We’ve all heard the rumors and reports about how the legal industry is changing. Online legal service providers are growing rapidly, billable hours are dying, client acquisition costs are soaring, social media is revolutionizing marketing, and on and on.
Change is inevitable. But the legal industry is on the verge of a complete overhaul from one major trend that has already reshaped many other aspects of our daily lives. That trend is our greater appreciation of, and expectation for, transparency.
Transparency – A Force for Improvement
What do I mean by transparency? I mean openness. I mean ease of communication. I mean free-flowing, instantly accessible information.
Technology has completely transformed the public outlook on the sharing and accessibility of information, even on personal privacy. Just look at Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, Snapchat, Yelp…so much personal information, so many updates, photos, and videos from our private lives, all being openly shared. When you think about that, it becomes immediately clear just how much we have come to accept and appreciate transparency.
This free sharing and openness causes discomfort for some people, but transparency is actually a force that drives improvement over time. Think about the web before Facebook: no transparency, a lot more shady activity going on. Now, we can see which of our friends ‘like’ the websites and pages we visit to determine if they’re trustworthy. We can instantly get credible insights into new services both on and offline from our newsfeeds. The transparency Facebook creates is powerful stuff, and the openness keeps everyone honest and forces us all to strive to be better. Transparency allows us to see things more clearly, and therefore requires us to have greater awareness of ourselves.
So we now see that transparency is the norm, but what does it have to do with the legal industry?
The Effects of Transparency on the Legal Industry
The legal industry is always slow to embrace change, but if you look closely, transparency has already begun creeping in, gradually encroaching on the industry’s longstanding practices and traditions and creating change. And it seems as though these changes are only just beginning to take shape. In order to understand how transparency will transform the legal industry forever, it’s best to begin looking at the changes that have already begun.
First, we can look at the transparency emerging around legal knowledge. Legal knowledge is highly specialized, and it used to take even the best lawyers years of school and a lot of “practice” before they could really grasp it and share it with others. But with sites like Quora, Avvo, and Nolo, there is now a wealth of knowledge being produced and shared about the law and legal services. Information that was once reserved only for practicing lawyers is now accessible to the general public, for free. This transparency allows people to get answers to a lot of their basic legal questions without ever interacting with a lawyer. Certainly a significant aspect of the transformation.
The next area where transparency is making change is in the availability of information about legal service providers. Sites like Lawyers.com and Avvo are leading the way, building databases of lawyers organized by state and practice area and aggregating reviews from clients and others in the legal industry. This information is beneficial for the legal industry because, much like Yelp does for restaurants, it gives us insight into the quality of service providers and allows for better consumer decision-making, which ultimately improves the quality of the services themselves.
The third major area where transparency is playing a role, although it has really only begun to scratch the surface, is in pricing and billing practices. Sites like Viewabill are working to bring about greater transparency in the billable hours system. Also, many legal professionals are changing the way they bill clients, from the outdated system of billable hours to more progressive approaches like menus of fixed fee services, fee caps, monthly retainers, and more. The underlying theme behind all of these approaches is transparency: people like to know exactly what they are getting and how much they are paying for it upfront.
Price transparency is huge. Sites like LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer have proven that there is a massive market for efficient, affordable legal services. The biggest thing these sites offer that most lawyers don’t is price transparency upfront. Go to LegalZoom’s website and you can easily find out what it costs to start an LLC in a matter of seconds. Now compare that to just about any business or transactional law firm’s website – see any prices there? I didn’t think so.
Because lawyers have always been in a position of power and clients have had few alternatives, lawyers have dictated their own (mostly arbitrary) prices, and those prices have been virtually free from the market forces that would otherwise drive them down. But transparency is going to change all of this. There will always be a market for the personalized attention that people are foregoing with do-it-yourself, online legal services, but until lawyers can compete by offering the same level of efficiency and price transparency, online legal service providers will continue to thrive.
These are a few good examples of they ways in which transparency is making inroads into the legal industry. We have only just begun to see the effects, but the trend toward greater transparency will continue until the market for legal services is transformed forever. While it may be uncomfortable for some lawyers to face it, transparency will ultimately change the system for the better, purging it of it’s archaic, “shady” past. Those legal professionals that will continue to succeed into the next generation will be the ones that embrace this fundamental change, and use transparency to their advantage to give consumers of legal services exactly what they are looking for. And giving the people what they want is always a recipe for success.