Making it work: The point where quality, accessibility and profitability intersect

  • October 26, 2017
  • Kim Covert

Take the iPhone. It’s a high-quality product. It’s tailored to meet the needs its users currently have, and those they will have once they realize what it can do. It costs money to develop and produce. And no one expects Apple to give it away to people whose lives it could change but can’t afford to buy it.

Beyond the obvious, how does the iPhone differ from personal plight legal services?

Law may be one of the few areas where you spend time and money developing a high-quality product that you are then expected to give away, or under-price.

“I don’t want to be taken to be denigrating or suggesting that altruism and pro bono is not necessary,” says Noel Semple, whose book  Accessibility, Quality and Profitability for Personal Plight Law Firms: Hitting the Sweet Spot, was published earlier this year by the CBA. “There are so many legal needs out there, of low-income people in particular, which probably could never be met in a profit-seeking model. We absolutely do need state reinvestment in legal aid and we need this tradition of altruism and pro bono to continue if we’re going to meet those needs.”

But there are also people with legal needs who have some ability to pay. “We assume that the free market economy will be able to meet most needs of middle income people without relying on people giving away their services or the government paying for it and I think that can and should also be true with legal services,” says Semple. “When it comes to law, I think the ethos of professionalism has maybe led us to see client service and access to justice as something that is inherently in tension with profitability and I don’t think that has to be the case.”

Semple, an assistant law professor at the University of Windsor, says he came at the problem from two different perspectives: one was law and economics, which he studied as a post-doc at University of Toronto, and the other was his wife’s experience – she’s an estate litigator who started her own firm.

From those two standpoints, he saw that “there was a niche that should be explored as to how private sector profit-seeking law firms can expand access to justice without compromising the other things you have to think about if you’re running a firm, like economics, sustainability, and of course the high quality and professionalism of the work itself.”

Semple interviewed a number of personal plight legal practitioners across the country for his book. He focused on personal plight firms because of the nature of the work. Uncontested legal needs can be commoditized because they’re repeatable and predictable. But personal plight services by definition must be tailored to the client.

“When it’s a dispute-related legal need, so far technology has not made nearly the same impact,” says Semple. “Access to justice is not such a problem in uncontested personal business. It’s cheaper than it’s ever been to get a personal will drafted, it’s easier than it’s ever been to convey a residential property and so on. The access-to-justice problem and the role of lawyers is very different in personal plight, it made me decide to focus on it and the specific dynamics within it.”

Technology has played a big role in legal innovation – usually the firms described as innovative are the ones that have cut costs by harnessing technology to commoditize their work, doing some procedures online so that the client does the work, and so on. But while technology can be key to some kinds of innovation, it is not where innovation begins and ends.

Innovation in personal technology is imposed from the top – Apple puts out a new iPhone, and everyone buys it. But in personal plight legal services, it comes from the bottom, says Semple, who also points out an innovation gap – many of the people coming up with innovations are young and hungry to attract clients, but not necessarily in a position to roll them out, while the people best-positioned to apply innovations are more established and less interested because the old thing is still working for them.

“You have lawyers who’ve been doing this work, some of them have been doing it 20-30 years, and they’ve come up with these little things that work, little things that push their firms into that sweet spot where you can serve people accessibly with high quality while still turning a profit. And you also see some innovation bubbling up from newer practitioners … people who are called to the bar who are in many cases through economic necessity pushed to innovate.”

In the legal futures discourse, innovation tends to be presented as a way to reduce costs to firms and thus to clients. But while cost is always a factor, there’s more to innovation than just finding a way to do the same work for less, says Semple.

“I think innovation is also about improving quality, about creating new service packages which don’t exist yet. And this is another thing which distinguishes contested personal plight services from uncontested personal business services, in the sense that there’s more quality variation. “

A person who’s finalizing a mortgage wants it done properly and as cheaply as possible. Same with preparing a will, says Semple – it doesn’t matter so much who does the work. A divorce on the other hand can have many different dimensions. “It can be provided in different languages, it can be provided by people with expertise in divorce involving domestic violence or divorce involving Islamic family law or what have you,” he says.

“You might say drafting a will is a commodity and when you have a commodity-based market, it’s highly price-competitive and innovation drives down costs. When the services are not identical to each other, which is the case in personal plight, then consumers tend to be less price-sensitive and more sensitive to quality differences between the alternatives in the market, which in turn increases the returns to those who can innovate beyond cost as an innovating quality.”

Semple says he hopes that by collecting some of these law hacks into a book he’ll be able to shine a spotlight on them and maybe encourage more firms to innovate.