The Reason that Nobody Likes Lawyers (and Why You Should Care)
Written by Andrew Brown
To read the second part of this article, click here
Death, taxes and hating lawyers; the certainties of life.
Everyone gets a good laugh from a lawyer joke. If hating lawyers was a religion, wars would end and the hungry would be fed. Everybody hates lawyers.
This feeling spans political leaning, race, religion and economic background. A good lawyer joke can bring harmony to the masses. But why?
I think about it often because I am a lawyer and I confront it frequently. I wish my profession was better perceived, but I don’t begrudge anyone for it because I know why.
Most lawyers think about it too. The negative public perception of lawyers and the profession’s navel-gazing on what to do about it is studied in law school; we talk about professional responsibility and access to justice, but we’re not exactly moving the needle on improving perception – the jokes are getting better.
Recently, a Hamilton Law Association (HLA) member survey identified that the public perception of lawyers is a priority for the members. In response to this priority, the President, in a membership journal, listed all the charities and community causes that the Board of Trustees has supported (basically every charity in Hamilton and beyond) and suggested that we, as lawyers, need to be more public about our community work. The conclusion, I’m guessing, is that this knowledge would somehow change the public’s perception.
Lawyers indeed volunteer, donate their money and skills to our communities and give invaluable service in the name of benevolence. Unfortunately, giving back does not a good person make. Organized crime, banks and oil companies all donate plenty of money and we don’t think very highly of them either.
I’m not saying that lawyers contribute to the community solely for the marketing because they don’t. The point is that good deeds have not and will not change the public perception because that’s not the problem. It’s not a matter of the public not recognizing lawyers for community service. The response by the HLA President misses the point and unfortunately is emblematic of the problem.
The image problem has 100% to do with the services and products being sold. In short, the vast majority of legal services offered and purchased don’t do anything to improve people’s lives.
If you ever think about the legal services that are being sold to you (or that you’ve ever bought), you could probably only identify two types:
1) Conflict Services: services that are purchased to resolve a conflict in our lives (i.e. services that are inherently negative and destructive); or,
2) Retail Services: services that have been commodified into valueless transactions (i.e. someone you need to hire to close your real estate deal).
For Conflict lawyers, they can’t avoid the reality that they make money off of other people’s problems. For Retail Services, the lawyer has become nothing more than a “necessary evil”; just a cost to pay to get something done.
These two dominant models are not exactly likeable.
So, if the legal profession is so concerned about their image, why aren’t they selling the public something that they’ll like? Something that might actually improve their lives? The answer is uncomfortably simple for the profession:
The Conflict Services that lawyers sell you are the services that come with a big price tag. In any economic model, when there is a lot of money to be made selling a particular type of service and there’s a lot of demand for it, there is little incentive to sell anything else. In this context, the negative perception of lawyers is best understood as a side effect of the dominant economic paradigm at work in the legal industry.
Let’s consider these conflict services sold by lawyers (some call it ‘advocacy’, but we all know it as ‘litigation’). These are the most lucrative and prevalent of every type of legal service that is out there. At its core, this is the most contentious and negative legal service that a consumer can purchase. These are legal services purchased to resolve a conflict and a significant amount of these conflicts will end up in the court system. The consumer may ‘win’ or get a result close to what they wanted, but the reality is, they were in a fight, and we all know being in a fight sucks. They’re stressful, wasteful, disrespectful, invasive, and expensive.
Despite its overwhelming negativity, consumers spend more dollars on conflict legal services than any other type of legal service. People who purchase these services rarely feel positive about their purchase. Instead, they are in a negative space spending money on lawyers in a situation where someone else (frequently someone the consumer used to have a good relationship with) is spending money on lawyers to stop them from getting what they want.
Is it shocking people have a negative perception of lawyers? This is not a happy time in the consumer’s purchasing life. This is not something the consumer will look back fondly on – it’s going to be something they want to forget.
However, despite people hating lawyers, people keep buying conflict resolution services and spending a lot of their time and money on them.
Because people continue to be in situations where they need these services.
Is it inevitable that people will continue to find themselves in situations where they need to buy the most negative and most expensive type of legal services? Are conflict lawyers just responding to demands in the market or is something else at play?
“Legal conflict is inevitable. There’s nothing you can do about it. That’s why so much is spent on conflict and why most lawyers in private practice sell conflict services.”
That may be the conclusion that conflict lawyers would want you to believe, but it’s not the reality.
The reality is lawyers are motivated by self interest and there is no economic benefit to them making non-conflict services available or educating the market on (gasp!) services that actually make people’s lives better.
This is sad and at the heart of why people don’t like lawyers.
Think about it. Lawyers do well when people have problems. That’s where the money is: People have problems, lawyers make money. People have big problems, lawyers make big money. People have small problems, but want to have a big fight about it, lawyers make big money.
This model works best when people are ignored until they have a problem. Wait for folks to fall off the cliff and be at the bottom to “help”. Lawyers are deserving of being loathed.
Of course, not all lawyers are conflict lawyers.
You may be thinking, “Well – what about the lawyer with the shingle hanging out on Main Street? He doesn’t do any court work and he’s a really nice guy. This must be the type of legal services that help people before they have a problem.”
Not so fast.
Retail legal services are the second most available legal service that people purchase. This is the type of service that a lot of consumers would describe as a “necessary evil”. It’s my view that, although certainly not as destructive as conflict services, the retail model is equally to blame for the negative perception of lawyers.
Retail legal services are sold in all of our communities. They primarily sell uncontentious legal services. Real estate transactions, wills and estates, small business, maybe some divorce/separation work. These businesses are primarily focused on transactions.
You want a Will? You make an appointment and tell the lawyer what you want.
You’re selling your home? Give the lawyer’s name to your real estate agent after the contract is signed so the lawyer can ‘close the deal’.
My experience with this model is that it is transaction first, advice second (if at all). People are primarily paying because they want or need something done, they’re not buying information, advice or guidance on how to do something.
This business depends on transactions and it’s all about volume. Retail services rely on word of mouth and the marketing of their products is often limited to competing on price for their ‘bread and butter’ transactions. These lawyers just want to get you in the door because you need something done and they’ll charge you what most other lawyers are charging (or cheaper) and they’ll try to do that as much as possible.
It’s highly leveraged, meaning, the less time and effort spent on these transactions by the lawyer, the better. On a real estate transaction, maybe no time and effort is spent by the lawyer in order to ‘just get it done’. After all, people aren’t paying for guidance and advice, they’re paying to get something done.
The commodification of legal services doing nothing for the negative perception. If the market doesn’t really know what lawyers are doing, all they know is they’re paying a lawyer because they have to – there’s no perceived value there.
Although the commodification of legal services is not in and of itself a problem, this type of legal service actually works to create the conditions on which conflict lawyers can thrive. The real problem with the retail model is that it favours the transaction itself over the advice. As a result, the consumer is not informed or advised about further opportunities or risks associated with the transaction or its broader impact on their life.
A consumer who pays a lawyer only to complete a transaction should not be surprised when they need to buy conflict legal services down the road.
Economically, maybe that’s by design. It helps keep a demand for future sales; one leads to another.
The negative perception of lawyers is but a side effect of the extremely narrow range of legal services offered by lawyers. People who purchase conflict legal services will feel that lawyers are profiting from their misfortune. People who purchase retail legal services will feel that they are paying someone to do something that they could do themselves just as easily.
Despite all of the hand-wringing amongst lawyers about the way they are perceived, it appears lawyers simply don’t care enough about their image problem to change the way they do business. It’s just too lucrative.
More broadly, these dominant models offered by lawyers has a far more significant consequence.
It means that people and communities are perceiving legal problems in their lives as inevitable instead of manageable. It means that individuals and communities are feeling powerless instead of empowered. It means that individuals and communities are experiencing conflict as an overwhelming negative event instead of an experience which contains forces for constructive change.
The reality is that in almost every legal interaction and conflict there are steps that could have been taken to prevent a problem entirely or to mitigate its impact on individuals and communities. If more lawyers worked with people to identify steps they could take to maximize on opportunities and to prepare for problems down the road, the perception of lawyers would change. Lawyers would no longer profit from people’s misery. Instead, they would profit from people’s success.
The law is not just about problems and transactions. It’s about life. Your interactions with the law are not just events; they are ever present and exist at all times. Every relationship you have and every decision about the things you own impacts your legal health.
We should demand more from our lawyers. And until they start offering an alternative to the conflict or retail models, we all should be laughing at a good lawyer joke.