"If you desire a simple will, name change or uncontested divorce, then a franchise firm is probably sufficient for your need," says Jerry Van Hoy, assistant professor of sociology. "If your main consideration is price over quality, these firms can handle straightforward problems fairly well."
Franchise law firms consist of a network of law offices -- most located in storefronts at strip or shopping malls -- that often build their clientele through aggressive television advertising, Van Hoy says. Franchise offices are usually run by a managing attorney who hires staff lawyers and secretaries. The secretaries are relied on heavily, and the work is completed in a typical franchise style: standardized and limited. He calls these offices the most innovative providers of legal services to develop in the last 20 years. However, let the buyer beware.
Van Hoy says these law firms are designed to handle the most basic legal services that involve the least amount of work. "On one hand, clients whose problems can be solved by franchise law firms find fast, helpful service at competitive fees. On the other, cases that can't be handled easily are usually turned down in the name of efficiency and profits," he says.
Van Hoy, who studies the work of lawyers, interviewed 85 employees and observed day-to-day operations at two of the nation's largest franchise law firms. When he collected the data in 1991, the two firms each had about 150 offices nationwide and each served an estimated 175,000 clients annually. His findings were reported in a recent edition of "Law & Society Review."
Van Hoy says he found that secretaries were the real valued workers at franchise firms. "I had managing attorneys tell me they would rather lose a staff lawyer than have to replace an experienced secretary," Van Hoy says. He says that's because the secretaries do the lion's share of work at these firms. "Secretaries confidently proclaim that they 'run this place.' One secretary -- with only a high-school education -- even performed searches for residential real estate closings, a task usually reserved for lawyers or paralegals," notes Van Hoy.
"In addition to screening clients and preparing most of the legal documents, I saw secretaries dispensing legal advice. Common examples were secretaries telling prospective clients whether they had grounds for divorce; how bankruptcy might save one's home; or whether they were likely candidates for personal injury cases."
He says the salary bonuses offered at franchise firms clearly reward attorneys for their sales skills. "During many of the consultations I observed, clients appeared to be surprised by the forcefulness of the sales pitch," Van Hoy says. "Attorneys assure clients that they can solve their problems. Yet the initial interviews hardly seem long enough to convince clients of this. The longest part of many consultations is the lawyer's sales pitch."
That's because the whole transaction takes place within minutes. "As one lawyer told me, '...our consultation fee of $35 doesn't even buy 15 minutes.' Clients who expect an informative chat will not get one without the possibility of purchasing services," Van Hoy says.
The amount of time spent with clients is limited by sticking to a standard set of questions during initial interviews. "These lawyers don't want to listen to a person's life story, and they don't want the client to get too emotional," Van Hoy says. Secretaries take down the case specifics, and the firms provide standardized worksheets to the lawyers. He says the attorneys then explain what the law requires, what services the firm can provide and at what cost.
Van Hoy says staff attorneys at franchise firms appear to have little experience. "Many are young and have recently passed the bar exam. With virtually no formal training by the firm, they are given responsibility for case files the second they walk in the door," he says.
In addition, many of the staff attorneys he interviewed voiced frustration over low pay and long working hours. He says at one firm, attorneys reported working an average of 57 hours each week, with the average staff attorney income at $29,000. "The income of secretaries at the firm averaged $26,000," Van Hoy says.
While franchise firms can handle simple legal needs, Van Hoy warns against showing up at a franchise firm if you're uncertain of what you want to do. "If you seek legal advice, I suggest you look elsewhere. These lawyers don't have the experience or the time to answer a lot of questions. Also, if your problem is difficult or complex, then a franchise firm will probably turn down your case anyway," Van Hoy says.
Source: Jerry Van Hoy, (765) 496-2225, Internet: firstname.lastname@example.org
Writer: Beth Forbes, (765) 494-9723; Internet: email@example.com
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org
NOTE TO JOURNALISTS: Copies of the journal article in Law & Society Review are available from Beth Forbes at (765) 494-9723.
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