Is “Good Enough” Becoming the Enemy of the Perfect?


Debra L. Bruce, JD, PCC.

About a year ago Jordan Furlong warned in his excellent article, The Rise of Good Enough, that “clients are coming to see the costs of exactitude in the law as simply too high.” He described how some general counsel look for outside lawyers who weigh the expected risks and benefits of a legal course, rather than always pursuing the exact right answer.

Recently Robert Capps pointed out in Wired magazine that inexpensive but “good enough” technology is revolutionizing industries ranging from the military to legal services. Technology now permits lawyers to provide online “customized mass production” of common documents at rock bottom prices.

For decades law firms like Pierson Patterson, LLP have used technology to produce extremely cost effecive residential loan documentation. Initially, a lender’s high volume business made it worthwhile to customize complex documents to the lender’s requirements. Today, with online interactivity and “good enough” technology, even ordinary consumers can obtain reasonably tailored legal documents for common legal needs such as an uncontested divorce, name change, will, power of attorney, residential lease, incorporation or independent contractor agreement at prices ranging from around $10.00 to $100.00. Software programs and websites like SmartLegalForms, LegalZoom and Nolo allow a client to answer questions, in a manner similar to TurboTax income tax return preparation software, to generate their own documents. Consumers are willing to risk some imperfections in documentation if they believe the costs of even the simplest documents prepared by an in-person lawyer will suck the profits (or other benefits) out of the tranasaction.

For a long time the legal profession disregarded the leakage of business at the lowest rungs of the legal ladder, recognizing that many form purchasers would not have any legal documentation at all if they could not get it cheaply. That is still true, but today there are also people who can afford to hire a lawyer who choose to create their own documentation using software or an online service. I bet some of the same lawyers who call that foolhardy can afford to hire a CPA, but do their own tax returns with TurboTax. The point is that in the right circumstaces “good enough” legal documents really are good enough.

Solo guru Carolyn Elefant recently discussed what this means for solos. Among other points, she asserted that “cheap and simple” doesn’t mean cheesy. It does require volume, however, and therefore it requires efficient processes and effective use of non-lawyer personnel. She warns that nimble small firms had better jump to supply this demand before well-financed bigger firms recognize the opportunity to use technology to make money while they sleep.

In all the discussion of “cheap and simple” and of corporate clients wanting lawyers to weigh risks and benefits, we may be overlooking an important benefit for lawyers in this trend. I am reminded of the mantra I developed for myself 15 years ago as a legal perfectionist struggling to accomplish two goals: 1) keep legal fees down for my clients, and 2) get home sooner. Every day I had to remind myself: “Good enough is, well… good enough!”

In short, clients clamoring for “good enough” is good news. Voltaire said, “The perfect is the enemy of the good,” and that certainly plays out in the practice of many lawyers. I often work with attorneys hobbled by perfectionism. They procrastinate getting started on a project because they aren’t absolutely sure how to complete it, or they can’t stop revising a document until someone tears it out of their hands. Many cause themselves a great deal of unnecessary stress, followed by lost revenues as they write off their time due to inefficiency or client complaints about the bill.

Although exactitude will still have its place in the practice of law, some of us can celebrate our client’s request for “good enough.” It just might be the ticket to stress reduction and a little work-life balance for lawyers.

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