Lawyer Watch

People love analogies, no matter how inapt. It saves them from any need to think, delegating the responsibility to someone else to do it for them. And this total absence of thought thrives at The Puddle, where Stephen Embry analogizes the future of law to the quartz watch crisis.

I love watches. I probably have two dozen—some so old I have to wind them. Some are solar-powered. Most are battery-operated. I even have four different smart watches.

That’s akin to saying you love pastries and have an old box of twinkies. No watch aficionado proudly admits to having battery-operated watches because that would reveal him as a clueless poseur.

But Embry is safe at the Puddle, because no reader there will realize this, their either not yet having made enough money practicing law to buy a watch, or, they did, having immediately bought the shiniest disposable watch available. Some fool had to do it, so why not them?

But among Embry’s “collection,” that included “some so old [he] had to wind them,” was a Zodiac. For those unaware, the Zodiac was a pretty good watch, and Zodiac dive watches are in strong demand these days. Whether Embry’s is a chronograph is unknown, but that he has a watch that doesn’t require a battery is, well, lucky for him. It’s likely the only watch he has with any retained value.

Since the band had gotten a little tight on my arm and I had long since lost the extra links, I tried to find a replacement and Googled Zodiac. What I found was that Zodiac, as well as some other mid-range Swiss watchmakers, went out of business in the 1970s during something called the quartz crisis.

See the analogy coming? You do, right?

After the war, quartz-based technology was developed primarily by the Japanese and, to some extent, by the Americans. These quartz watches, such as those made Seiko and Timex, were reliable and inexpensive and didn’t require winding every morning.

Despite their dominance in their marketplace, the Swiss were slow to adopt the innovation, thinking innovation was not necessary to maintain their dominance. They must have figured those newfangled gadgets were inferior and would never catch on.

While this isn’t the basis of the failure to come, note that Embry inserts an assumption, that “they must have figured.” Or, that wasn’t the reason at all, but then he couldn’t proceed in his analogy to achieve the depth of thought one expects at the Puddle.*

Sound familiar?

See? What did I tell you. Giving Embry the benefit of the doubt, his insanely inapt analogy is merely his manipulating the shallowness of the Puddle’s readers, who lack the depth to question his analogy or grasp its false assumptions. It’s just his way to spin the same old yarn of the future of law.

What does any of this have to do with lawyers and our legal system? After all, we don’t sell products to consumers, right? Of course we do—or at least we should accept the fact that we do. Legal consumers just come in different sizes, shapes, and levels of sophistication.

Oof. Watches perform one discrete function; they tell time. The practice of law, at least to whose who don’t seek their information at the Puddle, is a little more complex.

Just like quartz technology, developments like AI, crowdfunding, and alternate litigation financing may be about to make legal services available to vast groups not previously able to use lawyers.

Why? Are you nuts? People at the Puddle don’t ask such ridiculous questions. Just believe what you’re told, lawyerperson.

Entities like Avvo and LegalZoom offer an [sic] interactions and experiences that are less costly and require less friction—you don’t have to go to a lawyer’s office to get a routine matter handled. These services don’t look at all like traditional law firms, yet they provide what people and clients want.

Clients don’t want competent legal services until there’s a problem. Until then, they want cheap and easy. I wonder if the name “Quartz Legal” is taken?

Make no mistake, just as it was with the Swiss watch makers, a few clients may continue to demand Rolex-level products and services and be willing to pay for them. But the competition for these clients will get even fiercer than it already is. For the rest of the profession, we need to realize that we may have to offer a different and cheaper product—a Swatch—to survive.

So why am I writing about Embry’s effort to promote cheapness and, at best, mediocrity in the legal profession? Because he besmirched watches to reach the gutter. Embry says he loves watches. I love watches too, but not at all the same watches.

I have a couple dozen watches. Two are quartz, both bought in the 80s before I gained an appreciation of quality. Today, they are nearly worthless, despite both being 18K gold. In contrast, watches that sold for a couple hundred dollars 50 years ago may be worth tens of thousands of dollars today. They are in high demand, eagerly sought by people who actually have a clue about watches. And there are a lot of us. It’s nearly impossible to find a good quality mechanical chronograph from the 60s.

The problem with the quartz crisis analogy, aside from its total failure based on the difference between telling time and practicing law, is that it conflates the availability of cheap crap with the efficacy of cheap crap. Since lawyers do slightly more than tell time, and are still expected to provide competent (I might say zealous, but that would be an unfamiliar word to Puddle readers) representation, extolling the virtues of cheap crap excuses its sycophants from that duty.

You want a quartz lawyer? You get a quartz lawyer. But when it breaks and can’t be fixed, because it was a cheap piece of crap to begin with, throw it away. Hey, it worked for a while, right? What did you think? Did you expect a Patek Phillippe that would be working and far more valuable 50 years later?

Then again, if you turn to a place like the Puddle to seek your fortune as a lawyer, maybe a quartz watch is the best you achieve? There are people who want cheap crap, who will never pay for quality and who are willing to risk their legal futures, whether their fortune or freedom, on the hope that the watch will run long enough to serve their purposes before they toss it in the garbage. Maybe the analogy isn’t so bad after all, provided that’s the type of lawyer you aspire to be? Cheap and disposable.

*Some Swiss watchmakers tried producing quartz versions of their watch, but realized there was no quality version of quartz, and so they decided to risk the public’s rejection of their expensive quality watches in favor of cheap disposable watches.

Some lower tier watchmakers failed, as their base was customers who didn’t want to pay for quality. But in time, some came back and others came into the market as buyers whose only concern was cheap realized that they wanted better than quartz crap.

Notably, a secondary effect occurred, the creation of cellphones and smartphones, which has decimated the quartz watch market. The same people who wanted cheap wanted free even more.

31 thoughts on “Lawyer Watch

  1. Marc Whipple

    I have had some interesting argu… discussions with people who don’t believe me when I say LegalZoom is creating a niche business for trademark lawyers fixing the trademark applications they mess up. Believe me or don’t, I don’t care. If it weren’t unethical, I’d show you the checks. (Not you you, Mr. Greenfield, rhetorical you.)

    Be that as it may, I think part of the problem is that the Internet is training people to want things for nothing, or the next thing to it. First it was music and movies. Then it was gewgaws and collectibles on eBay. Then it was plane tickets and hotels. Where will it stop? Will people understand that there is a difference in kind between stuff and professional services? More importantly, will they realize it *before* they get LegalZoomed, or after?

    “Experience keeps a dear school, but a fool will learn in no other.”

    I’ve done seminars – and so has every other tech lawyer I know – warning people. At some of ’em, we even get actual clients to tell people about getting LegalZoomed and the huge mess it made. And yet, we don’t seem to be making a dent. Any time I stick my head up at Reddit (I know, I know) I am immediately accused of being a bloodsucking dinosaur (“Vampire Dinosaurs” would be a good name for a band.) who charges unbelieveable amounts of money for things LegalZoom will do cheap or people could do themselves online, “It’s not that hard.”

    And much as it pains me to say, having a trademark registration messed up pales in comparison to, say, having your CFAA defense messed up. Are people really dumb enough to crowdsource criminal defense? Will they offshore their potential freedom? Lord, I hope not. But I’m not optimistic.

    1. SHG Post author

      Not only do I believe you, but I predicted it would be the case that a growth area of law would be fixing the ruin of people left to their own devices on LZ. There are two interwoven arguments: first, that law is easy. Second, that to the extent law isn’t easy, it should be. Unfortunately, neither argument is a winner.

    2. Patrick Maupin

      The drive towards zero cost you mention started well before the internet, and continues outside the internet. Interchangeable parts, ships that can carry unimaginable numbers of containers, robot assembly, fungibility of a lot of labor functions, etc.

      Naturally, this drive towards zero cost leaks into law. For example, it seems plausible that the human condition is such that many wills are much like many other wills, so nolo and its ilk are going to get a lot of business there. Of course, the person with special requirements in his will is going to need specialized legal help, and that will probably be more expensive now because that lawyer is no longer generating a lot of boilerplate wills to help pay his expenses. Also, of course, the person who doesn’t understand he has special requirements is going to get screwed when he uses nolo for a will.

      But those mass-production economics are only one side of the equation. We’ve all been disappointed after paying way too much for shoddy yet supposedly skilled or semi-skilled labor, whether from a mechanic, a plumber, a doctor, a real estate agent, or even, yes, a lawyer.

      So when the price of good (OK, probably not great, but good) stuff keeps coming down, and when some of the most expensive labor purchases we make turn out really badly, it’s hardly surprising that the default position of a lot of folks is to pay as little as possible.

      This probably turns out fine 99% of the time, but of course, as you point out, in some of the cases where it doesn’t, it goes really badly for the consumer. It seems unlikely there’s a global solution, though.

      1. SHG Post author

        I give it an 80-20 chance of working out. Eighty percent of the time, it’s precautionary, nothing goes wrong and everybody walks away unaware of the hazards. But that 20% is disastrous.

        1. Patrick Maupin

          Okay, 80-20 if you don’t use a lawyer. But what is the risk when you do use a lawyer?

          One significant issue is that, because most consumers don’t consume much legal labor, they are not very good at figuring out if the labor provider is any good. To the extent that your problem is different than someone else’s, Avvo, yelp, google reviews all suffer from the same issue — many of the positive reviews will be made by people who had simple problems and who would have been in the 80% if they had done it themselves, and many of the negative reviews will be made by people who were well and truly screwed even before they found a lawyer.

          I thought I’d use a lawyer to wrap a mortgage. My daughter couldn’t qualify for a mortgage, so I bought a house, got a mortgage, and then sold the house to her. In the process of trying to find a good lawyer to do the wrap, I did a lot of research, pulling and studying a lot of mortgage-wrap deeds from counties all over Texas. During that exercise, I learned that a lot of the lawyers doing this for money are complete shysters. Incidentally, I also figured out what protections I needed and wanted for my daughter and myself, and just did it myself. But if it had been a bit more complicated, I would have paid one of the competent lawyers I found to do it.

          At the end, it cost me more in time than it would have cost in money to just let a lawyer do it, but I felt I needed to spend that time anyway, to figure out what I needed, and to be able to tell if the lawyer I was contemplating was competent.

          1. SHG Post author

            Another point/question that’s been discussed elsewhere and will not begin again here. This is what I enjoy most about non-lawyer questions, even after the 10,000th time it’s been raised. I will, however, state that your attempt to inductively reason from your limited data set is deeply problematic for a great many reasons. Don’t try this at home.

      2. Erik H

        If this was so simple, you’d think these techophiles would create a market for “legal decision” insurance. Then you can use Legalzoom, or hire a secretary to draft your will, and for only $____ you can get insured against loss from bad documents or bad advice. Think of the savings!

        Heh. We don’t have a market like that, of course, because the cost of “legalzoom plus insurance” is MORE than the cost of hiring someone competent who already has their own malpractice.

        1. Patrick Maupin

          Heh. We don’t have a market like that, of course, because…

          From this consumer’s perspective, that statement is as silly as the statements I made above are from a lawyer’s perspective. Hiring a lawyer for a transaction is, practically speaking, a form of insurance. We don’t have a market like that because people who have decided they don’t need insurance aren’t going to buy insurance.

        2. RB

          *shudder*

          The tech world has a sad truism that is often re-learned:
          “There are two types of folks, those that keep good backups, and those that will one day wish they had.”

          Its counterpart in the legal realm is surely even more painful.

  2. Billy Bob

    We luv watching lawyers wallowing in the trenches with their swatches. You killed a lot of words there, buster. It must be a slow Friday. Time to get away from the Trump-watch, and countdown to Armageddon.

  3. Erik H

    Almost all of the good lawyers I know offer reduced-price; flexible-rate; pro bono; payment-plan; or other services for folks who really need legal help, and who really can’t afford to get it on their own. On Wed afternoon I took in a new employment client who just had a kid and whose employer had violated a complex pay law. In 24 hours I had the entire case resolved, 100% of his back pay in his hand, and eligibility for unemployment. He was poor and had a new kid; I charged him a whopping $600.

    There isn’t an inexperienced lawyer around who could have done that. The people who would “charge $600” at their regular rate would have ended up in court, with everyone hating each other, and the guy would get paid in a year or two, if at all.

    But I can’t support my office, staff, and my family on that level of income. In order to be able to spend a day solving his problems for $600, I have to have a lot of clients who will pay me MORE than that. I don’t see how these folks can ignore those economics.

    PS if you don’t already do so I encourage you to read the Watch Snob column at askmen, for entertainment value.

    1. SHG Post author

      Ah, the economics. It’s so obvious why it doesn’t work on even the most basic of levels*, but requires the ability to do simple math.

      *On the more sophisticated level, there will be no modestly intelligent/competent lawyers if this drivel were true, as no one with half a brain would go to law school, waste 3 years of opportunity costs, pay 3 years of tuition, all to aspire to earn the salary of an assistant manager at Dairy Queen. Have I mentioned this before?

  4. Cashew

    SG: Since lawyers do slightly more than tell time…

    That’s where you lost me. I have yet to encounter a lawyer who can tell time. Next you’ll try to tell us all that lawyers can read… and vote.

    Joking aside… I am almost 100% uninformed of the goings on of lawyer land, but that’s never stopped me from interjecting before. (Warning: potentially inapt analogy to respond to a post about potentially inapt analogies.)
    If Legal Zoom and their ilk are the Wal-Marts of the lawyer marketplace, I don’t quite see how that’s inherently a bad thing. I have yet to come across anyone who shops at Wal-Mart for the quality of their products. Even though Wal-Mart sells everything one could need, other stores still exist. I don’t think the mere existence of cheap, third rate laywer-ing detracts anything. People spend their money on cheap, useless junk all the time. They’re free to spend money on cheap, useless lawyers too. Whether they *should* is a completely separate issue. I’m unconvinced that the existence of Legal Zoom (or Wal-Mart) is in any way a bad thing. Seems to me like they’re just filling a different niche.

    1. SHG Post author

      An interesting question, which has been discussed regularly in past years, but not at all the topic of this post. The old posts are all there if you’re interested.

  5. Cashew

    SG: Since lawyers do slightly more than tell time…

    That’s where you lost me. I have yet to encounter a lawyer who can tell time. Next you’ll try to tell us all that lawyers can read… and vote.

    Joking aside… I am almost 100% uninformed of the goings on of lawyer land, but that’s never stopped me from interjecting before. (Warning: potentially inapt analogy to respond to a post about potentially inapt analogies.)
    If Legal Zoom and their ilk are the Wal-Marts of the lawyer marketplace, I don’t quite see how that’s inherently a bad thing. I have yet to come across anyone who shops at Wal-Mart for the quality of their products. Even though Wal-Mart sells everything one could need, other stores still exist. I don’t think the mere existence of cheap, third rate laywer-ing detracts anything. People spend their money on cheap, useless junk all the time. They’re free to spend money on cheap, useless lawyers too. Whether they *should* is a completely separate issue. I’m unconvinced that the existence of Legal Zoom (or Wal-Mart) is in any way a bad thing. Seems to me like they’re just filling a different niche.

  6. Jacob G

    SG: Since lawyers do slightly more than tell time…

    That’s where you lost me. I have yet to encounter a lawyer who can tell time. Next you’ll try to tell us all that lawyers can read… and vote.

    Joking aside… I am almost 100% uninformed of the goings on of lawyer land, but that’s never stopped me from interjecting before. (Warning: potentially inapt analogy to respond to a post about potentially inapt analogies.)
    If Legal Zoom and their ilk are the Wal-Marts of the lawyer marketplace, I don’t quite see how that’s inherently a bad thing. I have yet to come across anyone who shops at Wal-Mart for the quality of their products. Even though Wal-Mart sells everything one could need, other stores still exist. I don’t think the mere existence of cheap, third rate laywer-ing detracts anything. People spend their money on cheap, useless junk all the time. They’re free to spend money on cheap, useless lawyers too. Whether they *should* is a completely separate issue. I’m unconvinced that the existence of Legal Zoom (or Wal-Mart) is in any way a bad thing. Seems to me like they’re just filling a different niche.

    1. Jacob G

      Looks like an error on my end, not yours then. Kept getting an error when trying to post the comment. Seems to have worked all three times though…

      1. SHG Post author

        In fairness, all three were in my spam folder for some reason. I unspammed them. I could have only unspammed one, or trashed the other two, but what fun would that be?

  7. Jim Tyre

    So why am I writing about Embry’s effort to promote cheapness and, at best, mediocrity in the legal profession? Because he besmirched watches to reach the gutter.

    More than just good cause to write! In my collection, the best is a pocket watch made in 1856 that still keeps perfect time. Yes, I could replace the stem winder with a battery. No, I never would.

    1. SHG Post author

      I must tell you (and please, just keep this between us), but you know how I tell other people their personal anecdotes are fascinating and they are handsome individuals? I don’t always mean it. In your case, however, I loved the story about your pocket watch, and you are fascinating and handsome.

  8. Mike Guenther

    Didn’t a famous lawyer, once a member of O. J. Simpson’s legal team, recommend legalzoom for all your legal needs? Asking for a friend.*

    * Personally, I prefer to buy the best and only cry once.

  9. Allen

    If a man doesn’t already know he needs a quality timepiece, proof against vicissitude, it’s unlikely you can convince him otherwise. Until it’s too late.

    1. SHG Post author

      One of the first things I do when I meet a guy is look at his wrist. It tells me a lot about him, his sensibilities. It’s a remarkably good indicator.

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