More bad PR for divorce lawyers

Have you seen the results of a survey published by Onlydads.org and Onlymums.org about the cost of divorce? Interesting stuff.

Undertaken by researcher Kim Tasso, the survey’s findings – albeit derived from a small sample – point to poor satisfaction levels with divorce lawyers. Such sentiment is barely out of the headlines: two week’s ago the Legal Ombudsman published a report slamming service levels and pricing due to the sheer volume and nature of the complaints it received.

On a smaller scale, Kim Tasso’s survey sample was made up of over over two-thirds men with half of all respondents earning between £25,000 and £50,000 per annum. Over three quarters of respondents used a solicitor with just over a third saying they used a mediator.

But it was the price of divorce that caught our eye: 27% indicated that they paid over £30,000 for their divorce with the same percentage paying between £10,000 and £30,000. That means the cost of divorce (by which we take to mean legal fees) was in excess of £10,000 for more than half of respondents.

While these cases could have been high conflict and not suited to either mediation or collaborative approaches, it is nevertheless telling that 71% of respondents said they were not given information about alternative methods of divorce. And a whopping 93% indicated that they were not offered a fixed fee.

As the author concludes in the report’s executive summary: “Whilst it is a small sample, the cost of divorce for these people does appear to be out of balance with their incomes. What is of concern is that the cost of divorce prevented the majority from obtaining the legal advice that they needed, that fixed fees and alternative methods were not provided to most of them and that there was a high level of dissatisfaction with the legal service received.”

While the findings are sobering, we’re not surprised that fixed fees weren’t offered or that costs may have escalated. This is the nature of an open-ended negotiation-led process that may or may not end in litigation. On an hourly rate, it is the client that takes all the risk. Fixing the fee for lawyer-led negotiations effectively inverts the relationship, leaving the lawyer to shoulder all the risk. But why do so when the very process of lawyer-led negotiation prevents practitioners from knowing how easy or difficult the case will be?

Equally relevant is the fact that most divorcees are one-time shoppers making a distressed purchase. They’re not seasoned negotiators prepared to hammer out a framework deal with their would-be lawyer at the end of an options meeting. Most just want to know where they stand and what to do next?

We think survey results of this kind reinforce the notion of a market failure. In essence, one-time shoppers and the absence of customer feedback loops result in no pressure to innovate on the part of the family lawyer. They’re simply not at risk.

Until now that is. Given the withdrawal of legal aid from lawyers for most private family law matters, there ought to be a lot of senior legal aid solicitors up and down the UK wondering how to replace lost income? While some might chase more public law work or choose early retirement, the answer surely lies in attracting private clients through innovation.

If only it was as simple as “going fixed fee” or “discounting hourly rates”. Alas, it also has to make commercial sense. Rather, it’s about pricing demand for sought after legal expertise that manifests commercial savvy. It’s about learning – if not embracing – to work in a different way. It could mean structured partnerships with mediators or branding oneself as an out and out collaborative specialist.

It’s a creative space is survival and we believe lawyer-supported mediation could be a clever step forward for many a legal aid London divorce lawyer contemplating life after April. But then we would say that, wouldn’t we!

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