. While in the black box, clients often don’t understand what the attorney is doing, saying or writing, and don’t have any idea what they’re going to pay for these mystery services. They’re left in the dark. What can we do to change this? I’d suggest we start by clearly defining for any client the scope of our services, that we retire legal jargon and other sources of confusion when delivering our work, and that we help our clients understand (in advance!) what it will cost.

Since the beginning, attorneys have had a monopoly on the information necessary to solve client’s problems, or at least that is how the general public perceives attorneys and their value. Attorneys also have been incentivized to keep that perception alive. When I think of this situation, I can’t help but think of the Wizard of Oz. Dorothy and her friends understood that the Wizard of Oz was their only chance to solve their problems. A great deal of mystery surrounded the wizard, and the man behind the curtain had good reason to keep this mystery alive to further preserve the perception of omnipotence. The curtain got pulled back, and we all know where the story goes from there. Similarly, in the legal industry, a certain mystery surrounds attorneys and what they do, and this mystery makes it difficult for clients to understand attorneys’ value. In recent years, information that previously only lawyers had meaningful access to has become more available and more easily accessible. The availability of this information has introduced a new concept for lawyers: Are there legitimate alternatives to hiring an attorney? And if there are, then how do I continue to persuade clients to hire me instead of using those alternatives? This means considering things like the type of client experience you offer, and how they are priced. Whether we like it or not, the curtain is being pulled back.

If clients better understood what their attorney is doing and why they’re doing it, then they can better understand the value of the attorney. When clients better understand the value of their attorney’s advice, it can be easier to build trust and serve that client more effectively. One step in building trust is to state as clearly as possible for any client exactly what you will be doing for them, and why that is better than the alternative.

When delivering the services, we also should do our best to “keep the curtain pulled back” to show the client that we are doing what we promised. We can do so by rejecting legal jargon and using plain language. A long time ago, people spoke and understood Victorian English. But those days have passed, at least for everyone except attorneys. Continuing to draft contracts and speak to clients in outdated legal jargon further adds to clients’ lack of understanding of legal services. This often leads to attorneys spending (what I would call unnecessary and avoidable) time educating clients on legalese. Clients pay for this time one way or another. This lack of understanding also often leads to unnecessary and avoidable contract and other disputes due to misinterpretations or misunderstanding of legal jargon. This too can erode trust between the attorney and client. We should be focused on drafting and speaking in clear, concise plain language—language our clients can understand.

We also should help our clients better understand our fees and invoices. Lawyers have a motive to keep clients in the dark—it allows the lawyer to bill without any meaningful check on the billing. If clients don’t understand what their lawyer is doing or how long it takes, then they can’t as easily dispute or question the lawyer’s fee. It becomes even more convoluted if the client can’t understand the invoice. Whether it’s legal jargon or just a general lack of detail in the bill, attorney invoices can be difficult to unpack.

By being transparent in your practice, particularly in billing, you can address another concern for clients that erodes trust between the client and attorney: inefficiency. To the extent a client understands what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and how long it likely will take, you are more likely to be held accountable. But more importantly, if clients understand why they are being billed and what value they received, they are more likely to trust their attorney. They will be more likely to use the attorney for future work, and more willing to work out any issues related to the perceived value of the services if outcomes don’t meet expectations. Without transparent billing practices, clients will probably eventually distrust their lawyer (even if unwarranted) and tell others about how lawyers can’t be trusted, not because that is true, but because that is often the only outlet for their dissatisfaction.

Transparency is one important step we can take as attorneys to overcome the negative perception of our profession. By being more transparent when communicating with clients and billing for our services, clients will better understand our value as attorneys and will be more likely to trust us. On a more basic level, being transparent with your clients and helping them better understand what you are doing should not be a means to an end, it is an end in and of itself. In other words, we owe our clients a duty to be transparent even without any resulting gain in trust, or any “breaking down” of negative perceptions. I hope more attorneys strive for transparency in their practice, and I hope this transparency helps change clients’ dismal view of lawyers and the legal profession.

About the Author

Gavin Johnson is a corporate, securities, and trademark attorney at InVigor Law Group, and a founder of FieldGuide, a CLE provider. Contact him at gavin@invigorlaw.com.

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