By Harry S. Margolis
A quote attributed to the art historian and philospher John Ruskin (1819-1900) examines the risks of looking for the lowest price for every item or service. Here’s what he had to say:
It’s unwise to pay too much but it’s unwise to pay too little. When you pay too much you lose a little money — that is all. When you pay too little, you sometimes lose everything, because the thing you bought was incapable of doing the thing you bought it to do. The common law of business balance prohibits paying a little and getting a lot — it can’t be done. If you deal with the lowest bidder, it’s well to add something for the risk you run. And if you do that, you will have enough to pay for something better!
This advice is relevant to the issue of fair legal fees. It’s possible to generate some estate planning documents, for instance, on LegalZoom or other websites. But will the quality of the documents be better or worse than that of an experienced practioner in the field? And will the client choose the right documents and the best terms without the counsel of an attorney who has worked with hundreds of clients?
Of course, the idea that it’s worth paying for value may be easier said than done. To some extent there’s a correlation between fees and quality of legal services. But it’s not exact. Some inexperienced or low-skill professionals are good at selling their services and charging high fees, while some others who provide high quality services may not charge enough. So simply going with the highest cost provider is no better assurance of getting the best value.
Of course, choosing a professional service, whether legal, financial, medical or in the field of psychotherapy, is quite different from purchasing a commodity. The car you purchase will be the same no matter which dealer you engage. But every professional is different in many ways, making comparisons difficult.
The best course is choose professionals based on their experience, recommendations of people we trust, and your sense of them when meeting. Price, while not irrelevant, should be secondary. Just ask John Ruskin.
Or don’t. It turns out that while Ruskin is credited with this quote, according to the Ruskin Library, they can’t find a trace of it in any of his writings.