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The legal profession has a marketing problem

When I was admitted to the Minnesota bar on May 5, 2017, the then-president of the Minnesota State Bar Association spoke about the “canary in the coal mine” phenomenon of individuals who can afford to hire legal counsel choosing instead to “do-it-yourself”.

I remember thinking at the time that there are only a small handful of reasons why anyone chooses to DIY rather than hire a professional. It doesn’t matter if the professional is an attorney or a plumber. It seems to me that people choosing DIY over hiring a professional can be grouped into four general categories.

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In the first group are those individuals who, for purely economic reasons, must go the DIY route. For many of the individuals in this group, they’d prefer to hire a professional, but they simply do not have the means to do so.

The individuals in the second group simply prefer to do things for themselves whenever possible. Perhaps they take pride in being self-sufficient. Perhaps they’re naturally curious and looking for a challenge. For these folks, hiring a professional means admitting to themselves they couldn’t do something or figure something out. There’s an element of pride at stake here. 

The third group is populated by individuals who are reluctant to hire any professional for reasons of frugality. At the risk of perpetuating a stereotype, individuals in this group are determined to get more than what they pay for. “Never pay retail” may well be their battle cry.

The last group and the one I’m really focused on in this post are those individuals who either don’t see the value a professional brings to a task or, while recognizing the superior results produced by a professional, simply believe the superior result is not worth the dollars charged by the professional.

Therein lies the legal profession’s marketing problem. As an industry, we in the legal profession have done a horrible job communicating with the general public the value we create for our clients.

For good or bad, the internet has become a widely used reference tool. Every day, millions of global users access the internet to search for information on a host of queries. Sophisticated internet users recognize that information gleaned from websites is only as reliable as the source from which it was retrieved.

When I was young, the Saint Paul Pioneer Press published “Rooftop O’Toole”, a comic strip drawn by a couple of local artists. For some reason, one of the strips I read, when I was young, stuck with me to this day. I’ve looked but have not been able to find the actual strip. In essence, one of the young characters was told by her father not to believe everything she reads. In response, she stated, “But Dad, you told me all of man’s knowledge is contained in books.” In the final panel, her father simply replied “True, but so is most of man’s ignorance.”

So it is with the internet. Instant access to humanity’s ever-burgeoning store of knowledge, along with access to humanity’s ignorance, bigotry, stupidity, and hatred.

Most people would not consider removing their own appendix. Moviegoers cringed when Tom Hanks’ character in Cast Away removed his own tooth. The thought of an adult cutting his or her own hair is generally the set up to a punchline or a late-night sight gag.

There is great value for most people in avoiding physical pain. For most people who have medical insurance, they are generally shielded from experiencing the full economic pain associated with major surgery. There is also great perceived value for most adults in looking presentable in public, particularly at work.

Marketing works by helping people understand the value proposition offered by the marketer. The benefits of using a product or service are presented as more important and more valuable to the purchaser than the dollars used to purchase the product or service. The benefits can be tangible or, more likely, psychological.

Lawyers, in general, do a poor job of communicating their value proposition. Many lawyers’ marketing efforts focus on the lawyers or the firms themselves. Effective marketing focuses on the individual customer’s needs.

As an industry, the legal profession has done an abysmal job of communicating to society what the profession does and why it's important. To be fair, I don’t think there’s been any industry-wide attempt at public education about the role of the legal profession in society. In the resulting vacuum, the only voices that are heard are those complaining about legal fees, crooked lawyers, and the technicalities about which lawyers will argue incessantly.

Remember that last group of people mentioned above? The ones who don’t see the value in hiring a professional. These are the legal industry’s lost clients. These are the ones the industry should be educating regarding how costly a mistake made by a DIYer can be. The person who drafts his own will won’t be around when a defect in the will is found and subsequently litigated. The partners starting a new company who either don’t have a partnership agreement or simply use the one they found online, often live to regret that choice when the partnership goes sour.

It is often stated by lawyers that it costs more to fix a problem than it would have to properly address it in the first place.

I’ll leave you with this final thought. Twenty years ago, when I was in graduate school working on my MBA, the story which informed this Office Depot commercial was popular among speakers at seminars. 

Also, check out the second video! I found it while searching for the first one. It's quite funny!