Stop charging so much

Most Canadians (and even many lawyers) cannot afford to hire us for anything but the simplest tasks
Most Canadians (and even many lawyers) cannot afford to hire us for anything but the simplest tasks

I have a message for any lawyer who entered this profession to make a lot of money: start planning your career switch now. The days when law was a safe and easy road to a very comfortable income (if not a big-enough-to-jump-into pile of cash) are ending.

Why? The short answer is that low-cost competitors are applying new technology, innovative processes and radically different funding models to deliver legal products and services faster, cheaper and often better than we do.

The more accurate, longer answer is that for years now we’ve been pricing ourselves out of the market. Most Canadians (and even many lawyers) cannot afford to hire us for anything but the simplest tasks, a long-standing fact that opened the door to alternative and non-lawyer providers of legal solutions.

This used to be an access to justice issue, something within our control. We had years to address that, and we passed. Now it’s purely an economic question, with a market answer. Our prices, already under pressure, are going to be squeezed even more in a highly competitive market in which lawyers no longer have a monopoly.

Don’t think you’re immune because you work in a large firm or have rich corporate clients. These clients are fed up with outside counsel’s cavalier approach to their needs, budgets and goals. They’re now starting to keep work in-house, pay cheap offshore lawyers to do certain projects, and invest in technology to replace you.

And don’t think you can rely on “quality” as your defence against new competitors either. While some new providers are still catching up with us in terms of quality, many others have already caught up, and a few have even surpassed us. More will follow.

Some lawyers will prosper this decade by climbing the value ladder, focusing on tailored counsel and strategic analysis that can’t be outsourced or automated. The rest are in danger. Do you think you’ll be among the lucky few? Why would you be the exception?

I’m not saying that lawyers charge too much; the market is saying it. I’m just passing along the news. The market has decided that lawyers’ prices are often out of clients’ reach and disconnected with the value we provide, and it wants better options.

What can you do? Lower your expectations of the financial rewards of a typical legal career. Change your billing methods. Get a handle on workflow and internal costs. Create an actual, defensible pricing strategy that aligns your prices with true value to clients and this new reality.

Law is a great career, and always will be. But it won’t be a cash cow much longer. Govern yourself accordingly.

Jordan Furlong is an Ottawa-based partner with Edge International and author of the blog Law21: Dispatches from a legal profession on the brink.

Illustration by Graham Roumieu