Image problem? Lawyers can counter public perception
Lawyers used to be respectable. I think at some point they cared. Now they just shuffle you around like cattle."
"Lawyers should make me feel like the dollars I'm spending are worthwhile."
These quotes, from two of nearly 100 Illinois consumers who were interviewed during recent ISBA focus groups, underscore a serious problem in the legal profession: lawyer credibility.
There's no denying that consumers have negative perceptions of the legal profession. The "least reputed profession in America" is what the American Bar Association concluded in its 2002 study on lawyer image.
Yet, people know that attorneys are valuable and, in surveys, frequently indicate they are satisfied with the service their own lawyers provide. Changing the image completely will be next to impossible as long as there are unscrupulous lawyers or losers in lawsuits. But bar associations and individual lawyers can, and will, take steps to reshape the negative image of the profession.
A Committee on Strategic Marketing for Illinois Lawyers, created by the ISBA Assembly last year, is developing a proposal for a paid advertising campaign. Its goal is to educate consumers about the value of using a lawyer and to build confidence and trust in the legal profession.
This effort is in keeping with surveys of ISBA members, showing two of their top concerns are the economics of the practice and the image of the profession.
Individual lawyers are also doing their part, and here's what they advise:
* Do a better job of communicating with clients.
When it comes to hiring lawyers, people are riddled with fear and doubt. They don't know if lawyers can really help them, how to determine if a lawyer will provide good service, or what kind of costs are involved. As a result, less than half of those who realize they have a need for legal assistance end up hiring lawyers.
When you meet with prospective clients, put yourself in their shoes. Listen carefully to their legal problems and show that you understand their needs. Explain the legal process, even if it involves common legal situations such as a real estate closing, a contract issue or drawing up an estate plan.
And return your client's calls promptly. "How hard is it to call me back within a day?" asked a participant in one of the ISBA focus groups.
* Carefully explain fees.
Many lawyers are reluctant to explain the fees and expenses involved thoroughly, and consumers are reluctant to ask about them. The result is that, even if the client is satisfied with the service performed, he or she may balk upon receiving the lawyer's bill. "They don't forget to send me their bills, that's for sure," said another focus group member.
A written statement of the financial agreement, provided in advance to each client, and updated as the scope of the service changes, can help head off the assumption that "all lawyers are greedy."
* Be mindful of the way in which you promote your services.
Many lawyers advertise, even if it's just a listing in the Yellow Pages or an ad in a program book. But focus groups conducted by the ISBA Committee on Strategic Marketing showed that people have real distaste sor heavy self-promotion.
The option is to consider publicity, sometimes referred to as "free advertising," by providing useful consumer information on your area of the law to editors and broadcasters, or writing letters to the editor that get printed on the opinion pages.
It will take a sustained effort by lawyers and the bar to successfully educate the public about the law and to alter public perception. But the battle for the hearts and minds of the public can succeed if the truth is presented credibly and repeated tirelessly.