Thursday, January 07, 2010

Do You Know What Lawyers Do?

(Thanks to rutty)

When I lived in the East End of London, I acted as a kind of bush lawyer for my neighbours. All sorts of problems came up: how to keep disability benefits going; how to get a new license for a pub; how to deal with a stolen credit card; and what to do when a decree nisi hadn't been converted into a decree absolute with the result no benefits could be claimed.

All of these people avoided going to lawyers. Lawyers were expensive, remote, and alien. I wasn't.

So when the Legal Services Board published research recently with the headline:

68% of Consumers Have "Little or No Knowledge" of What Lawyers Do

I wasn't surprised. (Hat tip to Charon QC.)

According to the LSB's research more than 60% of respondents had used legal services, and 53% of them within the past 5 years. Did they shop around for the right lawyer? No. Only 14% did that. The purchase of legal services appears to be crisis buying rather than pleasure-based purchasing.

Of course, the above applies mainly to individual consumers rather than business users. Having said that I should modify this statement because small and medium enterprises (SMEs) do have difficulty in finding appropriate and cheap legal services. This is why groups such as the Federation of Small Businesses run legal advice schemes for their members.

The basic problem with most research in this area is that our definitions of legal needs are fuzzy and imperfect. Early studies by the American Bar Foundation showed that the public only obtained legal services for a small proportion of their legal needs. Indeed, a widely-quoted paper on the life histories of disputes, for example, showed that the most common form of dispute resolution is "lumping it".

Bert Kritzer looked at the studies on legal needs in a 2008 paper, Examining the Real Demand for Legal Services. He identified the main problem as a lack of clear baseline data. We need to survey the entire population. There are indications in the extant research (in the US) that cost is not the determinative factor in the use of legal services, but rather lack of knowledge.

Lack of knowledge comes in two forms. First, there is the lack of understanding that a problem might have a legal aspect, eg. stopping of welfare benefits. Second, there is a lack of knowing that a lawyer might be able to help in this situation.

It is these types of knowledge deficits that open opportunities for ambulance chasers, debt consolidators, and claims handling companies who are eager to prise money out of clients than solving their problems.

Lawyers are to blame if consumers don't understand what they do. Despite changes in legal procedure the abandonment of legal Latin (in the UK), the major growth is in the use of ombudsmen and other informal resolution procedures. Institutions that don't require the intercession of lawyers.

And this is where Tesco Law will make its impact. With simplicity, ease of use, friendly representatives, transparent costings, extended opening hours, ready communication, and a firm quality control.

At the moment most lawyers haven't a clue how to respond to that and that is assuming they are aware there is a problem.

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