All hail the high street?

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13 September 2012


The QualitySolicitors advert: improving access to justice?

Posted by Neil Rose, Editor, Legal Futures

A common trope on this website and elsewhere is that alternative business structures and all the other changes in the legal market will hit the traditional high street law firm hard. In saying this, there is an implication that a reduction in the number of solicitors on high streets is a bad thing.

This is a shaky assumption – if everything was shipshape, I don’t suppose so many non-lawyers would be eying up the market. For one thing, quantity does not equal quality – better one efficient, accessible law firm down the road than three inefficient, inaccessible practices.

But the argument is that the provision of legal services cannot be left entirely to the vagaries of the market because of their unique function in delivering access to justice (in the broadest definition of that phrase). Will ABSs be good or bad or neutral for access to justice? It is good that the Legal Services Board is committed to monitoring this.

In guessing what the answer to this question might be, it is tempting to draw an analogy with the activities of claims management companies (CMCs) over the past 13 years or so. The main argument in favour of CMCs is that through their relentless advertising, they have improved consumers’ knowledge of their legal rights and facilitated access to justice. Do glossy adverts from QualitySolicitors or promotion of Co-operative Legal Services at the till have the same effect? If so, readers of this website will agree that it is a good thing, with benefits for all, except the high street firms that may go to the wall in face of the competition.

But, of course, there is no single right answer. I have been very taken by the story we ran on Monday of Forster Dean, the largest law firm in the country by number of offices (29). Its whole strategy is predicated on a local presence. It doesn’t pay referral fees (quite a feat given how important personal injury is to the practice), two-thirds of its new work comes from recommendation and the offices are active participants in their communities. “We’ve built our business on being really relevant in our communities,” says chief executive Greg Shields.

Why don’t more firms do this? As I’ve written before, I always wonder why I never see a stall from a law firm at my village’s summer fete, which is a big day in the area’s calendar, attracting hundreds of local people. Other businesses are there, handing out balloons and offering face painting for the kids etc, looking like good local citizens and imprinting their names in our minds. Forster Dean is also noticeably active on social media (particularly by law firm standards).

But the other side of the Forster Dean story is that it has taken a very modern approach to running the practice, investing heavily in IT and focusing on financial management to deliver impressive turnover and profit rises. The finance team has been put at the heart of the practice, rather than being the bit that deals with fees and payroll; Mr Shields explains that “the finance team has clear visibility over each fee-earner’s performance on a case-by-case basis”. You see the same sort of IT-driven discipline at other successful high street practices, although obviously the scale of Forster Dean makes this kind of investment easier.

Another interesting aspect of Forster Dean is that it doesn’t dabble – it handles personal injury and conveyancing, nothing else. Mr Shields argues for “specialising in what we do”; he doesn’t want to be a generalist, believing that the public is now much more discerning when it comes to choosing lawyers.

The real lesson of Forster Dean is that it can be done – the high street law firm can survive and thrive. But maybe it just can’t be done in the traditional way.

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