The drafting of this article has been a brief but most interesting journey for me.
I have previously written several articles and have been fortunate enough to have a couple published by Family Law Online (LexisNexis). However, like most astute writers, I am aware that this is a journey of development and progress. I dread to tear away even the corner of my first article, for fear of the criticism I would level at myself. The motivation to be able to assist those who feel ‘lost’ in the legal mire of their problems has often been my motivation. Perhaps this is why the majority of my articles are driven by the need to explain procedures and processes, in order to enable individuals who are not in a financial position to seek legal advice to begin to understand the legal aspects of the issues they face.
When approached to write an article about the family solicitors, with emphasis on the perceptions of a family law solicitor, it really got me thinking. I must point out that three pages in, I realised my keen approach needed to be reigned in. The topic itself is seemingly endless. Therefore, I do not consider this article to be comprehensive by any stretch of the imagination. I more prefer to look at it as the initial musings of my mind.
The motivation for my musing was not through any perceived complexity with respect to the subject at hand. It was more in relation to me yet again wrestling the question that has long been the gauge for me continuing within this respected profession.
The question of whether or not I am making a difference?
There is a view, that the cold realities of this profession will dampen the spirit of newly qualified professionals to the extent that their drive to make a difference is extinguished and replaced by an approach that is considered somewhat ‘arrogant, disinterested or unapproachable’. The choice of words is sadly intentional. These are the words used to describe legal professionals in the conclusion of research by the Legal Services Board. Oh and not to mention the additional descriptor of ‘intimidating’.
I will not go into the numerous variables that exist and can be used as a basis to challenge this research, be that from either the consumers perspective or the legal professionals perspective. This, in my humble opinion, would be an exercise in futility. I personally feel that even if a small percentage of legal consumers share this view, it is within the interest of all legal professionals to be self-critical and adapt accordingly. I mean our legal sector is long championed, rightly so, for its the progressive approach. I mean you may disagree with me but take homosexuality for example. The progress in terms of this is championed and of course, evidences the legal sector adapting and developing to better serve the needs of society. Therefore, the legal sector must continue to take on board the criticism and where relevant adapt accordingly. I do take on board that it is not an easy feat maintaining a competitive career in law whilst striving to meet the expectations of consumers. There is often very little thanks for all of the hard work undertaken for the sole benefit of our clients. Nevertheless, it is a career that we have chosen and our tough resolve is part of the reason why we should be able to ‘take this on the chin’ and move forth. In any event, fruitless battling against this view would be commercial suicide. It is, after all, our prospective client base that is raising the concerns – so from this perspective, there is no debate to be had.
I personally am not offended by applicable criticism being leveled and consider that as legal professionals, we must be strong enough to face the same and adapt accordingly. In fact, coming from a profession that requires critical analysis, I consider the blossoming of any real consideration for fundamental change, is spurred by the seeds of some negative dissenting voices. The negative voices cannot merely be shunned on the basis that they hold no value at all. This would be sheer folly and inaccurate.
If you were to undertake a rudimentary search online, you would not be hard pressed to find a ‘newsworthy’ article about purported issues ‘concerning’ issues within the legal sector. I do not deny that some stories carry merit and are important in holding individuals and organizations to account. However, it would be remiss of me not to point out, that for every purported ‘horror story’ of poor service, there are innumerable untold stories of excellent legal services being provided. I guess, sadly, this is the way of the world and news will only tend to rise to the top if it is attention-grabbing and thereby considered ‘newsworthy’.
I now let my mind wander to another aspect of the legal sector that has a substantial impact on the issue of perception. This being the approach of legal professionals to the different individuals that they can come across in the legal consumer market. I will digress a little to make my point.
I can only speak for myself. I was personally driven to the legal sector through incredible frustration and the need to make a change for others who also felt lost and suffered similar circumstances. I was brought up in a poor single-parent family, with my parent, through no real choice of her own, immigrating from South Asia at a young age. The prospects for me were low to state the least. On a day to day basis, I would see my parent and family struggle with matters and it would seem to me that either the matters were in the majority extremely complex or individuals in positions of authorities would often be presenting them as being such. I have grown to be more mindful of the bureaucracy of our time. Nevertheless, It was an unenviable position of constant lack of understanding, feeling inadequate and burdensome. This would sometimes be teamed with a sense of superiority from individuals in positions of power coming across as arrogant, disinterested and merely paper shuffling to move the perceived headache from one person to the next. This frustration fuelled my desire to progress a career in law and more importantly has allowed me to build up the attitude that there is no aspect of knowledge (be that law or otherwise) that I cannot master given the time, resources and training.
Therefore, I consider, my approach has been amended on the basis of my personal experiences and more importantly, this has allowed me to engage and relate to clients regardless of their background. The point is that we, as legal representatives, cannot approach every client in the same manner. I mean, is it then any wonder why some would refer to us as ‘robotic’. No, it is not. The sense of wonderment should be replaced with the sense that some legal professionals need to learn to adapt to the different clients they face. The progressive changes in the population mean that the legal sector and the legal professionals must adapt to providing legal services to a very much diverse legal consumer market.
It is said that Albert Einstein, stated: “…insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results…”. In my humble opinion, at times, the legal sector has been awfully slow in developing and progressing with the modern age or catering to the diverse populations’ needs. This has alienated a substantial portion of legal consumers and promoted the growth of specialist firms providing services to specific communities. In term of developing and progressing, we can take the example of the tremendous advances in the technology sector - which are unparalleled. I do not by any means expect that the legal sector should be developing at the same pace, this would be unachievable and risk the very foundations of what makes our legal system so great. However, it cannot be denied that the legal sector has somewhat lost touch with the legal consumer market. It is with a certain sense of ignorance, the legal sector, in the majority, has continued the same traditionalist approach relentlessly believing, perhaps with a tinge of arrogance, that the consumers will continue to grow unabated. This may have been the case for the larger firms, often referred to as the ‘magic circle’ firms, who had the support of substantial marketing budgets to maintain their reputation and client base accordingly. However, even they are not immune to competition and have many ‘smaller’ specialist firms now popping up and providing stiff commercial competition. If you do not have the budget to compete with such firms then you are facing an uphill battle to compete for the remainder of the legal consumer market. Therefore, amending our approach is a must and not an option. The average modern legal consumer is now very different from the consumer that would have been furnished with legal services through the traditional approach. The legal sectors traditionalist approach means they have lost touch with the legal sector and alienated a substantial portion of consumers. Thereby, the legal profession must adapt their approach and move with the times.
The negative perceptions
The negative perceptions of a solicitor are wide-ranging and for reasons of brevity, I have restricted myself to my considerations above. In considering the above, I believe it imperative that a modern approach by firm encompasses them having a more humanistic client-focused approach. This means adapting and not speaking to all clients with the traditionalist ‘I will sound very formal and use complex language’ approach. This is more often than not to fulfill the dated perception of how a legal representative should conduct themselves. It is not out of the realms of possibility to approach clients in a more humane, considerate and caring manner, whilst continuing to remain just as informative and valuable. We must make efforts to break down these barriers and thereby forge long-term relationships. I do not need to explain the positive commercial outcomes this approach would derive.
The area of family law, in particular, is often dealing with some of the most difficult times that individuals and their families can face. It would, in my view, be illogical to approach clients with the traditionalist approach and would be a great disservice to them. It is part of our role to ensure that we can support the clients through the process and perhaps then fight the view that we are ‘disinterested or unapproachable’. I have long shunned a ‘robotic approach’ to providing legal services and I consider now that the legal sector is receiving some comeuppance for the manner in which legal services have been provided to date. The consumer market is giving feedback and no surprise… it is not good. If you are an individual well versed in the legal sector, it would be highly unlikely that you can deny ever coming across individuals and firms that operate in this manner. This ‘cold’ approach has clearly left much of the legal sector finding legal professionals to be arrogant and intimidating. It is not rocket science for the legal sector to take such concerns on board and amend the working culture and approach to clients accordingly.
I point out at this stage, whilst hearing the faint rumblings of a well-known dinosaur movie theme song, the progress of modernisation of technology has been slow within the legal sector. There are strides now being taken but they are belated and the legal sector is playing ‘catch-up’ as opposed to ‘leading the way’.
The expectations of consumers, in this highly competitive and modern market, are vast and to some considered unachievable. I beg to differ. This is a misconception. In fact, it is a challenge to progress an approach that is tailored and thereby suited to the expectations of the market. If we think about it, legal professionals do this on a daily basis with clients. Therefore, it is not unfathomable that we cannot impress this developed approach to the current market. The increase in competition, due to major changes in respect of developing legal businesses, has fuelled the desire for consumers to seek a competitive market whereby they can get the most service for the least possible expense. Is it not just the case that the cream of the legal representation will rise to the top?
Further, it is not difficult for firms and legal professionals to take more of an initiative in engaging with this modern legal consumer audience by way of exercising the use of modern technologies and mediums. I do not deny marketing is extremely challenging, especially in a saturated market, however, this simply means that firms need to become more creative in the methods by which they engage with consumers. It is noted that more and more legal professionals are now understanding the importance of social media. This after the years of some attempting to disregard the importance of the same. I do note, whilst bewildered, that some still strangely consider that this form of marketing is a ‘slow burner’. I consider they are very much missing the larger long term picture.
The legal professionals expanding on their use of social media should be aware of the commercial productivity it can derive. The engagement with social media is currently more restricted to legal professionals as opposed to the firm themselves. The engagement with social media by firms is the main very much traditionalist and robotic. I do note and appreciate the concern, held by many legal professionals, of ‘what if I say the wrong thing?’ This is a sad reality. I note some intelligent, funny and charismatic legal professionals, in fact, mask the details of themselves and instead use pseudonyms on-line. This is sad. I appreciate the need for obvious diplomacy when approaching issues on-line but I do not think that we must behave like ‘robots’ for fear of inflicting damage to a career that we have worked intensively for. The legal sector must balance this fine line and engage and relate with clients in a much better manner. Listening to their staff who currently engage with social media, may be a good start. This in itself is a topic I could write about at length. I will not. I will finish this point by stating that it is very important that people can express themselves in a more approachable manner and thereby allow consumers to relate to them and bridge this gap.
Therefore, the above ramblings aside, the perceptions of solicitors vary and depend upon the looking glass you choose to adopt and the experiences you have received from specific legal professionals. It is not appropriate to refer to all legal professionals as intimidating, arrogant, disinterested or unapproachable. This would do a grave injustice to the vast majority who are anything but this. Nevertheless, taking on board the concerns, I consider that legal professionals can do much to ensure that the perceptions of them are not ill-conceived, unsuitable or inappropriate. This can be through understanding the criticism leveled and adapting with a modern approach.This could perhaps then assist a great deal in changing the public’s perception of legal professionals.
In my view, I am attracted to an employer who is well aware of these matters and have found solace in my current role as the Head of a Family Department. I have seen the results that can be derived from engaging with the legal consumer market through the various mediums of social media. The various platforms have their own distinct advantages, benefits and are more readily utilised by specific communities seeking legal representation. This approach has led to me working with a diverse range of individuals from various countries, backgrounds, cultures, and religions. In such circumstances, the diverse and wide-ranging staff is necessary to be able to engage with such a client base and this is something that can only be for the good of the legal sector. It is for this reason that I champion a very much client-focused approach which treats clients as humans and not commercial commodities. This approach has ensured that our clients can relate to us, the matters progress more smoothly, communication is more effective and returning clients or client recommendations increase. The simple fact is that caring and relating to clients derives better results overall.
With the client's interests at the forefront of the mind, the commercial benefits simply follow thereafter.