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Does a Lawyer's Price Reflect Performance?

Consider this: Taste-testers consistently prefer expensive wine over cheap wine -- even when both wines are actually the same labeled with different price tags. And this: Among consumers given an energy drink and then asked to solve word puzzles, consumers who bought the drink at full price scored better than those given a discount. These studies point to the power of our expectations, suggests an essay published yesterday in The Boston Globe, Grape Expectations: What Wine Can Tell Us About the Nature of Reality. And this power is not merely superficial, says the essay's author, Jonah Lehrer, editor-at-large at Seed magazine -- the wine tasters showed greater levels of activity in their brains' pleasure centers when told they were given more expensive wine. Citing Stanford neuroeconomist and marketing professor Baba Shiv, the leader of the energy-drink study, Lehrer concludes that a key implication of all this is that it is possible to make a product more "effective" by increasing its price.

A good marketing campaign can have a similar effect, as it instills consumers with lofty expectations about the quality of the product. For instance, Shiv cites research showing that cars made in the same factory, with the same parts, but sold under different brand names (such as Toyota and Geo) receive markedly different reliability ratings from consumers. When we drive a car with a less exalted brand name, we are more likely to notice minor mechanical problems.

Reading this, I remembered back to my early days as a solo representing the plaintiff in a discrimination lawsuit. Arriving with my client at defense counsel's office for his deposition, I could see immediately that he was struck by the elegance of its furnishings and design. We were escorted into a large, ornately decorated conference room with dark wood paneling and a highly polished conference table surrounded by plush chairs. As we stood there alone, waiting for the others to come in, he said of the opposing counsel, who he had not yet met, "She must be a very good lawyer."

We have all encountered these "grape expectations" in our careers -- the perception by clients, potential clients, judges and others that the higher the price, the better the lawyer. Worse yet, many of us have fallen prey to this prejudice, letting ourselves be intimidated by high-priced lawyers at big-name firms. But why is that? Are these expectations shaped by experience? Is there any reason to believe that higher-priced lawyers are generally better than those whose fees are more reasonable? Lehrer's essay recommends that consumers protect themselves from their own expectations through fact checking and "blind" testing. "Instead of trusting big-name brands, or naively assuming that we always get what we pay for, consumers can learn to bargain hunt," he writes. As one who believes that bigger is not always better, I would extend this to the legal field, and urge legal consumers -- and lawyers themselves -- to learn to fact-check their expectations.

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on February 25, 2008 at 01:26 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)


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