The latest move by Co-operative Legal Services (CLS) is very smart, rather exciting and even a bit surprising.
It is smart because CLS has proved various things by hiring Jenny Beck and Christina Blacklaws (with apologies to the third member of the TV Edwards triumvirate, Chris May). Recruiting two of the best-known family lawyers around is convincing evidence that it is serious about family law and doing it right. The reputation of these two women indicates they will not stand for delivering a second-rate service.
It shows CLS boss Eddie Ryan can sell the CLS project to big names with something to lose if it goes wrong. They are lending their considerable credibility to the business and will not have done so lightly. Solicitors can no longer dismiss CLS as just a low-grade factory stuffed with paralegals. In fact it will be interesting to see if more big-hitters are brought on board to head other bits of the business for the same reason.
It also indicates that CLS is not just in this for the low-hanging fruit of consumer legal services but is prepared to take on a difficult market like family law.
I think it is rather exciting because of the possibility of making family legal services accessible in a way that is urgently required given the imminent legal aid cuts that will take many people out of eligibility for funding for family matters. Bluntly, these changes may particularly affect the kind of people who typically use the Co-op.
These two solicitors have been at the forefront of the battle over family legal aid and so know the issues all too well. Speaking to Ms Blacklaws yesterday she enthused about the opportunity she has at CLS to spend several months creating a new business from the ground up, finding new and innovative ways of delivering the service.
Some people have long thought that it would take a new entrant to the market, a retailer perhaps, to take a blank sheet and develop a different way to provide a service that is becoming ever harder to sustain through the traditional model.
But I am also a bit surprised that CLS is getting into family law. I have always thought that organisations with brands and other service lines to protect would be wary of getting involved in contentious work like family. It is not hard to imagine the bitter divorce where the other spouse will vow never to step foot in a Co-op store again because they feel they have been done over by their spouse’s CLS solicitor.
In fairness, Ms Blacklaws recognises this risk, but believes the reverse could also be true, producing what she describes as a “halo effect”. If CLS can deliver a service that helps people at one of the lowest points of their lives – rather than being legal rottweilers – “then it doesn’t matter which side you’re on”, she says. “Everyone’s grateful for that.”
So this is a canny move by CLS – an all-round “halo effect” perhaps. That it has built up a £25m business in five years shows consumers have bought into what it is doing, but it is fair to say that the legal profession has been very sniffy (not that CLS cares, from what I can judge). This, however, will make those critics really sit up and take notice of the competition coming their way.