Chicken and sauce story in legal services

Have you heard of the Chicken and Sauce story in legal services?  No?  I bet you have - once you know what it is about.  In fact, you probably have experienced it yourself before.  

So, here is how the Chicken and Sauce story usually goes:

A customer enters a restaurant desiring to have some chicken for lunch.  After looking through the menu, the customer orders the only grilled chicken option on the menu, which was labeled as “Grilled Chicken Breast” with a price tag of $35.  After waiting for about an hour, the chicken dish was finally delivered to the customer’s table.  On the dish, there is one simple grilled chicken breast with a small portion of broccoli on the side.  No sauce on the chicken or on the side.  After tasting the chicken, the customer finds the meat tender but dry, so the customer asks the waiter for some sauce for the chicken. Waiter takes the dish back to the kitchen and after another 30 minutes, the dish reappears at the customer’s table, and this time with sauce on the chicken.  Customer enjoys the meal and feels that the sauce tastes good paired with the chicken.    

Customer then asks for the bill to pay for the meal.  When the waiter arrives with the bill, the customer is totally shocked.  The total price of the meal is $250.  Customer asks the waiter why did the $35 meal become $250?  

Waiter says, “you wanted sauce with the chicken, so our chef had to cook the caviar sauce to put on your chicken.  The additional price is because of the caviar sauce you asked for.”  

Customer responds, “but I never asked for caviar sauce, and even if I have to pay for sauce, shouldn’t you have let me know how much it is before you put the sauce on?”    

Waiter is very offended and says, “we were focusing on servicing you and meeting your request, so why would we have time to talk to you about the price for the sauce?  You should have known that when you asked for the sauce, it would be more expensive.”    

Customer feels being blindsided and is livid.  Waiter and chef feel that their efforts are not being appreciated by the customer and are both livid.  

Does this story sound ridiculous to you?  Even though it is not common in real life “restaurant” experiences, it is quite common in legal services.  

Now, let’s replace the restaurant setting with a law firm, the waiter and chef with lawyers, the chicken dish with legal services, the $35 price tag with what the legal fees that lawyers said they will charge for the “scope of services,” and of course, the bill for the meal with the legal bill at the end for the legal services.  Does that sound more familiar to you now?  

In fact, this type of Chicken and Sauce story happens quite often in the legal services world.  

In the beginning, clients usually describe to lawyers their “issues” and what they need the lawyers to do.  

Most of the time clients will ask for estimated legal fees from the lawyers.  Lawyers usually give clients an idea of the fees, and sometimes, supplement that with a bunch of complicated assumptions that clients cannot comprehend.  An example of a typical assumption is “the fee quoted assumes that the matter will be completed in 2 months.”  (If you are wondering what this means, good question!)

Throughout the legal services process, lawyers and clients talk about the legal “stuff.”  At the completion of the matter, clients get the legal bill with the actual fees way beyond what lawyers quoted originally.  

When clients ask about the reason for the expensive legal fees, lawyers’ usual answer is that “the scope of services was beyond the original scope because you have asked us [….] questions.”  

When clients state that lawyers should have let them know about the increase of legal fees when it was happening, lawyers’ typical response is: “we were focusing on giving you the legal answers and meeting your request, so we didn’t have time to talk to you about the scope.  Plus, you should have known when you asked those questions that the legal fees would be higher.”  

Clients are livid.  Lawyers are livid.  Both for the same reasons as the customer and waiter/chef in the Chicken and Sauce story.

Lawyers refer to the problem as “creeping scope” issue.  This is one of the reasons that lawyers do not like to give fee quotes/estimated legal fees.  But in today’s world, most businesses need to have an idea of what the legal fees will ultimately be for each matter so that they can plan for the payment of the fees in their budget. Not giving an estimate for legal fees is an unrealistic approach.  

The other approach that lawyers usually adopt is to include a bunch of assumptions with the fee quote.    This does not seem to be a practical approach either, since most of the assumptions are written in a way that is difficult for clients to digest, and clients usually view these assumptions as “gotchas”.  What a way to start a “trusting” relationship!  

One of the most effective solutions to the Chicken and Sauce issue in legal services is clear and consistent communication between lawyers and clients about legal fees and how legal services are being charged at each step.  Lawyers hate talking to clients about fees because it is usually a difficult conversation.  However, without clear communication to set the right expectations on both sides, the Chicken and Sauce story will be the future of their relationship.  

The other key to the solution is that lawyers need to start analyzing their own legal services PROCESS and steps.  The only way that lawyers can communicate “creeping scope” to clients is if lawyers can separate out their legal process logically in the same way that a restaurant separates “grilled chicken without sauce” and “grilled chicken with sauce” and provide the options of the sauce to be caviar sauce or wine sauce with different price tags.  

It is definitely more challenging for lawyers providing legal services to be able to logically layout their layers of services, but without this effort, legal services will continue to suffer from the Chicken and Sauce issue.

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