Posted by Neil Rose, Editor, Legal Futures
I’ve spent the last two days at the QualitySolicitors conference in Manchester. I was invited to chair the opening session of the event and stayed to listen to the rest.
This was on the basis that I would not report on product development that was discussed but is not yet in the public domain, so I can’t tell you everything I heard.
But having done this and had the chance to speak to the chiefs of several QS firms, it may come as a disappointment to the QS knockers out there (and there is no shortage of them) that I sensed the network is heading into a positive new phase.
It is two years since I wrote a blog with the deliberately provocative title of ‘Why does everyone hate QualitySolicitors?’  and the critics haven’t noticeably piped down since. The gossip of late has been along the lines of disenchanted firms leaving the network because they weren’t getting enough work and the abject failure of the WHSmith link-up. The notable silence from QS in the second half of 2012 was further evidence of it faltering. To sum it up, ‘I told you so – it was never going to work’.
Some firms have indeed left the network (there are around 120 members at the moment with more than 200 offices between them; I have in the past reported there being up to 150 firms). A degree of churn is inevitable, I guess, and from what I can gather certainly last year there was disenchantment and doubt, leading to threats to leave.
Also I suspect there has been selective culling of the odd firm that signed up in the early days – when just getting bodies on board was the priority – that wouldn’t pass the more stringent entry criteria applied today.
Things have changed, however, in particular following the appointment of Ian Wheeler as chief executive. Mr Wheeler is a very experienced executive, having held roles at the likes of Thomas Cook, Apple, Hertz, Reed Elsevier and most recently Amadeus IT Group. The word I kept on hearing from firms this week was ‘infrastructure’. There is now an organised and supportive head office team who are delivering tangible benefits to the member firms. Last year’s doubters think QS is back on track.
That is not to criticise, by implication, founder Craig Holt, who is now its president and head of research and development. Having got to know Craig a bit in recent years, he is clearly an ideas man first and foremost, the person with the vision of the direction in which QS should go.
He was astonishingly busy running QS (the best time to e-mail him in hope of getting a rapid response, I found, was around midnight) and also, to add to the stress, is the relatively new father of twins. It was not, I’m sure, an easy job. He says he actively encouraged the recruitment of Mr Wheeler and is now free to devote himself to developing the big ideas. But no doubt Palamon Capital, QS’s private equity investor, had a major say in this change too.
Another reason firms may have left is that being in QS is not like many of the traditional law firm marketing consortia. Particularly in personal injury, firms have got used to paying their money and then sitting back until the work rolls in – the success of QS may not totally depend on the firms working together to collectively support and promote the brand, but it stands far less chance without it.
As just one small example, a managing partner was telling me how he is about to adopt a family law marketing pack that another QS firm has developed. But working together is not something law firms have traditionally been very good at.
And WHSmith? Clearly it didn’t work in many cases – interestingly one firm told me that it had been a big success initially but the problem was that a shop like that has a lot of repeat customers and so interest in the QS stand tailed off. But to me it is a case of ‘better to have tried a new approach to marketing legal services and lost, then never to have tried at all’. I can’t see it did QS a huge amount of damage as an experiment beyond the irritant of fuelling its critics in the legal market.
The bigger picture is that QS has the scale and resources to do things that the member firms on their own cannot. That, of course, is the national profile and the benefits that flow locally from that. It has rolled out a new website, but some striking functionality and services are not yet live and will make waves when they are.
The new ‘I love my lawyer’ advertising campaign is not a universal hit among members, I’d judge, and I’m not sure about it either (it may not be client-centric enough, but then it is an eye-catching message). But I think this is more of a holding campaign ahead of launching bolder messages next year.
Above all, QS firms have bought into the idea that the market is changing. Not just a little bit, but fundamentally. We may not notice it day to day, but it goes back to the Bill Gates saying that less happens in two years and more happens in 10 than you may think.
In his presentation to the conference, Mr Holt highlighted how the Internet is changing consumer expectations and behaviours, whether it be one-click buying from Amazon, making a restaurant reservation with Top Table or watching your pizza’s progress on Domino’s website.
Lawyers do not inhabit a privileged bubble that makes them immune from this and those who can replicate so far as possible the consumer experience people like in other areas are surely more likely to thrive.
Nonetheless, I am no closer to predicting whether QS will succeed than I was two years ago. They need to do more to stand out – QS’s five service promises , apart from Saturday opening, do not mark them out from other law firms – but they know that.
As we will be discussing at the Legal Futures Conference ‘2020 Vision’  on 7 November, the battle to become a national consumer legal brand is hotting up. The likes of Slater & Gordon, Irwin Mitchell, the Co-op and Direct Line have the heft to match and even exceed what QS is doing nationally. They may struggle to do the same at a local level, but on the other hand they don’t have the difficulties of herding over 100 firms.
Where QS and its member firms are to be applauded is for realising that they need to do something about that changing market. This is not a time for passivity. QS is by no means the only answer, it may not even be the right answer, but at least they’re giving it a go.
Transparency note: I wasn’t paid for appearing at the conference but they did pay for my train and a very nice hotel room. Also, QS are paying Associates of Legal Futures (try it  – it’s great value) and Craig Holt is speaking at the 7 November conference. But when I write about QS, it is because I see news value in doing so (which is frequently, because my analytics show that people want to read about them), not because of any financial relationship. You’ll have to trust me on that.