Where Does “Cheap and Simple” Fit In?

There’s almost a visceral reaction to any idea that includes the words “cheap and simple” or “good enough.”  But after reading Carolyn Elefant’s thoughtful explanation of why, when applied to the right areas of law and under the right circumstances, it makes perfect sense, the shaking and sputtering has begun to subside.

More likely, lawyers haven’t been discussing this issue because we’d prefer to avoid acknowledging that sacred legal services can ever be “cheap and simple” because that would lead to competition based on price and a race to the bottom.

Or would it?  Because my take away from the Wired article isn’t that cheap and simple means compromising standards.  Rather, at the core of cheap and simple is to deliver value by providing the key features of a product that matter most to consumers.
Carolyn is referring to Robert Capps’ recent article, The Good Enough Revolution:  When Cheap and Simple Is Just Fine, promoting the unbundling of legal services and volume selling of the some of the less sophisticated and complex legal products, such as simple wills or shareholder agreements.  The point is that not everything we, as lawyers, produce requires the mind of an inchoate supreme court justice. 

Less than perfect, but quick, easy and inexpensive, may well be more fruitful for society than perfect, sophisticated and beyond the reach of those who need it.  It’s the confluence of individualized expertise and reasonable cost.  Given how many legal things are required by ordinary folk to navigate their normal dealings in life, the high cost of monopolistic legal services seems more than a bit unfair.  The trade off of perfection and cost begins to make a lot more sense when we think of it in these terms.

But does this apply to criminal defense as well?  One could well argue that the bulk of criminal defense addresses low rent offenses, ranging from disorderly conduct and public drinking/urination to the wealth of vagrancy related offenses, and are disposed of at arraignment with a quickie plea and a fine or a day or two of community service.  It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to accept the offered plea and speak the magic words of a guilty plea.

This is where I start to shake again, unfortunately.  Not that I’ve done much of this sort of work for the past quarter century, but I can remember the early days when I handled my fair share of low level offenses.  Rather than cop the quick plea and move defendants along an assembly line, I felt compelled to read the complaint for adequacy, talk to my client about the details of the arrest and search, keep abreast of the relevant law and, with some regularity, argue for legal insufficiency or bad search or some other fault in the proceeding.  Even when the plea would result in nothing more than a violation and a $100 fine.  There was this bone in my head that made me feel that it was my duty to be a lawyer rather than a grocery clerk.

Carolyn’s point, that cheap and simple isn’t the same as cheap and cheesy, rings true.  There is much that can be accomplished without a lot of fanfare and at a very reasonable cost by simply losing the bells and whistles and focusing on the client’s very limited, very clear-cut, very basic needs.  Like every lawyer on the face of the earth, I have a simple will in my computer that merely requires a change of names to complete.  Five minutes and the whole thing is done, assuming that it’s just a matter of inserting names where blanks used to be.

In the past, I’ve watched clients agonize over who to make executor or guardian after I’ve explained the consequences of certain choices and the potential problems caused by ill-advised, knee-jerk decisions, and note that by the time a will is needed, they won’t be around to undo the poor choices made today.  But then, does my throwing monkey wrenches into their simple decisions add value to my service or just make a simple task needlessly complicated?  I think it helps, but then that’s because it reflects my view of what lawyers should do.  Of course, it takes that five minute simple will and turns it into 3 meetings and 22 telephone calls, not to mention the formality of execution.

The virtue of unbundling services is clear.  Far too many people simply can’t afford the legal services they need, which means they must either forgo obtaining services, a serious problem given that our society has way too many legalistic requirements to simply eschew compliance, or pay for services beyond their means.  I don’t want any children going hungry because the folks spent the grocery money on my time.

And yet, my experience is that there are few aspects of legal practice that are truly cheap and simple, and wouldn’t do far better with thought, effort and diligence.  Maybe it’s only one in ten that requires greater effort than a quickie form filled out in five minutes, but how do we know that until we’ve talked to clients, understood their needs and made sure that their idea of cheap and simple isn’t our idea of potential legal disaster?  It’s a tough question.

6 comments on “Where Does “Cheap and Simple” Fit In?

  1. Carolyn Elefant

    I’m also mixed about cheap and simple, because like you Scott, I feel that lawyers should explain options to clients(as in the will case) or try to get the best possible resolution even in petty criminal matters. In fact, I am not so sure that cheap & simple can ever work for criminal cases, even the small ones because the lawyer’s core function is to show that the state didn’t prove its case and that does involve reading the charging documents, etc..

    With some of the unbundled matters involving wills or corporations, the lawyer’s role is basically to produce an instrument that works in a given situation and that is more easily accomplished through gathering information by forms, etc…Non-legal providers are now handling them and that seems to be worse than having a lawyer involved, even if the lawyer’s role is fairly minimal.

  2. SHG

    I’m really torn about this issue.  It’s clear to me that we’ve got to come up with an easier, less expensive way, of providing legal services to ordinary people, but I always find myself stymied by the case/situation where one size does not fit all.  That said, I agree that the non-legal providers, cheap and simple, offer perhaps the greatest threat to the public.  I just wish I could find a tipping point where it seemed to balance cost with benefit.  I’ve yet to do so.

  3. John David Galt

    Ultimately, it has to be up to each individual when (and whether) to seek an expert’s advice, just as it is when the expert is a doctor or an auto mechanic. Yes, in all three cases, individuals are likely to blow the call sometimes (and usually in favor of not consulting the expert, because experts are expensive). But in all three cases, the individual consumer is the one who bears the cost of his choice, and therefore it is rightfully his.

    The whole point of being an adult is getting to make your own risk/reward decisions. These are merely cases of that principle.

  4. SHG

    If your car doesn’t work, you know you’ve got a problem.  If you’re sick, you know you’ve got a problem. If you use a generic form Will, and think you’ve done everything properly to assure the passage of your estate to your heirs, but have made a mistake, no one knows until after you’ve died, at which point it’s too late to fix. It’s not a good analogy.

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