Taking Private Legal Services in for a Tune-Up

Taking Private Legal Services in for a Tune-Up

I have absolutely no interest or capacity in car mechanics. Long ago, when I could barely afford to fill my car with gas, I shamelessly cultivated friendships with mechanically handy friends in order to avoid any hands-on responsibility for “fixing” anything or, as a last resort, to provide me with a skilled intermediary if I had to take my vehicle in to a garage for some work.

Despite this, I am embarrassed to report that I often listen to the legendary “Car Talk” show on National Public Radio (aka Click and Clack the Tappet Brothers: www.cartalk.com). Two brothers dispense advice to callers who are for the most part almost as clueless as I. Amidst the endless punning and other jocularity there is a compelling consumer service model.


A modern consumer model for car owners

The brothers usually advise the caller on either:

  • What they need to say to a skilled mechanic to ensure that they give attention to the right issue and present as a knowledgeable consumer, rather than someone with “I’m clueless, help me” or even “rip-me-off” written all over them
  • What they might be able, with direction, to do by or for themselves or
  • When to make an economic decision to give up on the vehicle altogether.

The formula here is a mixture of self-help and the informed purchase of professional assistance. What is rather remarkable about the brothers is how well they seem to be able to wrinkle out minimal but important personal information in the course of a 3-4 minute conversation to help callers make decisions that match their needs and priorities. I recommend young lawyers interested in learning skills not taught them at law school – how to approach the essence of a new clients’ needs as quickly but as authentically as possible – to listen in to their approach.


Car mechanics and private legal services

I thought about Click and Clack as I read a comment from Robert Harvie on my blog this week. Rob uses a garage analogy to some effect to describe the coaching model of legal services for SRLs that I have been writing about (and which we are now experimenting with in Windsor and Toronto). He compares the traditional summary advice model with a coaching model thus:

“My concern with the advice clinic model is that it is like taking your car into a shop and having the mechanic examine it, ask you some questions, and then tell you what needs to be fixed, and possibly even how to fix it. You walk out with a better understanding, perhaps, but the conversation passes so quickly and the learning curve is so steep that you’re not likely to really be able to fix your car on your own, notwithstanding great advice.

The coaching model offers something new and better. You work on your car, you pay for some advice or some added tool… and then you go back, when needed, to get more advice – as often or as little as you want or can reasonably afford. You have the same lawyer, so you don’t have to start over again, but – the lawyer is only taking you as far as you want, or can afford – you control the rate and amount of service.”

Sounds like the Tappet Brothers.


Keeping the car running versus unmet legal needs?

OK, I can already hear the sharp intake of breath. Admittedly the unmet legal needs of vast numbers of Canadians are not the same as needing your car fixed. Legal issues sometimes involve issues of huge significance – family relationships, financial solvency, security of work, protection from bias and unfair treatment.

But, having your car running properly is pretty important to many Canadians also – especially outside cities with public transport systems.

One morning during the fieldwork phase of this project, Sue and I watched and listened to a debate among registry staff at a small courthouse. The Old Guard (staff with many decades of service among them) complained that sometimes people came to the counter saying they were representing themselves because they could not afford a lawyer, yet they had seen them pull into the courthouse parking lot in a big new SUV. As one of the older ladies expressed the opinion that they should sell the SUV and use the money to pay for a lawyer, her Old Guard colleagues nodded in agreement.

Sitting across the table from them, the Young Turks (younger staff who had been hired in the last five years or so) burst out laughing. People don’t do that kind of thing anymore! They see their car – even a luxury model – as an essential – and certainly more important, more under their personal control, and representing better value-for-money than paying for a lawyer.

So maybe it is less obvious to non-lawyers of this generation than it is to lawyers of any generation that their “unmet legal needs” are so much more significant and important than having a car that runs well and does what you want it to?


Enabling the organic evolution of legal services?

The Car Talk model and the approach that I took long ago when I could not afford to pay for anything other than life support care for my car reflect an evolving pragmatism unconstrained by concerns such as “the unauthorized practice of car mechanics”.

Of course there is a licensing model for car mechanics, but it does not prevent amateur fix-its working on their vehicles, nor those of their friends, nor do licensed mechanics (usually) get huffy and send a client away if s/he admits to working on their car themselves, or says that a friend advised them differently.

If private legal services were able to evolve in the same unconstrained way as the delivery of car repair services, perhaps we would see some models emerging that are more responsive to SRLs than the present full representation/ billable hours/ retainer model (and moving forward Action Step #3 which is our focus this month).

At private legal services were released from just some of the constraints that make its evolution and adaptation to the needs of SRLs so difficult (regulation by the legal profession, aggressive defence of “turf” from para-legals, lack of legal education on alternative billing structures and service models, and the pressure to conform and keep things the way they are or risk being branded an “outlier”) we might see some a number of interesting consumer service models emerging.

They would be diverse, there would be contention and debate, and some would be more popular with the profession and the public than others – but it would be the beginning of making private legal services more responsive to SRLs – or (per Rob Harvie), “making it easier for them to continue on their road”.

“Law Talk” with Sue and Settle the “File-It Sisters”?

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Comment (1)

  • Vince Ward

    You might be interested to learn that I employed your business model in 2005, calling it “Help-U-File Family Law” in Sacramento, California, using upper-division law students as “apprentices,” and it’s still working.

    April 14, 2014 at 3:37 am

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