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‘I can’t afford to hire me’ | Jo-Anne Stark

Monday, January 17, 2022 @ 10:56 AM | By Jo-Anne Stark

Jo-Anne Stark %>
Jo-Anne Stark
Dear Jo:

As a family law practitioner, I’ve seen family law matters grow in complexity over the years. Matters seem to take longer and longer to resolve; often times, my clients try mediation to settle their case, only to end up in litigation and waiting for years to have their disputes decided. As a result, their legal bills are often astronomical. I couldn’t even afford to hire myself — so how can I expect clients to be able to cover the costs of litigation?

I wish I could say I have never heard this before, but I would be lying. I hear these sorts of comments from lawyers quite frequently and my question for them is: what are you going to do about it? Many just shrug their shoulders because, after all, they cannot control the fact that the way courts operate has become significantly more complicated, with rules and procedures that require many years of experience to understand. Others just resign themselves to the fact that their firm has always operated in a particular way, change is uncomfortable, and so their solution is to hire more bill collectors to try to get invoices paid after the services are completed.

When a lawyer who earns an above-average income realizes that they could not afford their own legal services, then it is time to accept the fact that your services are no longer serving most Canadians — and the middle class have a right to access legal services that are affordable.

Part of the problem is that many lawyers assume that all clients come to them wanting full representation and are willing to pay for that. That is an incorrect assumption; we need to meet our clients where they are at. If they can budget less than $1,000 a month towards legal expenses, then they perhaps they should not be retaining a full-service law firm to represent them. Law firms need to adjust the delivery of their legal services to offer limited legal services — such as legal coaching, which may cost a client only a few hundred dollars a month for weekly coaching sessions. Most middle-class Canadians are willing to pay for that, and to put in their own “sweat equity” to complete the paperwork and appear in court. They want a hand to guide them along the way — someone to keep them accountable, to explain the options, to figure out strategy, to review their paperwork and to practise their court presentation with.

I get calls all the time from people looking for that coach or mentor to assist them — whether it be for a family law matter, a dispute with a tenant, a business contract negotiation, a small claims matter — and more legal professionals are needed to provide these limited legal services. Such services require developing new skills and tools to be effective — but these can be learned. Those that take the time to be properly trained to provide limited legal services in a way that is client-centric have the most grateful clients!

It isn’t just the service offering that needs to change; lawyers need to accept the fact that clients may not want to travel distances to attend at an impressive downtown office. They are often much more comfortable speaking with their lawyer from their home, virtually and sharing their documents electronically. That way, they know that the money they are paying is going directly to receiving your advice and support — and they have your full undivided attention at your regular coaching sessions.

The final step is changing the way the firm operates. It’s always shocking to me to see the antiquated ways some firms operate. When I began practising law, I asked for a computer to draft affidavits and applications; my request was abruptly refused, and I was handed a dictaphone. Which means, I am either very old, or the legal profession operates in a very outdated way (or both?). Taking the time to meet with a consultant who can plan out a business strategy to streamline your filing, accounting and document management can result in substantial savings — which are then passed along to happy clients! My first solo practice operated on a budget of under $200 a month. It is possible, but having a consultant get you there will save you time and money — as they will map a course for you and show you what is possible. Most lawyers I work with have very little experience in running a business or in marketing a new legal service — so a little help at the front end can go a long way.

Change your perspective and change the way you practise — and watch how quickly your legal services become affordable — even for you!

Jo-Anne Stark, B.Comm., J.D., CLC, is the founding president of the non-profit Legal Coaches Association and author of Mastering the Art of Legal Coaching. Find her on LinkedIn.

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