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Access to justice: Who needs it, how you can help | Jo-Anne Stark

Thursday, April 01, 2021 @ 1:02 PM | By Jo-Anne Stark

Jo-Anne Stark %>
Jo-Anne Stark
Dear Jo: I seem to be getting more calls these days from people who have cases that require legal services, but who have had a bad experience working with law firms in the past. They are often left with ongoing legal matters and a large bill to pay — with no funds to retain a new lawyer to help them. As a legal professional, I want to help these people — but how can I assist them at a price that they can afford?

Answer: As lawyers, we often enter law school with the best of intentions. We want to help people with their legal problems. We want to be involved in social justice issues. We want to make a difference. 

When I went to university, my undergraduate degree was in commerce. Every class, almost without exception, was about the client or customer. What does the client want? What services are they seeking? What price are they willing to pay? How do we create and market a service that meets these needs? The focus was always on the client….

But when I entered law school, that focus changed dramatically. I don’t recall a single class ever discussing the overall needs of a client or the business of providing legal services: it was all about identifying a legal issue and applying caselaw.

After graduation, the focus as a practising lawyer was on billable hours, targets and collecting unpaid invoices. The client was nothing more than a file number, along with dozens of others; I spent my days identifying legal issues and set about resolving those issues — and believed that this would make my clients satisfied. However, a good court order doesn’t equate to a happy client if they are left struggling to pay off large legal bills!

When I left private practice to work in the financial services industry, I said goodbye to billable hour targets and was finally able to place my attention squarely on the client — what services they wanted, what price they were willing to pay and the delivery method that was most convenient for them.

The traditional practice of law, I have found,  is not “client-centric,” nor is it holistic in nature.  What do I mean by that? I find that most lawyers are focussed on the legal issues and not on the client. Putting time and attention into understanding your client’s  underlying needs, what they can afford and finding ways to provide those services — this represents a more client-centric approach to practicing law.

Did you know that most people who meet the definition of “middle class” in Canada do not earn sufficient income to retain legal representation to address a serious legal matter? The 2018/2019 Report of the National Self-Represented Litigants Project found that 68 per cent of self-represented litigants  who responded to the survey started off with legal representation, but eventually ended up representing themselves. And over half of those respondents ranked their experience with legal representation as being “poor.” As lawyers, we can do better. It all begins by really listening to the needs of clients.

There are some lawyers out there who are exploring new ways to service these clients. For example, legal coaching is a way to help support clients with legal matters — often virtually and without the need for commercial office space. The legal coach works with the client as a partner; together, they identify goals and steps to achieve those goals — an approach which is more personal and client-focussed. 

The client sees actual results as they complete the steps to achieve their goals because the coach is there holding them accountable and measuring the progress being made. The client knows that the coaching sessions will cost a set fee, usually paid monthly for a fixed rate. There are no surprises and the client can budget for this expense: this creates an atmosphere of trust in the coaching relationship. Many appreciate the fact that they can pay as they go, with no large retainer required up front. The legal coach is able to set up sessions and have a steady stream of income by helping a greater number of clients each month.

By becoming a certified legal coach, you can help more people by offering the type of legal services they are asking for, at a cost that they can finally afford. In addition, there is no need for a client to come up with a retainer — and that means no need for complicated trust accounting.  It also means you will no longer be the one attending court — which leaves you more time to help even more clients. And isn’t that the reason you became a lawyer in the first place — to help people?

Jo-Anne Stark, B.Comm., JD, CLC, is the founding president of the non-profit Legal Coaches Association and author of Mastering the Art of Legal Coaching. Find her on LinkedIn.

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