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Archive for July 4th, 2012

The malignant minute
BY David Rosen, partner, Darlingtons

In these times of swift and significant change in the Legal Sector as well as Society, perhaps the best approach to be adopted by Lawyers is to think more like clients.

Historically, we Lawyers have thought of ourselves akin to other professionals such as Doctors, and whilst our training and expertise may be of similar difficulty and skill, and whilst some areas of law, family law and fraud to name but 2, involve issues as serious as many medical conditions, most clients simply do not equate Legal advice with medical advice.

To put it another way, fewer clients accept what we say or take advice in the same way as they would a Doctor’s advice.

There are a few reasons I suggest for this apparent lack of parity in importance and status:

i.    Quacks are frowned upon in the field of medicine by both practitioners and patients alike. Trust, integrity, and honesty remain intact because neither the market, or the medical profession will tolerate a dumbing down of the service they provide. Consumer sovereignty dictates that higher standards are expected in the medical profession.

ii.   Solicitors regulated by the Solicitors’ Regulation Authority, have to put up and compete with non-qualified claims handlers, licensed conveyancers, professional McKenzie friends, non-qualified legal advisors, to name but a few. This assimilation in the Legal market confuses clients. Do they go for fully qualified Lawyers and pay more for such a service, or accept someone of a non-qualified status who appears to know what they are talking about? Where is the trust? Where is the integrity? Who regulates these non-qualified practitioners? Why do qualified Lawyers tolerate a dilution of their market and service to the public? Unfortunately, because anti-competition is alive and well in the Legal market, and the perception of Consumer Sovereignty is such that consumers may go for a lower quality of legal advisor for a cheaper price. Perhaps the consumer concludes that the status of a Solcitor is meaningless, and that they consider paying any legal fees to be an affront.

A key component is managing the expectations and the importance and significance of advice given.

The relationship of solicitor and client is still founded on trust, honesty, and integrity, and this in turn involves the components of :-

1.      Capability

2.      Credibility

3.       A feeling that the person you are trusting has your best interests at heart

Many clients still take 1 & 2 above as granted, and this can be a mistake, but that is a reality. Number 3 represents the unknown “x” factor.

So, ask yourself this – how would it make you feel to be charged in 6 minute increments ?

What is your reaction when you get into a taxi and the meter starts ticking ? You know you have to pay, but you don’t begrudge paying because you are being taken from A to B. You may feel slightly anxious but you accept it will cost, but  can not help but watch as that meter ticks by and the costs increase.

Staying with the taxi driver analogy, if you are in North West London, and want to get to Heathrow Airport, you may ask for the quickest and cheapest route. The taxi driver will use his best endeavours to get you there. What if you ask to get there via Manchester? The taxi driver will protest, this is going to cost you an awful lot more Govn’r, but after all, you’re the Boss (presuming unashamedly by way of this example that he is an honest East-End boy].

Then suppose that half way to Manchester, you say, hold on, this is taking a lot longer, and costing me a fortune, the Taxi driver will protest…but you asked me to go this way, and I said…and you said…and I said…and you still need to pay me. The customer says, I am not paying for your service. This is an outrage. Why did you possibly agree with my instruction to take me via Manchester? To which the taxi driver shrugs his shoulders, and then in best London cockney fashion explodes with a number of expletives at the customer who is an oyk for being so cock-sure that despite best advice, he wanted to have it his way…

Funnily enough some parallels can be drawn between Solicitors and Taxi drivers. Should it be this way for Law? Is it as simple as going from A to B and charging a fixed price, without taking into account, obstacles such as delays, insufficent information, the way in which the other side will respond, negotiations, etc…

Clients simply do not understand why Lawyers seek to charge for every 6 minutes. It seems petty and creates a certain lack of trust and resentment from the outset. Most clients understand they have to pay and that they are getting the value of competence and experience. Lawyers who understand their clients are also getting much better at explaining why not every legal case is best dealt with on fixed fees. Litigation is inherently difficult to undertake that way.

However is it not better to say to a client? :- “We won’t charge for anything that take less than 15-20 minutes”

You may lose some costs in the short term by not charging for every phone call, short letter or email, but you gain the magic ingredient of trust, and trust is the essence of the solicitor-client relationship?

I am trying to keep an open mind, but my personal view is that if you give proper estimates of costs which takes into account various contingencies, you can not go too far wrong. I prefer to charge in 6 minute inclements, and do not consider the charging system malignant.

Charging by single minutes is a malignancy on your practice. Agree or disagree ?

David Rosen is a partner at Darlingtons and a visiting professor at Brunel University

 

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