Why do Lawyers cost so much?

I like to compare the lawyers in our firm to doctors. We may serve very different purposes, but our businesses are similar. Except that they are not similar at all.

People get hurt pretty bad and need a doctor. They know it is coming some day so they buy health insurance. But they also get little hurts and want to go to the doctor anyway. This is actually why health insurance is so unsustainable: instead of buying a simple insurance program (mitigating catastrophic risk by spreading it across a large group), people also want a medical plan (pre-paying for certain-to-occur injuries and maladies). If you have ever gone without insurance or tried to buy an affordable policy, you know that you can get catastrophic coverage at a much more reasonable rate than the medical-type-plan.

Sit with that in your mind for a minute, then think about lawyers. Very few people buy lawyer insurance. Most people need a lawyer and then go looking for one. They compare prices, see that most lawyers charge an hourly rate, and know they're spending a lot so they try to get the best fit. People who call a lawyer are usually in a pretty big bind. Something in their life is all tangled up and they want help unraveling the ball of string. They are often frustrated that lawyers charge anything for that, and especially that they charge so much.

I have heard many complaints about having to buy justice. Callers drop lofty ideals like "fair" and "principle," suggesting that I have a duty to right the wrongs and receive no pay. It is easy to get frustrated with that logic, but I do half agree with those callers, which brings me back to doctors.

Doctors are highly-trained professionals. They can do things with knives that would make Gordon Ramsay humble. We pay a lot for them because we need them. But we use them too much. We see the doctor for every little thing and that is collapsing the insurance industry. With costs-per-visit rising, doctors have started to push work down to give patients more affordable options. My daughter's burn last week was treated by a nurse practitioner, and my sister is marrying a physician's assistant. We have options for healthcare now that are catered to our need, and the more that happens, the more we can control our costs.

Which brings me to why lawyers cost so much. Once, when a would-be client with a major tangle that he had created asked why he should pay me more than 10 times an hour what he makes, I told him it is because I am highly-trained, really smart, and, most importantly, the only person who could fix his problem. That guy needed a lawyer like a guy in a car wreck needed a doctor - no one else was qualified to handle his dispute. And that is why a lawyer would charge him so much. He needed the training, skill, and experience that only a lawyer has.

But here is where I agree with many of the complaints I hear - not everyone needs a lawyer. The legal industry has not done the job that medical professionals have. We have not found good ways to push costs down. Part of that is the industry's fault (state bars are very particular about who can "practice law") and part of that is the public's fault (most people are offended by having a non-lawyer in the office dealing with their dispute, even if it's a small one).

With the decline of churches, families and communities as a means of dispute resolution, people seem to only have two options: either they get a lawyer or they get over it. That is not a sustainable approach. You don't need a doctor for the flu, but ignoring the flu entirely could be disaster for some people. You need another option. I hope that lawyers and state bars continue to work on lower-cost alternatives. Without that, whole segments of our communities are going to carry disputes around with them or go broke trying to fight them.

We are taking the path less traveled, for sure, trying to find ways to deliver excellent service while lowering costs. We accomplish that in two major ways: pulling the lawyers out of the process as much as possible and empower the clients to make more of the decisions.

Here's the take-home if you're going to hire us: we charge less, but we expect more. You will have homework. You will deal primarily with staff who, though highly trained in customer service and more than capable of answering 80% of your questions, are not lawyers.

These processes are our versions of the physician's assistant or nurse practitioner. In most firms you are paying to talk to the heart surgeon about your cold. We aim to end that, both for clients and for attorneys. Those attorneys are highly skilled and should only have the most complicated cases sent to them with clients who can afford to pay. But you should still have access to a solution that addresses your needs and that you can afford.

That's us. That's the goal.