What clients want

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What do lawyers sell? To this day, you’ll hear a lot of lawyers say, “The only thing I have to sell is my time.” That’s the wrong answer, not only because it encourages our unhealthy fixation on hourly billing, but also because most clients prefer to pay for as little of our time as possible.

It’s also wrong to say that “lawyers sell knowledge.” We used to make a living at that, because we were virtually the only ones who had access to legal knowledge, and scarcity produces demand. We knew what there was to know and could solve the problems people pay to have solved.

But the Internet has helped make basic legal knowledge ubiquitous, non-lawyer competitors have turned intermediate legal knowledge into marketable assets, and as our cover story on information overload makes clear, advanced legal knowledge — “knowing what there is to know” — is becoming a practical impossibility. Legal knowledge, per se, is an increasingly shaky foundation upon which to build a competitive business.

So what can lawyers sell? Well, in the past few months, I’ve come across three firms (two Australian, one American) that have created online compliance and training programs for corporate clients. Employees log in and complete a series of lawyer-designed training modules that explain the legal and regulatory obligations in a given area, from employment law to corporate governance to privacy issues.

In the result, the client upgrades its employees’ competence, reduces its risk exposure, and can respond with detailed records to outside audits and reviews. The law firm earns a fee for the service while cementing its relationship with the client, and its lawyers spend their time on other value-building work rather than fielding phone inquiries or helping put out fires caused by poorly trained employees.

Doesn’t this mean the firm is billing fewer hours to the client? Why is the firm investing so much time and money in a project that will make clients rely less on lawyers? Ask these firms, and they’ll tell you: “It’s what the clients want. It allows them to meet their business needs.”

And that’s what lawyers must now sell: client empowerment. We must help clients, individual and organizational, to take greater responsibility for their legal lives — to develop “good legal habits” that prevent problems from developing. Doctors don’t just cure patients; they help them develop regimes to stay healthy in the first place. Why should lawyers be different?

Clients are ready to take more responsibility in their encounters with the law. Help them do that, and you’ll never want for work.
This post first appeared as the editorial in the October/November 2007 issue of National magazine.

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