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It struck me, at the end of a recent strategy team day, that the word ‘honesty’ had inserted itself on flip charts and peppered our discussions, alongside the usual suspects of ‘trust’ and ‘vision’. Honesty towards clients, colleagues, legal peers in other firms and with oneself.
Examples in everyday family law practice were identified and dissected over drinks and pastries. We categorised honesty as a condition of existence that bound us as individuals and as a professional collective, lending an existential heft to the day’s deliberations. We tackled fundamental questions touching upon the identity and purpose of a modern legal practice. Honesty required we venture into uncomfortable territory. Let me reprise that journey.
There are forces at play in legal services that are challenging common conceptions of the value solicitors offer their clients and society. We have a regulatory focus that champions consumer choice and promotes price transparency. Arguably, the regulatory narrative on price closes down the space for a focus on value. At the same time, advances in AI and machine learning have introduced anxiety about the automation of certain processes for which solicitors still charge clients. The confluence of these pressures should concentrate our minds and become an opportunity for a candid, unflinching introspection.
Our team set out its stall in 2011 to promote dispute resolution alternatives to the family court. This was our proposition. But did we, as a team of solicitors really deliver on this? If we accepted our approach delivered better outcomes for embattled family law clients could it survive the hard reality of the need to generate revenue from our activities? You don’t need a spreadsheet to know that a client who wants their day in court will generate significantly more income than one who takes up your suggestion of mediation.
And what about the family law departments who set targets for issued proceedings each year? A more fundamentally dishonest and less client-centric practice is hard to imagine. So, we concluded, the appropriate dispute resolution option is the one that gives clients the best chance of a positive outcome, not the one likely to deliver greater revenue for our firm.
Of course we are run as a business which needs to generate revenue. But should this be the defining objective? Each year we divert around 15% of the clients who want to instruct us to a family consultant because we think they need to see a counsellor rather than a lawyer. We know that if clients can work to reduce the anger, grief or shock dominating their outlook, that they will be more open to exploring dispute resolution options – less likely to find themselves in a court process.
We know that this is the better thing, the honest course of action. But what other business would turn away customers willing to pay them? Commercially, it gets worse. When we do secure clients we often challenge their instructions – especially if children’s welfare is adversely affected. If a client gets the hump, which some do, we may get the sack, a formal complaint and on the wrong end of a social media comment or Google review. Dispiriting. But that is where honesty takes us.
And so to the next question: what are we really selling to our clients? The answer is not legal services. It is not professionalism – whatever that means.
An honest answer can only come from being deeply curious about what our clients seek from us and the extent to which we fall short. Family law clients risk losing relationships, trust, intimacy, health, housing, capital, income and most of all, certainty. It is a profound personal dislocation – a shattering of foundations.
If this is accurate then our sincerely held sales pitch would be: ‘We will salve the pain of your loss and social exclusion. Come and belong to our tribe’. We will align our interests with yours. Together, we will imagine a better future and then deliver it.
Technology, like regulatory pressure, will force the profession to examine its value offering to clients. If the essence of a family law firm is the promise of a safe haven, a highly trained, highly skilled arm around the shoulder in a time of extremis, then we have a future. We recognise the value of that human touch and are not afraid of deploying technology to tackle inefficiency, archaic charging practices or professional self-delusion. Honesty, at a time of flux, can be its own reward.
Originally published in the January 2019 issue of Solicitors Journal.