This post was first published in March 2016.
In my last post I discussed the far-reaching reforms of family justice procedure described by the President in this year’s address to the Family Law Bar Association, together with a possible vision of how the post-reform landscape might look.
As a tool to guide future practice decisions, I give you my ten maxims for the successful post-Munby practitioner:
- Lawyers are not central to their clients’ divorces. The breakdown of a relationship is multi-faceted and primarily a psychological, emotional and practical problem. Lawyers are brought in only because the legal aspects are too complicated and opaque for people to deal with by themselves, but have a habit of taking over because they are the only professionals involved. If the legal side is simplified clients can better spend their money on counselling and coaching, and the legal aspect will be recognised for the side-issue it really is.
- Early, low-conflict resolution of family disputes is invaluable. Enough emphasis is not always put on the benefits of parties putting financial negotiations behind them and being able to move on with their lives.
- Approximate justice for all is better than tailored justice for a few. This will raise lawyers’ hackles more than anything else but, as I have argued previously, too many people currently receive nothing so that courts and lawyers can provide personalised justice to those who can afford it. In a world dominated by litigants in person, there has to be some simplification of awards as well as process.
- Collection and analysis of data is vital to ensure consistency and fairness. Not only this, but in the future intelligently collected and evaluated data may allow online solicitors to develop the tools that will give them the edge over their competitors, be that more efficient processes, analysis of court data or the most suitable fixed fee based on a particular client’s assets and risk profile.
- Charge for advice and assistance, but not for information. Once upon a time solicitors were the gatekeepers of knowledge about the law and how the court works. Clients should be paying for expertise, not openly available information.
- Help people help themselves. In a world where it is easy to represent yourself, many more clients will be looking for piecemeal advice rather than full representation. This is not only about unbundled services, however. Many businesses have been successful on the internet using ‘freemium’ models – this may become an established model for legal advisers too (see also point 8).
- Bill based on value, not time. The death of the billable hour has been predicted for many years, and many judges are now taking up the call. Lawyers should work out how they will do that now to be ahead of the curve when it becomes commonplace.
- Collaborate to build collective reputation and resources. Why have 100 firm websites with the same 10 pages about how to get divorced when you could combine that expertise to provide one site with 1,000 unique pages? Self representing litigants will be looking for a single online resource that they can turn to time and time again for information. Family law teams do not have the resources to do this by themselves (unless they are Marilyn Stowe) but could band together to generate traffic and referrals.
- Focus on technology to improve efficiency and user experience. Family law is a technology backwater, but the most profitable firms of tomorrow will be those with the best workflow systems and efficient use of staff time. The most popular will be the ones who make things simplest for their clients.
- Look outside family law, and the law generally, for inspiration. There are brilliant things going on in other industries that could be adopted/adapted for use in the family law arena. Things don’t have to be done the way they are now (the President has made that pretty clear) and it is not necessary to invent anything new from scratch. Lawyers should be constantly alert and curious about innovation in other fields and how that can improve their own offering.