A New Solo’s View on the Value of Lawyers

tortoise & hareIn my new favorite short story book, One More Thing: Stories And Other Stories, B.J Novack tells the story of The Rematch between the tortoise and the hare.  It’s a great vignette, and in the retelling of the story, the hare actually wins.

The hare wins because he realized that he had been arrogant about his talent in the first race.  He took it for granted and showed off by taking naps during the race.

This time the hare respects his gifts and prepares to do his best.  He demonstrates and communicates his value – his talent, work ethic, and determination – to his community.  And as a result, he confirms what everyone already knows, the hare is supposed to win.

This story got me thinking a lot about lawyers and value especially after reading this SPU post.  As lawyers, we are supposed to win too.  We work hard and handle the issues that no one else wants to deal with.   Despite this, we are losing the race considering the number of lawyers that are unemployed, underpaid, or unhappy.

I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that most of us are terrible at communicating our value. It’s not something we’re taught to do in law school, and I think we shy away from it because it feels a bit like tooting your own horn.

Instead, we rely on the reputation of our profession.  We are lawyers.  We know stuff.  We have the degrees to prove it.  So we hang out a shingle that says “Attorney-At-Law,” and think that says it all.

The problem with this thinking is that it’s a bit arrogant.  Today’s clients are much more sophisticated than we assume.  They know stuff too and believe they can solve their legal problems with the help of Google and Legal Zoom.  Why should they pay a lawyer $1000 for a contract when they can buy a template for $100?

I was confronted with this issue recently.  A friend and business owner asked me why lawyers were charging so much when there are companies doing legal work for much less.  Instead of hitting him with the standard reasons like we are detail-oriented, analytical, excellent researchers, have actual litigation skills, etc. (all very true by the way), I thought about it a little more and explained this:

First and foremost, lawyers cut through all the fluff and find the real issue.  I know this sounds simple, but it’s certainly not easy.  How many times has someone called you about a legal concern, and they end up telling you this long, 60-minute diatribe about everything including the kitchen sink.  It ends with the person exhausted and perhaps, in tears.  You ask a few pointed questions and, in 60 seconds or less, diagnose the problem in one simple sentence like, “looks like you have a potential negligence claim.”

The ability to identify the actual problem saves time, money, and adds immeasurable value.  It’s similar to a visiting a doctor.  A client can go in and explain the symptoms.  She may even have done a little research online, but it’s the doctor’s diagnose that puts her on the road to a cure and recovery.  A lawyer’s legal diagnosis is just like that, and it’s worth its weight in gold.

The second reason we can charge a premium is our ability to account for variables.  As we know, every situation is a little different from the next, and what may be important for one client is unnecessary for another.  Templates from the Internet can’t account for those differences.  And they certainly don’t know how to respond to a judge when she asks a challenging question.  Our rigorous legal training gives us the ability to call upon sound legal reasoning at any time.  Therefore, we can bend and shape our arguments, contracts, letters, strategies, phone conversations, whatever, to meet the demands of that moment and that client.  And that’s certainly worth the premium fee.

So the next time someone questions your value as a lawyer, remember this, “slow and steady wins the race, till truth and talent claim their place” – B.J. Novack.

The truth is that we, as lawyers, add immeasurable value to any situation, and like the hare, we are meant to win.  We just have to look up from our work long enough to communicate that value and stop taking our talents for granted.

What are you thoughts on our value as lawyers?  How can we go about communicating that value to the clients of today?  Let’s chat in the comments below.

All opinions, advice, and experiences of guest bloggers/columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, practices or experiences of Solo Practice University®.

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4 comments on “A New Solo’s View on the Value of Lawyers

  • Very well-written and thought out essay. We as lawyers need to be craft the balance of being humble and having respect for ourselves as professionals. Toya brings out great points that every young lawyer deals with in an age where free information is everywhere and free advice is given out like a grand opening giveaway. As Toya points out we can all be successful by respecting our clients and giving them an intelligent answer to their questions as opposed to standard industry fluff.

    Great job.

  • Thank you for your thoughtful comment Chirag. As lawyers, we beat ourselves up so much, but we are hares, damn it. We work hard. We have to start communicating our value if we are to thrive.

  • I think I disagree with you a little when it comes to the reason so many lawyers are unhappy, unemployed and/or underpaid. I don’t think it is poor communication of value.

    I think it is a poor understanding of what it is a lawyer is supposed to do.

    Lawyers aren’t supposed to provide legal services – they are supposed to solve problems. What sucks for lawyers now is that what used to be a $1000 problem is now a $100 problem thanks to the internet. In fact, the lifting of the veil has hurt our earning capacity.

    Another issue you didn’t really touch on but is just as pervasive is the race to the bottom for many attorneys. Avvo and related sites have made it possible for someone to get real advice from a real attorney for as little as $30.

    Many attorneys believe the way to compete with that is to charge $29, or to wait until some sucker comes into their office that will pay $1000 when they could have gotten the same advice for much cheaper across the street.

    Instead, one should focus on the value provided to the client. For example, I would have asked your friend, who asked why you were so expensive, what his contract concerned. Assuming he said something relatively important and highly valued, I would have put my services in that context.

    “Are you willing to spend $100 to protect your business from a $100,000 problem or spend $1000 with me and rest easy knowing you got the greatest amount of coverage you can have?”

    It’s an interesting issue. Thank you for raising it.


    Christopher Small

  • the great thing you share. as a lawyer we have some respect and have some social value. it’s true that many of the lawyers are taking huge fees from the client and don’t working well. this was very bad reputation for all the acting lawyers.

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