Bruce MacEwen has been interviewing law firms in an attempt to find one that can advise his church on a real estate issue in New York City. His experience hasn’t been good, as his account of the process shows all too clearly. Any lawyer should find it painful to read, but I wonder if the firms involved will see where they are going wrong.
To help them, Bruce concludes with a set of asymmetries that he sees in the market for legal services:
- One asymmetry is that of consequences. If the client chooses a firm that delivers a wonderful result, everyone wins; but if the chosen firm delivers a disappointing or even deleterious outcome for the client, the firm gets paid. Pretty much in full.
- The other asymmetry is one of disclosure and, to be pointed about it, candor: The client needs to tell the firm as much as honestly possible about the engagement and what the client knows, while the firm’s instinct and practice is to guard information, hedge predictions, and avoid definitive statements.
In addition, he notes that there is no real risk sharing — firms don’t have the same commitment as clients do; no account is taken of this. And there is no correlation between fees and value to the client.
Bruce concludes with a suggestion for lawyers:
If you wonder why clients are pushing back on fees and what that objectionable word “value” really means, all I can say is: You should try this for yourself some time.
This is something I have advocated for some time, but I am actually far from confident that lawyers learn much from being clients (of other firms or of other professionals). I think there are too many escape clauses, so that only the most self-aware will actually see a need to change their own behaviour. (And of course that group is more likely to be reflecting on their performance in any case.) Here are two for starters:
- Being a critical client and seeing poor service might actually lead you to think that your own performance is good by comparison. “That lawyer is terrible; I’m glad I don’t do that kind of thing.”
- If the firms in Bruce’s account recognise themselves, I suspect that they will have plenty of excuses for the answers they gave to his questions. “It’s really more complicated than he thinks. If he knew, he’d understand that we couldn’t have quoted a better price for the job.”
In reality, many lawyers are clients at various times in their careers. Firms often get other firms to advise them on major transactions — someone has act as the client in that relationship. As individuals, lawyers instruct other lawyers for personal transactions, and they may also instruct financial advisors, accountants, architects, and other professionals. With that wealth of experience being a client, how can they still deliver the kind of service that Bruce describes?
I want people to reflect on and learn from the widest range of experiences, including things that other people do and things that happen in other areas of work and life. However, I have to recognise that some people are impervious to that kind of reflection. They need much more direct feedback, of a kind that I hope Bruce gave privately to the firms he interviewed. If someone does a bad job, they may need to know why it was bad, and how it could have been better.
That said, the rest of us should learn from Bruce’s public feedback.