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June 28, 2023

The Changing Dynamics of a People Law Practice

Jim Calloway
The good news for people law practitioners is that clients value one-to-one time with their lawyer and work done correctly.

The good news for people law practitioners is that clients value one-to-one time with their lawyer and work done correctly.

AzmanL via Getty Images

Law practices are shaped by the clients they typically serve. The operations of an estate planning practice targeting high-net-worth individuals will be very different from a law firm focusing on criminal defense or family law.

Today we see a growing distance between those who practice “people law,” representing individuals mostly on personal matters, and those who practice business/ corporate law. The law may apply equally to all, but the business processes used by law firms focusing on people law are diverging more from their counterparts in corporate law every day. 

People Law Versus Business/Corporate Law

The lawyer who does business and corporate work usually deals with client representatives who are often a lawyer employed in-house, but almost always someone familiar with the legal process. The clients are often long-term clients. Legal memos and communications with clients assume a certain level of education and understanding.

A people law practice may have some longstanding clients. But the bulk of clients are those with a personal legal problem that needs to be addressed, be it a probate proceeding or a divorce. After the lawyer addresses their problem, the engagement ends. There is a hope that a satisfied client may return for additional legal services in the future or will refer others to the lawyer. But that is unlikely to happen immediately.

A major challenge of a people law practice is that as matters are concluded for existing clients, constant marketing efforts are required to keep the practice functioning well and profitably. The continuous requirement to develop new clients to replace those whose matters have been resolved is an important part of normal business operations. Obtaining referrals is often more challenging because  today fewer people ask their relatives or co-workers for a lawyer referral when internet search is always available.

Social media marketing may have little impact on gaining new corporate clients. Online marketing is critical for people law practitioners because increasingly people are shopping and making purchasing decisions online. But this does not mean you can drop community-based marketing efforts, particularly if you are in a smaller community.

Design your communications to keep clients informed. Clients seek a lawyer’s services because they are unfamiliar with the law or how it might be applied to their situation and may have beliefs about the legal system that are untrue or exaggerated. Good communication with the client is a key to good representation, beginning with the initial meeting.

Client communications in a people law firm must focus on making certain the clients are both well informed and that they feel well informed about the basics of their situation. A client who is emotional about their divorce case or their recent embarrassing arrest may not retain information well. Paper handouts reinforcing the lawyer’s initial advice should be provided every time the lawyer is newly engaged. Emails and other client communication should be prefaced with sentences like “As we discussed previously, the purpose of this next hearing is to A, B and C. We intend to…” Every in-person meeting should end with asking the client if they have other questions or if they are confused about anything. Test your communications forms to see that they are no higher than an eighth grade reading level. Even highly educated clients appreciate simple and clear communication. And when you must use legal words like “affidavit” or “deposition,” always follow with a brief explanation of the term even if it seems repetitive to you. Digital communications must be secure. Client portals are recommended.

Many of my thoughts on the shifts in practicing people law are based on the research of Bill Henderson, professor of law at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law, where he holds the Stephen F. Burns Chair on the Legal Profession. Henderson’s Legal Evolution site contains a large amount of data about the legal profession and analysis of the data.

In his post “The Decline of the PeopleLaw Sector (037),” Henderson notes, “Although total law firm receipts increased from $225 billion to $246 billion [from 2007–2012], receipts from individuals declined by almost $7 billion. That’s a staggering sum.”

Reasons behind this revenue decline are subject to debate. Could access to justice efforts to provide more free or low-cost legal services be having an impact? Could it result from competition from non-lawyer legal service providers? Could lawyers be delivering these services at lower fees due to technological innovations? But that is all speculation. The inescapable fact is law firm revenue related to people law declined in its percentage as opposed to corporate and government spending.

Market yourself and your firm every day. Studies support the view that too many potential people law clients never seek appropriate help for their legal problems because of concern about cost, lawyers and the system. This may dramatically shape your marketing focus, with posts pointing out affordable options and how your firm serves people like them.

Today’s people lawyer will find a significant amount of lawyer time and resources devoted to client acquisition. Even if one has outsourced aspects of marketing, normally some part of each day will involve promptly dealing with leads developed through the law firm’s online marketing resources. That is the lawyer’s critical role in the marketing process.

A free Google business profile including hours of operation and a mobile-friendly website are critical for the people lawyer. The large law firm marketing department may create a Google profile, but it will not be a source of significant revenue. A people lawyer may obtain new clients solely because the physical location of their office is convenient to the client. So they want that profile page with the address showing on the first page of Google search results. A traditional website is also an important part of a law firm marketing plan, and social media efforts should link back to the firm webpage.

Practice focus is another area of difference. The estate planner partner in a large law firm may know little about various other legal services provided by their firm. That is acceptable because their role within the firm is to refer that matter to the appropriate partner. The people law practitioner may be asked about bankruptcy or worker’s compensation while representing the client on another type of matter. Telling a client who has never hired a lawyer before “I don’t know” repeatedly can affect client confidence. In addition, those “irrelevant” inquiries may turn into additional legal work for the lawyer or, when ethically appropriate, co-counsel or referral fees.

A positive message as the file is closed can be, “We don’t practice every type of law. But we are your lawyers. If you have a legal problem, let us know and if we don’t handle it, we will find a lawyer who will.”

People love flat-fee representation. “How much will this cost?” is often a major concern in the people law sector. To the extent you can quote a flat fee for the legal work, or even three flat fees depending on how the matter proceeds, you will give your clients a great deal of comfort, while also having an advantage over firms offering open-ended hourly representation.

The successful people law practice will be one part internet marketing machine, one part traditional community networker, one part legal advisor and advocate, one part counselor/therapist (even though we’re not qualified for actual therapy, we can usually give good advice on rebuilding your life after the matter is concluded), sometimes one part lawyer referral service, and one part business owner and operator.

Automation of business processes is important. The good news for people law practitioners is that most of your clients never cared about how their documents were created or even how lengthy they are. They hired a lawyer to do the work correctly. What they value is one-to-one time with their lawyer. The more you automate document creation and other tasks, the more time you will have to interact with the client. 

Jim Calloway

Director, Oklahoma Bar Association Management Assistance Program

Jim Calloway is the director of the Oklahoma Bar Association Management Assistance Program. He is a long-standing member of the ABA Law Practice Division, serving as chair of ABA TECHSHOW 2005. He blogs at Jim Calloway’s Law Practice Tips and has co-authored three ABA books on law practice management. [email protected]

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