11 February 2013
The best things in life are free
Posted by Neil Rose, Editor, Legal Futures
The future of legal services?
One of the most interesting trends I have been watching of late is new ways to get punters through the door of legal services providers (does ‘law firms’ cut it anymore?).
The past week has seen various stories showing how varied these are becoming: the launch of insurance-backed pre-paid legal services by Simpson Millar and DAS; the opening of ‘LegalForce BookFlip’, a new retail experience in the heart of Silicon Valley that will be coming to London in the next year; and the well-known Law Shop in Bristol being given a new lease of life after its founder retired.
The idea of a subscription-based legal service offering a helpline, online document assembly and discounts on services is nothing new; Which? has been doing it successfully for some years and there are various other products out there, such as Legal Advance, LegalCare, and Halifax Legal Express. What makes ‘Everyday Legal’ different from these and from before-the-event (BTE) legal expenses insurance, however, is the fact that for £120 a year it pays some or even all of the legal fees in certain non-contentious matters like conveyancing. Underwriting it must have been a challenge.
I like the idea but it has to engineer a major cultural shift where people think they need to buy this product. The take-up of BTE is falling as consumers seek to cut costs, and an attempt some years ago to sell it as a standalone product (rather than bundled in with car or home insurance) failed because the cost was too high and the demand too small. The range of cover is a little random – I’m unlikely to need help with both education appeals and care home costs at the same time – and I think the website could ‘sell’ the concept more.
It comes back to the problem of legal services as a ‘distress’ purchase, rather than an everyday need and help in your life. Last year’s QualitySolicitors’ advertising campaign was an attempt to make an emotional connection between key life events and the need for legal services, but there is a very long way to go before that actually happens.
LegalForce offers face-to-face legal advice in an environment that entrepreneurs and technology start-ups will find comfortable, offering them self-help tools and advice if they need. It is all sofas, coffee and lawyers in branded jumpers, getting to work on branded bicycles. And soon it will be in London.
The Law Shop is similar, and has an honourable history of providing consumers in Bristol with free legal research tools, with guidance from a solicitor available in small, affordable chunks.
These developments come on the back of Rocket Lawyer’s purchase of innovative US website LawPivot, where users can ‘crowdsource’ advice for free and then, if they need, purchase follow-on advice at a discount; it fits neatly with the way Rocket Lawyer already operates, with panel firms providing free advice to users on the documents they create in the hope/expectation of being able to up-sell them. Rocket Lawyer is already here, of course, and the LawPivot service is coming too.
From one point of view, whether free or £120 a year, this is a sprat to catch the mackerel. There is little financial value in boilerplate documents or simple advice and instead they can be used to reel in potential clients with chunkier problems – Riverview Law, for example, offers free access to 650-plus advice pages and 450 documents, letters and templates; you also get a free advice call and access to the Riverview portal so you can test out the entire proposition. It is one way the firm starts to build a relationship with potential clients, and is a rather more sophisticated take on the traditional free half-hour consultation.
Also, in an age where your website is your shop window, much better to have people through the door to have a look and feel the quality, so to speak, than just walk by to somewhere more appealing.
But you don’t see this much in other sectors. Will a plumber fix your tap for free in the hope of providing you with a new boiler? As Duncan Finlyson of the Lawyers Defence Group wrote on this site last year, it is an approach that has the potential downside of devaluing what lawyers do.
Many lawyers will be reluctant to go down this route, believing they are giving away their intellectual property, along with the law’s mystique. They will also ask, reasonably enough, why they should work for free.
But, as in so many sectors, the Internet is remorselessly stripping away these objections. There are already plenty of free sources of legal advice available online (among the best for consumers are those from Citizen’s Advice and the Advice Services Alliance), and research last year indicated consumer demand for an authoritative ‘NHS Direct’ style helpline for the law. This is an idea gaining a great deal of currency given the impending legal aid cuts.
It all only goes to bolster my theory that we are leading up to a refining of the lawyer’s role – no longer the technician that some on the high street have arguably become, cutting and pasting boilerplate or processing standard transactions that a computer or paralegal can do just as well, but far more quickly and cheaply. Instead the lawyer will be the expert whose advice on the relatively small part of most transactions that requires real legal skill, clients will value and pay for.
It’s a new role in some ways because, to use Professor Richard Susskind’s description, lawyers will need to become project managers to make sure that all the bits that go into the assistance clients receive are there, even if they don’t provide them personally.
I can even envisage this going further and high street solicitors becoming distribution channels for outsourced services that they cannot profitably undertake themselves because of the economics of areas like conveyancing and fast-track personal injury. Their primary role as the solicitor would be to hold the client’s hand, while getting on with the higher value, more complex and professionally more satisfying matters.
This could be both more interesting and more profitable as lawyers will not spend the time they do now on low-grade, low-value tasks. Will this mean we don’t need as many lawyers as we have now (the number of solicitors continues to grow 3-4%, year after year)? Maybe, but to be optimistic, perhaps demand will go up in this new, accessible legal environment.
The problem is that in most law firms, this is a barely conceived future. But while they continue to labour under the old model, new entrants into the legal market do not.
The business of law is changing and for most it is no longer enough to turn over the ‘Open’ sign on the door and wait for the clients to stream in. In a world where the law is becoming both more accessible and more competitive, and consumers more savvy thanks to the Internet, you need to give them more of a reason to choose you.
There was an interesting short response to this blog from law firm digital marketing agency Isaac Parker, which said: “Freebies for an essential part of a modern legal services marketing strategy but for those struggling with the question of where to draw the line, our general rule is clear: Advice and services should stop being free at the point where they are tailored to the specific needs and circumstances of particular client.”
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