The idea was floated four years ago. At the time, I thought the idea had some merit, at least enough to warrant further consideration. On the surface, many thought the idea was demeaning and unprofessional.
Maybe legal services from your local Wal-Mart is the right idea. Maybe it’s got the seeds of the right idea. Maybe Wal-Mart, via economy of scale or some of its other tricks, can allow lawyers to provide quality legal services at a significantly lower cost to consumers. I’m not saying it can, but I am saying it’s time to start thinking seriously about such notions that are immediately written off as “absurd” by the bar, especially the formal groups who love to spout platitudes but never hold the hand of a client whose life has been ruined by the beloved system, “not perfect but the best ever created.” We’ve got a platitude that forgives us every failure. Spouting platitudes doesn’t do much to help clients.
The Wal-Mart lawyer is now a reality. Axess Law has opened offices in a couple of Wal-Marts in Canada.
There are two entirely separate concepts involved here. First, these lawyers physically put their office where it is easily accessible to a huge number of people who are both in need of legal services and unlikely to be able to afford the customary cost for those services.
Second, the lawyers provide the same legal services, the same quality, the same level of attention and concern, they would provide for their clients in an office elsewhere. If they fail to do the latter, it doesn’t matter where they are physically situated. The obligation to provide competent legal services has nothing to do with where they hang their hat. If they worked out of a hot dog stand on the street corner, the duty remains the same.
The former, on the other hand, is the controversial aspect. Carolyn Elefant questions whether it’s really all that controversial at all, given that lawyers didn’t always work in skyscrapers and mahogany paneled offices.
Many lawyers today turn up their nose at the concept of “Walmart Law,” – either arguing that a downscale location isn’t sufficiently dignified for lawyers, or questioning the competence of firms that choose to practice in that manner. But truth is, the Walmart Law concept has legal nobility in its history, as I discovered on a family vacation in the midwest this summer.
En route from Chicago to St. Louis, I insisted on a pit stop to visit Abraham Lincoln’s historic law office on a trip through Springfield, Illinois. I’d never seen photos of Lincoln’s office and expected a stand-alone store front type building near the center of town or the courts. So I was taken aback to see that the Lincoln law offices were located right in the same building as – and in fact, adjacent to – Tinsley Dry Goods Store goods store, which apparently was the 19th century’s version of Target back in the day. Lincoln frequently walked through the store each day to reach his office. Moreover, not only was Lincoln’s office next door to the store, but for a time, the federal court also operated out of the same building.
If a law office is physically located closer to clients, and in a location where it can draw on a huge number of people who can get walk-in legal help, it can reduce costs while providing competent legal representation. What’s the problem?
In the Global News video, my buddy, Nino Pribetic, raised the unanswered question with a quip: “it beings new meaning to clean up in aisle 4.” Are they giving Wal-Mart shoppers the time and attention they deserve? Where will they be should a problem occur, should litigation ensue. Are they “real lawyers” or just picking the low-hanging fruit?
As Nino noted, it’s not just about price and ease of use, but the flip side is that easy availability isn’t a bad thing either. And if (and granted, this is a big if) they can provide quality service by charging $99 for a will, then that’s great. Certainly, it’s better than the looming disaster of LegalZoom, where people are left to their own devices to see how cheaply they can destroy their lives.
The details of how this will eventually work, and whether it really is financially viable, remain to be seen. At this point, they’re in spin mode, so the lawyers involved raise all the problems with traditional lawyers (you have to go up 50 floors? This is a big issue?) and their own virtues. Whether this is reality or showmanship has yet to be seen. One disturbing issue apparent on the video is the lack of privacy, with desks out in the open and no ability to engage in confidential discussion. Not exactly lawyerly.
But this may be a kink that needs to be worked out. Sure, it’s “downscale,” but if the lawyers are cool with working there, the clients are cool with getting representation there, and the services are competent, then it’s not a problem. It may not be your (or my) cup of tea, but so what? This is about the clients, and if the clients happen to be at Wal-Mart, it doesn’t seem like a bad place for the lawyer to be as well.