Attorney Trey Wilson - RL Wilson Law

13 April 2016

Breaking Conventions with Lofty Expectations -- the New Consumer of Legal Services

I recently returned from a seminar called Lawyernomics. It is presented annually by legal directory company Avvo (tagline: Legal. Easier). I believe this year was the 7th installation of the seminar, but it was my first attending.  

Avvo is one of those newer (founded in 2006), west coast (based in Seattle) enterprises founded by former tech company hotshots who made a name (and presumably a bundle of money) for themselves in the legal department of other (non-legal) internet services companies. It was a start-up, but has now launched a national TV commercial campaign, so it is fair to say that Avvo has arrived in the theater of general public relevance.   

Admittedly, I admire the Avvo founders' entrepreneurship, and applaud anybody who can make a profitable career in law without struggling with the many pitfalls that come in the form of clients, other lawyers, judges, cashflow problems, deadlines, and never-ending stress.  I do, however, struggle with understanding Avvo's exact business model, and whether it intends to be consumer-oriented, lawyer-oriented, or simply a broker that brings the two together and gets paid a fee by one or both (think eHarmony with a legal slant).  Others are equally confounded, and Avvo has certainly drawn its share of critics, including Avvowatch, whose members seem to be particularly upset with the CEO. 

All in all, the seminar was good (at some times excellent), and I gleaned some very valuable information and perspective. The theme was "The New Legal Consumer," and the lawyer-attendees were treated to a wealth of information about: 1) what potential clients are looking for when they go online to look for lawyers; 2) what these consumers already know and are likely to do with the lawyer websites their searches return; and 3) how to cater to their "modern" consumer desires.

Much of the information was backed by statistics and what appears to be thorough research (though I'm unsure whether it has been peer-reviewed or put through any of the rigors of the "gatekeeper" test for admissibility under Havner and/or Daubert).  

The resounding narrative of the presentations was that modern consumers of legal services (i.e potential clients) are sophisticated, knowledgeable, independent, "informed/connected/picky," and prefer their legal services to be: "simple, mobile, On-demand" and utilitarian to a "Do It Yourself" approach to solving legal problems.  

In a nutshell, they (in my words) desire a quick, remote, inexpensive and limited/defined interaction with a lawyer vetted by them in advance.  

As I wondered about how legitimate this analysis consumer desires was, my Facebook newsfeed hit me with somewhat correlative proof in the form of an "Open Letter from Millennials to the Real Estate Industry." It states, in relevant part: 
Everything I buy is on-demand. Running out of soap? Amazon will have it here tomorrow. Need a ride? There is an Uber around the corner. Wondering which country has the highest coffee consumption per person? My phone can tell me instantly. If I want to watch my favorite TV show I don’t wait for a marathon or even go buy the DVD. I expect it to stream on any device, at any time for minimal cost to me. My life is built around efficiency and convenience. Keep in mind that most of us can’t even remember a time before we had cell phones permanently within arms reach.
WOW, I thought, maybe there is something to this "new consumer."  And boy are they demanding...  

Both during the seminar, and for the few days since,  I've kept thinking that this all sounds so inherently un-personal. Kinda like Lawyer = Uber driver, being someone you converse with on a very temporary  superficial level as they provide you with an on-demand service. 

Truth be told, at 43, I'm just old enough (Gen X) to not like the concept of the "new consumer" who wants to order fixed price, bundled, on-demand legal services off of a "menu."  I don't like it one bit.

The romanticized lawyers of my youth were trusted advisors and friends; principled advocates for a cause  (Lt. Daniel Kafee; Atticus Finch; Jake Brigance), and sometimes even family (Tom Hagan, Consigliere). True life lawyers such as the OJ Simpson defense team also acted as collaborators with their clients.  Most importantly, I frequently describe my own practice as "relationship-driven," and many clients have become good friends with who I socialize. I have represented several of them for a decade or more.  

It is difficult to fathom basing my law practice on selling legal forms online, offering "quick answers" through online chats with internet tire-kickers, or furnishing legal advice on Facebook for the person who wants a DIY solution.  But, if this is truly what the "new legal consumer" desires, many lawyers -- particularly young ones or those in saturated and competitive practice areas -- will be forced to offer services in that format or starve. 

I recognize the validity of giving the consumer the product (in this case the product is legal service) they want. But, with any luck at all, I'll be able to maintain my "look you in the eye and tell it like it is" approach to getting and keeping  clients who trust me to "do what it takes" to get the results they need without churning the fees. After all, it has worked for almost 20 years, and I enjoy few things more than an "old" client contacting me years later for something "new." 

Trey Wilson --Named By Scene in SA Magazine As One of San Antonio's Best Real Estate Litigation Attorneys -- September 2008 -- As voted on by peers