Why Are Lawyers So Expensive?
Updated: Feb 3, 2018
Legal problems happen. Many of us may have already found ourselves faced with a legal issue or will face one in the future. Sometimes it is hard to spot a legal problem until it becomes too late. As our world gets increasingly regulated and complex, our interaction with the law and legal authorities will only increase. Despite this, many people hesitate to contact a lawyer or believe they cannot afford one when conflict arises. Both outcomes are unfortunate and lead to further problems down the road.
The high cost of legal services discourages people from involving a lawyer early in their dispute when doing so would save them time, money and headaches later on.
Today’s lawyer has become so expensive that many people are left deciding between hiring a lawyer to protect their interests or continue without any representation at all. This is a decision no one should have to make.
The unaffordability of legal services has been a known problem for years. The issue was picked up by the Supreme Court of Canada in the decision Hryniak v. Mauldin, 2014 SCC 7:
Ensuring access to justice is the greatest challenge to the rule of law in Canada today. Trials have become increasingly expensive … Most Canadians cannot afford to sue when they are wronged or defend themselves when they are sued, and cannot afford to go to trial. Without an effective and accessible means of enforcing rights, the rule of law is threatened.
Lawyers are partly to blame for the unaffordability of legal services. Unlike other businesses, many lawyers have not innovated to provide services in ways that bring about the type of value customers care about. It’s time to change.
Offering cost-effective legal services requires a change in mentality and culture. This starts with accepting uncomfortable realities. One reality is that the traditional hourly billing model does not work for clients. Billing on an hourly basis ignores the important fact that not every hour is equal. Time spent sending a routine email is not the same as time spent arguing for a client in court. While that email may be necessary to the client’s file, this type of work is simply not something that adds value to the client’s desired outcome. Lawyers fail to appreciate the disconnect between these tasks and the client’s solution.
The traditional billable hour also creates tension in the lawyer-client relationship.
It encourages lawyers to spend more time on files and financially rewards lawyers the longer the matter takes to resolve. In short, time spent is valued over the outcome achieved. When this happens, the client feels that he or she does not get sufficient value from their lawyer.
Clients come to lawyers to get a result. That result must guide lawyers on how they charge their clients and measure their clients’ success. Unfortunately, many lawyers bill around the process, not the result. In most cases, the legal process is complex and time-consuming. It is no surprise then, that this becomes reflected in the client’s legal bills. However, the process is our problem, not the client's. Lawyers must find ways to make processes efficient, not profit off their inefficiencies.
To use one of my favourite analogies - customers do not buy a drill for the sake of buying a drill; they buy a drill to drill a hole. Similarly, clients do not hire lawyers for the sake of hiring a lawyer; they hire a lawyer to solve a problem. It’s time for lawyers to focus on the hole, not the drill. By working backwards from the client’s solution, lawyers can better service their customers and price services to align with their clients' objectives. This will be the starting point for making legal services affordable and truly valuable to the clients we serve.
Sam A. Presvelos