What Do Mechanics & Attorneys Have in Common?

Probably not much at all except that you can say that both are in the business of delivering service.  As such, both can be called “vendors” although most attorneys bristle at the use of the term when applied to them just as most insurers bristle when attorneys refer to them as “third party payors.”

These thoughts passed through my mind last Saturday as I was driving home from my office.  I had turned on NPR and caught the end of Car Talk with Click and Clack. As I joined the program in progress, a listener had called in to complain that he had paid an auto mechanic in advance to diagnose and repair his vehicle. The mechanic had not diagnosed the problem let alone begun the repairs despite repeated entreaties by the listener.

One thing that Click (or maybe it was Clack) gently scolded the listener on was paying the mechanic in advance.  To support his point, he said “in my 25 years in business, whenever I get paid in advance, that person always gets lousier service than those who have not paid me yet.” He said that it is just “human nature” that if there is nothing else in it for you, you don’t care as much.

It is tempting to say that Click’s (or Clack’s) observation on human nature just applied to auto mechanics.  But we all know that this is probably one of those universal observations that applies to virtually any type of service situation including legal services.  In fact, a very eminent authority on the issue of the delivery of legal services had a very  similar observation:  “As a general rule never take your whole fee in advance. When fully paid beforehand, you are more than a common mortal if you can feel the same interest in the case, as if something was still in prospect for you.” *

Perhaps this was an early warning to insurers about entering into flat fee agreements that require the payment of fees for cases upfront.  Although I now read where some insurers are saying that their flat fee arrangements are working for them, I often wonder if this is not a very broad statement which masks some fundamental problems.  For example, if you would drill down the data for further details, would you find that the longer the cases stay open, the less they are worked by the attorneys?  After all, human nature is human nature and the last time I checked, we lawyers are all common mortals.

Finally, I cannot resist giving one further observation on auto mechanics and lawyers from John Chisholm, “Is it just coincidental that mechanics mostly have disputes (when they do) with their customers over technical quality but rarely price, while lawyer complaints are mostly over price, not technical quality?”

In the final analysis, I guess complaints about auto mechanics’ repairs and lawyer’s legal bills may never cease. But, still, I do wonder if complaints over lawyer bills would lessen if lawyers offered a free car wash along with their regular services just like auto mechanics do.

* Abraham Lincoln, Notes for Law Lecture (Jul. 1, 1850), in 2 COMPLETE WORKS OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN 142-43 (John G. Nicolay & John Hay eds.)

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