3 Reasons a Lawyer's Competition is "Anyone But a Lawyer"

My mouth dropped. Two hundred Long Island middle school students didn't know what an "attorney" was. It was a career fair for the music honor society, and I was there to discuss entertainment and arts law. But they all knew what a "lawyer" was. "What is a lawyer's primary purpose?" I asked. Here are a few of my not-so-favorite answers: "To lie to people."  "To exaggerate." "To keep my mom out of jail." From the mouths of babes.

Lawyers get a bad rap. They are regarded as a necessary evil. But the good ones are cherished by clients as trusted advisers and friends. Nonetheless, many lawyers think they know who their competition is; they think it is the attorney in the same practice area across town with a bigger bank account. That couldn't be farther from the truth. A lawyer--especially a transactional attorney--will find that "anyone but a lawyer" is his/her biggest competition. Here's why:

  1. DIYers Like To Do It Themselves
    If someone is a go-getter, an industrious mover and shaker, she doesn't like to wait around for someone else to get things done. DIYers, so often doing it themselves, discover that, more often than not, the downside of learning by doing is usually outweighed by a new education and rapid progress for less money. However, transactions are prospective; litigation is retrospective. A confident DIYer puts his faith in the legal forms he finds on the internet, combined with his own discerning intellect. Pain is deferred. It is not until the eventual lawsuit or cease-and-desist letter when his certitude begins to crumble.
  2. Your Client Pool Thinks You're a Plumber
    Thumbtack.com is a modern-day bulletin board on which people who seek services can post request for said services, and service providers--notified by SMS text message and email--can respond quickly in return. The Thumbtack requests for lawyers usually consist of requests such as "I need someone to stop the foreclosure on my home" or "Help me get my mom out of jail." The public perception of lawyers is so fixed in the American mind: my lawyer, my plumber in a suit and tie. I'm knee-deep in excrement, I'm holding my nose, but I am calling you to rescue me and fix this situation. Now. Nobody wants to call a plumber, but a good one commands top dollar.
  3. A Lawyer is a Lawyer is a Lawyer is... NOT
    Too often, lawyers don't actually do anything to change public perception. They advertise, but do they inquire? Do they cultivate relationships in a way that engenders appreciation from clients? Do they distinguish themselves from others, articulating their job description with particularity and clarity?  Do they translate legalese into a client's native tongue, so that the client can forget about the law and tend to business? When they do, they don't lose business. There may be many hours unbilled, many networking events missed, but they have created something stronger than a contract or a lawsuit: a client's comfort and faith that everything will be okay. To truly succeed in this day and age as an attorney--especially a small firm attorney--a client must be persuasively shown that lawyers are not  interchangeable parts in a secret society's assembly line.

Related: 3 Client Cultivation Lessons from Last Night's "The Good Wife" Episode