I remember when I was a kid, door to door salesmen would sell encyclopedia sets so that we could have first class knowledge on our bookshelves and have instant homework help, all for a mere thousand dollars. This was right around when my parents bought me a PC, for $2000, to do things like type book reports.
This was around 1985. Down the freeway, in the high rises of downtown, Los Angeles, law firms were representing the largest companies to the tune of $400 - $500 an hour, with perks like large signing bonuses and box seats. The corporate clients had these legal fees factored into their budgets. Large legal bills got paid. Life in the 80’s was good.
Charging high hourly rates and liberal billing procedures were fine if you were Coca Cola and great if you were a partner at O’Melveny Myers LLP. But if you were a small business whose trademark was infringed upon, or a family sued by an insurance company in a baseless subrogation action, chances were, you were out of luck.
You know what happens next: Personal computers fit on phones; knowledge is free, a utility like water or heat, if not a human right. What you may not know is that same pressure exerted itself on the law too. The financial crisis of 2008 showed just that, as large firms were forced to downsize and salaries were reduced.
It was as if companies and their insurance carriers finally woke up. Why are we paying extremely high legal fees for having a legal brief be reviewed by a half-dozen attorneys, when the law firm down the street charges less and works less hours on the same type of work?
The obvious signs include the advent of online legal forms and “self-help” websites, making it easier to handle day-to-day legal tasks (create a lease, challenge a speeding ticket, file a small claims action).
But for the more challenging legal tasks, you can very well have top notch legal counsel at affordable rates. Not only has democratization brought down the high hourly rate back down to earth. Many smart, capable attorneys have joined smaller officers or started their own office, to pursue a better, more satisfying quality of life.
What does this mean for your business? For one thing, you don’t need to pay big firm rates or the salary of in-house counsel. Rather, you can have reasonably priced pay-as-you-go outside general counsel.
The winners of the democratization of the legal profession are individuals, businesses, and small law offices and their attorneys. The losers, though, are the encyclopedia company, the PC manufacturer, and the big firm lawyer, who wishes it was the 80’s all over again.