Client Relationship Manager David Reed explores the need to change the public’s perception of the legal sector.
It can be tempting to say that if you want to pull together a reasonable idea of how the average member of the public views the legal sector in general and those who practice within it in particular, then by far the quickest and easiest form of research is to Google ‘Lawyer Jokes’. Quick and easy, yes (and admittedly sometimes amusing), but somewhat more than a little depressing if you happen to be one of the lawyers in question. In certain parts of the industry there has doubtless been a degree of darkly humorous pride taken in the lack of regard which the role of lawyer seems to be held in. Probably battling it out with estate agents and tabloid journalists for the coveted spot labelled ‘Not quite as bad as MP’s’. Whilst the villain is usually the most interesting character in the average blockbuster. However, this is real life, not Hollywood, and the mistrust of the legal sector threatens to damage more than simply the egos of those who work within it. It runs the risk of alienating the people who need it most from accessing the support that could help them with the kind of legal problems which can present in the personal, professional or commercial life of anyone.
It isn’t necessary to simply rely on anecdotal evidence or Google one-liners to put together a case for the general mistrust of the legal profession. NewLaw Journal recently published the results of a poll taken amongst members of the general public and those who worked within the profession itself, and the results made for bleak reading for any lawyers who want to reach out to clients within an atmosphere of shared trust and mutually understood aims.
According to the poll, less than one in five UK residents agree with the proposition that the legal system is ‘fair and transparent’, whilst over 50% feel it is inaccessible.
Recent changes in the provision of legal aid have doubtless helped to fuel the view, amongst more than two thirds of the public, that wealth plays a larger role in accessing justice than used to be the case. Perhaps more tellingly, particularly for anyone who might feel that this is an uninformed view coloured by media coverage, is the shocking fact that 87% of legal professionals have the same opinion of the role which being wealthy now plays in gaining access to the law. The sheer range of cases which were taken outside the scope of legal aid by the 2012 Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act – from housing and debt matters to a swathe of family cases, most medical negligence cases and almost all employment cases. This means that the perception of a wealth imbalance within the system is one which can hardly be denied, and it is also one which even the most diligent of legal practitioners will find hard to counter.
The other findings of the survey, however, represent areas which can and must be addressed by those working within the law. 76% of the public felt that access to and understanding of the law would be improved by a simplification of the technical language used by lawyers and 71% felt that more education would help, with 69% feeling that an understanding of the law should be taught in schools. The last two figures, tellingly, were more or less matched in the survey of those working within the legal professions. It is this point which places the most responsibility in the hands of lawyers themselves. Whilst issues of legal aid provision and general education are matters to be decided by legislators, the relationship between lawyers and their clients, and the discourse which passes between the two groups, are both things which the lawyers themselves and the firms they work for are responsible for tackling above and beyond anyone else.
This is what drives the way that MBLS approach the work we do for our clients. It should be used as the underpinning for a wholesale change in the way in which the legal professions relate to those who access them, a change which will be focussed upon transparency, partnership and shared aims. For too long, the traditional view of law firms is that they have existed as much for their own benefit and that of the people working for them, as for that of their clients. Our approach puts the needs of the clients at the front and centre of everything which is done, beginning with the development of a genuine partnership and moving on through services which are provided in a transparent and easily understood manner. This transparency runs through everything from the description of the problems identified and the help being offered, to a form of fixed billing which allows client and lawyer alike to concentrate on the matter in hand rather than seeing everything through the prism of the hourly fees being racked up.
The first step in this process must involve a genuine and in-depth understanding of exactly what it is that the client requires. In many cases, of course, thinking once more of the problems of legal language, the client may not be able to explain precisely what their needs are, and it will rest upon the skill and sympathy of the lawyer to interrogate the situation in such a way as to get to the heart of the matter. The client/lawyer relationship is all too often one marked by sharp inequality, with the lawyer taking the role of a somewhat imperious guide through a landscape the client can never hope to navigate alone. The new approach needed will be one in which the journey is taken in tandem, with the lawyer, for example, seeking solutions for business clients which place their commercial needs at the heart of everything that is done. All too often, lawyers attack every issue from a sharply delineated legal perspective and trust to the client to use the advice in a manner which is commercially or personally applicable once the partnership between them has ended. Under this new approach, the partnership doesn’t end, and consists of two sides both working towards the same aim, one in which legal matters are only ever part of the bigger picture.
The use of fixed fee arrangements, as offered by MBLS, rather than the tradition of hourly billing, is one which will play a huge part in allowing these more fruitful partnerships to emerge. Far too often, clients who may be honestly baffled or worry that advice which is legally correct might clash with their other concerns, have felt constrained in their questioning by the sense that the meter is always running. By removing this aspect, the possibility of a genuine two way dialogue begins to open up.
The structure of the law firm itself is another aspect which will play a role in revolutionising the manner in which legal help is provided. The traditional frameworks, and in particular the pressure engendered by the constant focus on the highest possible number of hours billed, created an atmosphere within which many of the most talented people – the very individuals able to offer the new kind of approach being outlined here – felt alienated and even driven from the profession. By treating the lawyers delivering the work with the respect and care which they, in turn, would be expected to pass on to their clients, firms which take a new approach will find themselves building teams of individuals dedicated to becoming a vital part of the life of the clients they work for, rather than simply acting as temporary guns for hire. In this manner, a virtuous circle will be created, one in which the client feels full confidence in the lawyer working with them, and is then able to pass this confidence on to their own associates, stakeholders and investors.