What clients want: To hire you as they need you

In the 1930s, Kroger Grocery asked Kutol Products, a soap manufacturer in Cincinnati, to develop a product that would clean coal residue from wallpaper. Kutol’s solution was a dough-like substance that proved to be a successful product for the company until the 1940s and 50s, when natural gas replaced coal as the major source of heat and washable vinyl-based wallpaper hit the market. The need to clean wallpaper was a thing of the past, and so was Kutol’s wallpaper cleaner.

But then something interesting happened. Nursery school teachers were using the wallpaper cleaner in their classrooms as material for their students’ Christmas ornaments. In 1956, Kutol owners, faced with a failing business, created Rainbow Crafts and started selling the putty as sculpting material for children. Play-Doh was born and the rest is history.

Consumer insight #4: Adaptability is survival

There are many stories of products being made for one thing but ultimately successful as something else. If one lesson can be taken from stories like this, it’s that adaptation can mean survival in the world of business. And adaptation means understanding the needs of your consumers and shifting your focus to meet those needs.

Legal businesses aren’t an exception. The information age has put legal knowledge in the hands of the average person. We can all read Supreme Court decisions and criminal codes. We have access to legal guides everywhere, published online by lawyers and legal organizations. The contemporary legal consumer is not the legal consumer of 20 or even 10 years ago. Consumers perceive the potential for more control over their legal situation than previously imaginable. Some are even handling their cases themselves with online forms.

As the legal consumer changes, lawyers need to adapt to meet consumer needs. Part of adapting means understanding that consumers these days see lawyers’ roles differently than in the past. In fact, they’ve expressed to us three different ways in which lawyers are useful, each depending on the type of case and the facts of their specific case. Here are the three “lawyer roles” Avvo Consumer Insights has identified by talking to consumers, and what you need to know about them.

  1. Lawyer as “Helper.” In some situations, lawyers are considered most useful as helping the client as the client handles his/her own legal case. For example, someone wanting a will might research the subject online, then go to an online form site and complete the actual document. They would then take their will to a lawyer to review, to make sure everything is correct. In this example, the lawyer is helping the client, not doing the work. Consumers have expressed that for some situations, this is all they want and need a lawyer to do.
  2. Lawyer as “Employee.” The same person may, in a different situation, see their lawyer as an employee. Rather than do the work themselves and have the lawyer check it, these situations involve the lawyer doing the work while the client closely manages or supervises. Imagine a divorce where a lawyer handles the case and does the work, but the consumer checks up on him/her, maybe researching on the side to make sure what the lawyer is saying sounds accurate. The consumer would keep the lawyer on task and then, once the lawyer has completed paperwork, the consumer would review it.
  3. Lawyer as “Savior.” This is what we traditionally think about when we think about hiring a lawyer. In cases like these, a lawyer will be hired to take over completely. The consumer won’t be involved much, either because they can’t or don’t want to be. An example might be a criminal defense case where the client hands all responsibility over to the lawyer and trusts the lawyer to take care of everything.

Though the examples given above suggest that the type of case (a will, a divorce, a criminal defense case) determines which role a lawyer might take, it is also likely that different people facing the same type of legal issue would use a lawyer differently. For instance, someone getting a divorce might see their lawyer as an employee, while their spouse might let their lawyer handle the whole thing as their savior.

The takeaway here is that lawyers should, in their initial consults with clients, determine exactly what role is desired of them. Don’t assume that a prospective client wants to hire you as a “savior.” Make sure you’re clear what they really want you to do. This matters in clarifying boundaries and expectations, but it also lets you know if the prospect is someone whose case you want to take (for example, maybe being treated like an employee isn’t your cup of tea).

Ultimately, though, one must be open to taking on a different role from time to time. A client that wants you to review a will they did online may like you so much that, when they decide to set up a trust, they’ll turn to you as a savior. Adapting can mean more clients over the long term.

This was the last article of our consumer insights series. If you missed the first part, you can find them here: consumer insight #1, #2, and #3.