The end of inevitability

If you want an example of how the legal profession likely will respond to new competitors and a future marketplace very different than today’s, take a look at how Canada’s real estate agents are coping with change in their market. (Short answer: not well). The Globe & Mail reports on a rising wave of sell-it-yourself home realty, prompted by both Canada’s Competition Bureau and its intention to deprive Realtors of their near-monopoly as well as technological advances that allow people to buy and sell homes without professional assistance. Realtors — and this might sound familiar — have responded by fighting the Bureau’s efforts to open the market, scaring homeowners with the dangers of proceeding without professional assistance, and confidently predicting that these amateurs’ mistakes will simply produce more work for Realtors in the end. A few excerpts:

The letter, which comes from the Nova Scotia Association of Realtors, warns homeowners that they are “accepting with open arms increased risk of liability, threats to you and your family’s safety. Realtors protect you and your family from any ill-intended strangers that will come in to your home under the pretense of wanting to buy,” the letter advises, before it goes on to warn of lower sale prices and longer sale times. …

Jim Carragher insists a lot of his new business comes from private sales gone bad. “I’m telling you that it is so terribly sad when I get that phone call at the 11th hour from someone who was trying to sell their home who suddenly realizes they have made a terrible mistake,” he says. “Their deal falls through, they already bought something unconditionally. I try to help, but I tell you sometimes it’s just too late to undo the damage.”

Nonetheless, as the article explains, sell-it-yourself realty continues to grow, in part because the times are passing Realtors by. Read this excerpt from the article (and change “real estate agent” to “lawyer” throughout): Real estate agents … tend to be middle aged or older, and growing out of touch with a younger generation that prefers online options and is more comfortable with the idea of private sales than their parents would have been. “These kids aren’t going to use an agent,” he says. “That’s just the way this is going. The agents are older and the buyers are younger, and they’ve had the Internet their whole lives.”

Lawyers also are under regulatory pressure (in England & Wales through the Legal Services Act, in Canada by the Competition Bureau, and the Missouri lawyers suing LegalZoom for the unauthorized practice of law better hope their suit doesn’t produce the wrong kind of finding). But still we resist new competition through UPL restrictions, we seem to regard technology as a nuisance more than a service facilitator, we routinely warn clients of the dangers of going it alone, and we maintain (patronizingly) that we always end up fixing the messes left by unrepresented clients. And like Realtors, we remain amazingly confident, even smug, about our indispensability. I once sat through a focus session in which lawyers, asked what would happen if laws and their practitioners disappeared, solemnly predicted that anarchy and blood in the streets would follow.

The one thing that concerns me most, as an observer of the extraordinary change in this marketplace, is that the majority of the profession has no idea what’s coming. Most of the lawyers with whom I’ve dealt over the past several years simply can’t envision a world where lawyers aren’t considered essential to the social and economic fabric. They might recognize that times are tougher and costs are rising and prices have topped out and clients are more demanding. They might be resentfully aware that providers outside the profession are entering the market with lower-price offerings, and they might grudgingly accept that technology allows things to be done faster and cheaper than they used to be. But they’re not putting it all together. They’re not following this road to its conclusion, because they can’t really see how the world could get along without us. The inevitability of lawyers is our fundamental precept, and it has become a mental block.

It’s this sense of inevitability that we need to shake to pieces, because it seems to lie at the heart of the profession’s blasé attitude towards change. Lawyers are far too complacent for the circumstances we’re facing, maintaining a sense of privilege born from decades of profitable work in a protected environment. I’m not trying to persuade anyone that lawyers will disappear (although I’m no longer prepared to discount that possibility 100%), but rather to help lawyers understand that we face an immediate mandate of transformation in order to remain relevant to and valued by the marketplace. We can’t charge according to our time and effort anymore. We can’t use a model that sets our financial interests in opposition to our clients’  anymore. We can’t tell our clients who may and may not offer them legal services anymore. We can’t serve the market on our unilateral terms anymore. Many lawyers don’t believe any of those things, and very few lawyers believe all of them. But I believe them all to be true, and I’m not the only one.

The plight of Canadian Realtors probably matters little to us — in fact, to the extent we hear about changes in the real estate marketplace that increase consumer choice and lower prices, we’re probably cheering on the trust-busters and the innovators. It doesn’t seem to occur to us that we’re as vulnerable as they were — just as secure in our monopoly, just as highly rewarded for our efforts, just as dismissive of the potential power of the market. The inevitability of lawyers might once have been a fact. But now it’s fiction, one that’s sustained in our minds but less often in anyone else’s. The sooner we abandon that fiction, the better our chances of responding in time to survive in some recognizable and profitable form. And it has to be soon. Lawyers should know better than anyone else what a ticking clock sounds like.



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