ABA Legal Rebels; Racing Toward Mediocrity

At first, I was surprised and impressed by the essays that appeared as “finalists” for the ABA Journal Legal Rebels contest.  Hey, with a $5,000 prize at stake, and a bunch of lawyers happy to write a thousand words for far less, it was a great opportunity.  The theme for the essays was “What innovation will be most valuable to you in your future practice as a solo practitioner?”  

I was blown away by the thoughtfulness of the essays that came in fifth and fourth. Not so the third and second.  A trend was developing, and its culmination, the winner of the contest, did not stray. 

The innovation that will be most valuable to me as a solo practitioner in the future is a system to integrate incoming telephone calls with outgoing voice mail messages and also allow full interaction with knowing immediate availability and scheduling future appointments.

Voicemail on steroids?  Possibly the most counterproductive, impersonal, ineffective tool in the arsenal of weapons separating one human being from another, receives the ABA Journal’s highest honor?  What a dream world, where lawyers need no longer have actual contact with clients and can use technology to pretend to cater to their clients’ needs without the need for actual communication.

The lawyer joke is that practicing law would be fun, if only we didn’t have to deal with clients.  The client joke, of course, is that the law might be useful, if only they didn’t have to deal with lawyers.

The third component of this innovation will allow existing clients to automatically schedule phone calls or in-person meetings at your office through the integration of your telephone and your electronic calendar software. If you are not available when an existing client calls, then in lieu of them leaving a voice mail message, they will have the option of entering their client number and their passcode (which you would have e-mailed to them previously) and the system would provide them with limited access to your electronic calendar software. They could enter the date and time that they would like to meet with you along with the estimated time needed for the appointment and the system will tell them if you are available at that time. If you are not available, then the system would tell them the next available time and date, and they would have the option of accepting this appointment and then indicating whether this was an in-person meeting or a phone call.

How wonderfully routine and convenient.  Except that it demonstrates the antithesis of client service.  Emergency?  A week from Tuesday.  A serious question?  Whenever.  The ten minute meeting for nothing, or for a serious discussion that requires two hours.  It’s all about what’s good for the lawyer, only appearing convenient to the client, because everyone knows how much clients want to be reduced to numbers and passcodes.

One of the “advantages” of this system is that it gives clients “a more personalized voice mail greeting.”  Is this what we have to look forward to in the future, a more personalized greeting as a substitute for a person? 

The ABA Journal has long been fanatical about technology for its own sake, promoting the tool without regard to the mechanic.  There’s no indication of thought imposed on its elevation of the shiniest new toy over such non-rebellious means as competence, ethics and old-fashioned client service.  Whatever happened to promoting lawyers who return phone calls promptly?  Way too low-tech for the digital world.  If it can’t be plugged in, it’s not worth spit.

But the question that keeps cropping up is why the ABA Journal persists in its course of blindly favoring any technological “solution” over a future of hard work and service to clients?  My guess is it’s information overload, the stress that comes of far too many voices singing the hosannas of technology without consideration of where it fits in the role lawyers should play.  It has become impossible to hear the voices of clients over the cacophony of the digital choir, or their crying at their lawyers’ failure to care about how they are being increasingly marginalized in our adoration of technology.

Can Molly McDonough see clearly with the blinding glare of the iPad in her eye?  Please, Ed Adams, give Molly some time off.  She’s a good woman, but no mere mortal can handle the stress.  This is the ABA Journal, and whether you like it or not, it carries with it the cache of the American Bar Association, leading lawyers astray for more than a centuryTM.  I’m not a Luddite.  I have a computer and know (somewhat) how to use it, but if the ABA Journal can’t remember that the client is the star of the show, that’s a problem.  I’m sure this would have been Molly’s foremost thought if only she had some time to recharge after the Legal Rebels summer cross country tour.  Come on, Ed.  Do it for Molly.  She deserves it.

Congratulations to the winner of the essay contest.  You may need that $5 grand when your clients figure out that the innovation you think is most important for the future revolves around a more personal voicemail greeting.  Press 1 if you disagree.

4 thoughts on “ABA Legal Rebels; Racing Toward Mediocrity

  1. BRIAN TANNEBAUM

    I’m surprised the ones in 4th and 5th were even recognized. That the ABA has reduced itself to an association that coddles the starbucks lawyers who may one day wear a closed-toe shoe to something, is evident that the prize is in an amount that far exceeds what any of these “lawyers” receive for a case.

    The ABA needs new members, more members, and they’ve realized that solos who actually practice law see the ABA as still in BigLaw love. The only solos the ABA can attract are those that are “rebels” and do things surrounded by coffee they can’t afford playing on machines they can’t afford either

  2. Carolyn Elefant

    In addition to your substantive criticism, what’s equally unfortunate about this winning essay is that there are already out of the box tech tools available – free – that support most of the functionality of what the author proposes. Products like Google or Tungle allow clients to set appointments, and will synch with existing calendars so that the information is entered on the lawyer’s calendar. Though I’m not aware of a voice mail service that will send a caller directly to the calendar, one could easily set the voice mail to say “If I’m not available, you may go to abc website and self-schedule.” One can also set up a website chat which will indicate whether the lawyer is available or not. Sure, these tools could be somewhat better integrated or streamlined, but that’s refinement, not innovation.
    By the way, I have been trying for at least a year to “train” clients to use my online portals and having very little luck. Believe it or not, most of them still prefer email or phone calls as a response. So while I do support making these technologies available, there are still many who are not ready to use them.

  3. SHG

    Of course clients don’t want to be “trained.”  They retain a person, not a tech system. Their time is valuable too. They don’t want to be put on “ignore.”  This is a system designed for lawyer convenience, with the facile appearance of client efficiency.  A personalized greeting is no substitute for speaking with their lawyer when they need to.  If lawyers can’t distinguish tools that facilitate their work from tools that convenience them at the expense of client service, then it’s only a matter of time before the public wants nothing to do with lawyers at all.  Clients do not exist to pay us money and otherwise not bother us.

  4. Windypundit

    This reminds me, back when I was searching for a traffic lawyer, one of the criminal defense sites made a big deal of promising that each client would be assigned a special contact person that they could always contact if they had any questions about their case. The site was very careful to never say that the lawyer assigned to the case would be this person. In other words, clients were only allowed to talk to some kind of assistant, not to their actual lawyers. Automating this level of customer service seems like the next logical step, doesn’t it?

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