Thursday, March 24, 2011

Back to Basics

While one wouldn’t wish to disturb the appeal and tranquillity of the day’s brilliant sunshine and cloudless blue skies, there is nonetheless the perfect storm brewing worldwide as numerous independent economies struggle to upright themselves, the Far East is embroiled in escalating friction which is driving the price of oil ever higher, Japan (one of the world’s largest economies) is facing years of reconstruction after the devastating tsunami and earthquake (exacerbated by nuclear explosions) and the ripple effect of all of the above is already starting to be felt in the price of food. Closer to home, the declining condition of the housing market in the United States is now so well known that it is no longer the subject of recondite enquiry. Added to this is the rising cost of electricity, especially provoked by the latest rage for “green” power, whether hydraulic or wind, and the premium being paid for it.

There is a common theme to all these matters; namely, they highlight the increased cost of the essentials - food, energy and housing - without which none of us can live.

To the minds of some people, this crescendo of cost is highly overblown. Some see it as merely a day of reckoning, a much delayed accounting for our historical extravagances. Similarly to others it is an opportunity to develop alternate resources. Automobiles quickly spring to mind as part of the “downsizing” theme. Experimentation with new energy sources are becoming more and more front and centre. Even alternative foods (including insects, for example) are making the headlines.

Within my tiny sphere of influence, during pressing times such as these, I have to question whether my services are no longer indispensable. A great deal of what I do is discretionary, and even at the best of times legal work doesn’t attract an avid following, at least not for the rural conveyancer. The permeation of economic misery will of course eventually affect everyone, butcher, baker or candlestick maker.

There is some case to be made for the affect of the internet on private economies. A clear example of its ruinous affect is the book trade which has not only diminished the value of books but also threatens the livelihood of the authors, not to mention the promotion of unemployment where virtual stores replace bricks and mortar. Of course for every decline of one business there appears to be the upsurge in another. However, the driving message is that one must be prepared to adapt to new ways of doing business.

So often modulation of business practices is equated with doing something not just better but more cheaply. I prefer to stick to the theory that you get what you pay for. For some commodities the presentation box is neither here nor there. Not everyone for example needs a leather bound book to read, an electronic version will often suffice. But in other arenas the quality of the product is much less open to compromise, and the constituent elements are essential. Even though one can now download just about anything on the internet, whether it is music, videos or even templates for legal documents, I suspect most people shy away from doing their own legal work if for no other reason than that they are not completely comfortable with what they are doing. There is the inescapable risk factor which is not so pronounced when listening to a pirated musical production. Nonetheless in hard times many people choose to ignore the vitality of their underpinning legal documents, whether a Will, Power of Attorney or estate plan.

When faced with a lack of appetite, fueled by a fear of expenditure, no amount of canvassing or promotion will succeed in attracting potential clients. One must simply ride out the inertia, waiting for the belt to loosen enough to encourage trade and movement generally. The interdependency of all the factors at play is undeniable, and to imagine that somehow one’s personal efforts or qualifications are so compelling as to rise above that interdependency is misplaced optimism.

Meanwhile I amuse myself by contemplating possible changes to my own business model. Law, being an inherently archaic undertaking, continues to attract the old-fashioned style of business. While the “virtual” office may work in some circumstances, the necessity to sign documentation, often in the presence of no less than two witnesses, punctuates the need for a real business venue. Once that prerequisite is acknowledged, the door is opened to more traditional standards which, for example, would even mitigate against a home office. As for the legal documentation, as much as there is a desire to employ a template for every situation, the reality is that close examination of particular circumstances are still required and emendation of standard formats are not only desirable but mandatory. To delegate such examination and emendation to a subordinate is unfairly dealing with the Client’s needs. If a paralegal can do my job as well as I, either I am not doing much or I am missing something. It is a misleading fiction to suppose that one can reduce legal costs by compromising professional instruction. And it all takes time. Rushing a job does not improve the quality of service.

In spite of the decline of religion generally, at least in the developed world, there is an increase in spirituality, specifically a trend away from a preoccupation with making money. Perhaps as a result of the economic struggles, younger people are adopting ways of looking at the world without requiring the biggest and best toys to enjoy it. There is even a tendency for families to stay together longer, again largely out of necessity. Nonetheless the values that are promoted tend to be more in line with the enjoyment of life for the sake of doing so, rather than by reason of its material rewards. Sometimes it is good to enjoy the sunshine and crystal sky without lamenting our material world.

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