Innovation nation

Posted by Neil Rose, Editor, Legal Futures

Guy Barnett at the 360 Legal conference: makes business development core to staff competencies

Innovation has been on my mind the last few days. Never a word that closely associated with the legal profession, it is out there, whether the probate business I met last week that outsources legal work to an English solicitor working at an Australian law firm so that it gets done overnight, or just at the level of Birmingham Law Society having a YouTube channel and running interviews with the Legal Ombudsman to mark the new service’s launch (it’s notable because it’s unusual). On a related note, I would like to point people towards the blog that chief ombudsman Adam Sampson has started writing on LeO’s website – it’s a decent read and is good to see.

Then we had the news that Legal Futures Associate QualitySolicitors is set for major expansion, while the 360 Legal Group annual conference in London last week heard from Guy Barnett, managing partner of Birmingham-based Blakemores – a firm that is going it alone in trying to build a consumer brand, Lawyers2you.

If you live in the West Midlands, you may well have come across them as Lawyers2you has stands in around 25 shopping centres across the region, staffed by non-lawyers in T-shirts (they don’t let lawyers near the public at this stage in the client-acquisition process), offering a transparent pricing structure. Some solicitors may turn up their noses at such marketing – I was told today that the partners at one very well-known, seemingly progressive, national firm recoiled in horror when their new marketing director suggested something similar – but it seems to be working for Blakemores. Of particular interest is how it has greatly reduced the firm’s reliance on claims management companies.

Sales are core to the business. Mr Barnett explained: “Your vision and values must ensure that every staff member regards business development as integral to their core competences and as such must form part of their appraisal, and reward and remuneration package.”

It is telling that such unremarkable marketing methods are so remarkable in the legal profession. From what Mr Barnett tells me, there are some more genuinely revolutionary developments in the pipeline, evidence that some lawyers are changing the way they think. This is a legal business, not a law firm, if you get the distinction, and I have no reason to think that either Blakemores or its clients are any the worse for it.

Another speaker at the conference was Andrew Leakey, a partner at north-west firm Stephensons, which has signed up to QualitySolicitors but taken the interesting step of opening a QualitySolicitors branded office opposite one of its own Stephensons offices – the separate branding will continue throughout the client relationship, depending on which door they come through, or which number they call. “The jury’s still out on which office clients will opt to go to,” he said. “However, we too believe that law firms need to be thinking ahead to the day when they will need to be positioned at the heart of shopping centres and public places. This will be an interesting experiment to see what clients really want.”

Though I am generally sceptical about the extent to which high street law firms have local brands – you could stop 100 people in the street and I bet few could name you a law firm, even if you were standing outside one – Stephensons is the kind of large, long-established firm in some relatively small towns that does seem to have a local reputation. It is looking to build on this with an advertising campaign on the theme “legal services the way you want them” and should be applauded for taking action to maintain and grow its business.

This stuff isn’t difficult – it’s not really innovation, in truth. The advantage of the legal profession’s historic laggardness is that the wheel has been invented and reinvented several times over, and probably does not need much tweaking to fit the legal services market. As well-known family lawyer Andrew Woolley put yesterday it in a comment on another story, “firms which are innovative, fast, flexible and give the customer what they want will always survive. But that counts out most law firms”.

The danger for many solicitors is that, even before new competitors enter the market, some of their existing competitors are already stealing a march. This is new. “Wait and see” has been the tried-and-trusted approach of lawyers for many years. Though change never comes quickly to the legal profession, and nothing dramatic will happen overnight come 6 October 2011, this time such an approach might eventually let lawyers down.


    Readers Comments

  • Neil thank you for sharing your thoughts on innovation. I will check out some of the links. Your post is really a lens on rebranding; at its core legal services is legal services and if what the various firms are trying to do is to open up the profession, instead of standing behind some facade “I am a solicitor – come and find me”, then I have no doubt that anything that is done to ameliorate the effects of the disinclination to cross the threshold of the solicitor’s office is a good thing.

    But let’s face it, it takes more than a rebranding of the legal service offering to change centuries of tradition.

    For me innovation needs to be root and branch focused: operational, produce/service but most of all management innovation. I am a big fan of Gary Hamel and would recommend that all lawyers and managing partners in particular read his excellent book “The Future of Management”.
    What I would like to see, not in some rose-tinted, utopian dream is a model for practice that embraces shared ownership – perhaps the John Lewis model would be a starting point or something like Whole Foods. As long as there is the command and control structure in place, and even allowing for the rather limp manner in which bonuses are talked about and offered, you need to get much greater employee engagement. I would love to see a new model emerge that embraces all the talents of the business and gave everyone a stake.

    I blogged about the idea of a suggestion box and if Toyota’s employees can be allowed to do as part of the innovation process then why should law firms squander such prodigious amounts of talent by not opening up their management to everyone in the same way (they may of course be doing this but it hasn’t crossed my radar). I am quite sure that if things were organised in a way where all the great ideas were captured that things would evolve much quicker. As it is they are moving at a snail’s pace.

  • Until the beginning of this year, my experience of lawyers was largely limited to me being a rather troublesome and demanding client of Magic Circle firms in my business role at an investment bank. The lawyers I met were very driven and determined, and understood the need to get the job done.

    It’s been a surprise for me to realise how unremarkable can be seen as remarkable in the legal profession – which is not to take away from the achievements of the innovators.

    For example, Acumen Business Law in Sussex describes itself as “an award winning, innovative and dynamic Law Firm, providing legal services in a way different to other law firms”. Acumen was voted a UK Rising Star by the Observer in partnership with Courvoisier® The Future 500 and listed in the FT’s Top 50 Groundbreaking & Innovative Law Firms in UK & Europe. It has been described as revolutionary and commended for taking “bold moves” in the legal industry.

    Does Acumen deserve such high accolade? Absolutely. But as Acumen’s founder Penina Shepherd would herself modestly say, the banner and mantra of “affordable, accessible, approachable and able” would be seen as unremarkable in just about every other industry.

    I agree that there is a danger for many solicitors. “Wait and see” seems crazy to me. What’s the downside of preparing now? Should the changes take a while to come, proactive and innovative firms will simply earn more for longer!

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