Experts in the Media

Karen Finch – The Canberra Times

Founder and CEO of Legally Yours

How lawyers could gain more trust within society.

The results of a recent survey carried out for the Law Society of NSW showed that one in five people don’t trust lawyers. While the data may be confronting for the legal profession, I doubt most people outside of the legal industry are surprised. But why is there such a significant number of people who lack trust in lawyers?

One reason, which the same survey identified, was cost, with 66 per cent citing it as being the biggest turn-off for legal consumers. When asked whether lawyers provided value for money, only 30.4 per cent of the survey’s respondents agreed. Further, the survey found that lawyers who were perceived to be most trustworthy, were legal aid lawyers who provide either free or low-cost services to the community.

Clearly the legal profession has a problem, and many lawyers are selling something that the majority of clients don’t want – time.

When clients see a lawyer they want trusted advice, expertise, output and an outcome. Yet most lawyers continue to bill for time, and worse, provide an invoice for this time after it has been spent, meaning the client is left with little power or control over their legal spend.

There is nothing that has the potential to turn a client/lawyer relationship toxic than a client realising that every time they speak to their lawyer, or leave a voicemail, or their lawyer prints a document, they are being charged in six-minute increments.

Time-based billing means that the lawyer does not share any risk with their client nor is there any motivation for them to get a result. Why push a matter along to the next stage or phase of resolution if you can keep just billing time?

For lawyers to build back trust, they need to be better at communicating their fees and their value, and then honoring it. It might mean offering a fixed-fee or a value-based price with their client before they start working on a matter. This entails lawyers providing a free initial consultation where lawyers truly discover what their client needs and wants, and how they can deliver it, not spending 30-60 minutes talking about their own experience and expertise, and what their hourly rate is.

Lawyers need to make themselves more accessible and create more client-centric legal service offerings.

Offering virtual online consultations or providing subscription legal services or using technology to make it simpler, easier and more convenient for clients to utilise their services, is a way that the industry can create more trust in its profession.

There also needs to be more quality, free legal information shared by the legal industry which enables people with legal needs to understand how and when to engage with the legal industry and for what type of matter. Making the law easier to understand and more accessible will result in more clients trusting the profession.

But why is trust in the legal profession so important to everyone in the community?

According to an estimate from Jordan Furlong, an internationally renowned legal analyst, “up to 88 per cent of legal problems never wind up on a lawyer’s desk, make it to court, or are dealt with in any official capacity”.

This is a sobering statement.

It means that many people who have legal needs either actively choose not to access the legal industry, or worse, because of barriers such as fear, lack of transparency and cost, there is an enormous unmet need for legal services and ultimately justice.

As gatekeepers to justice, it is vitally important for everyone in society to be able to trust and access lawyers. If not, the consequences can be devastating and far reaching.

  • Karen Finch is a non-practicing lawyer and chief executive officer of Legally Yours.