Under new management

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19 November 2015

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Posted by Nick Hilborne, Deputy Editor, Legal Futures

Lawyers got something of a dressing down last week from Rocket Lawyer boss Mark Edwards.

Mr Edwards said lawyers were not “great innovators” and not much would change while most firms were run entirely by lawyers.

He was speaking in a small, cramped room in a basement of the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills – possibly reflecting the BIS view of legal services, but hopefully not.

The event, organised by the Legal Services Board, began with presentations by the academics responsible for two major reports on innovation in legal services and the legal needs of small businesses.

The first was based on telephone surveys with 1,500 legal services providers. Among other things, it made a clear link between external ownership of law firms and innovation, and said the growth of alternative business structures could only help.

There is a huge amount of useful information in the report, but one thing that is missing is the impact of non-lawyer managers. Who are they, are they promoting innovation and are some non-lawyers better at it than others?

Until we find out, we will not be able to put the stereotype of lawyers as hopeless managers into context.

One of the headline findings of the second and equally comprehensive report, on the legal needs of small businesses, was that only 13% believe lawyers are “cost-effective”.

This is hardly a surprise. How many solicitors would describe barristers as cost-effective? How many home-owners would describe builders as cost-effective?

Rather than focus on this, Professor Robert Blackburn, who led the research, said there was a problem with perception and how lawyers in general are seen by small businesses, particularly those who have never used one before.

As with individual consumers, one thing that could make life easier is a good comparison website. Matthew Briggs, who was at the LSB event, is hard at work on the Law Superstore, which is due to launch next spring.

Mr Briggs, founder of Brilliant Law, has promised to provide consumers with the “first genuine legal services comparison website”.

The lawyer-matching service Lexoo, developed by Dutch lawyer Daniel van Binsbergen and aimed at small businesses, like human hair wigs business, has performed strongly this year and secured £850,000 of funding as a result.

Meanwhile the perception problem is not helped by portraying lawyers in this country as “dinosaurs” weighed down by a “historic burden” – two expressions used at the LSB event.

In terms of business structures and external ownership, the profession in England and Wales has been more open-minded than almost any other in the world – and we are yet to convince lawyers in Canada or Scotland, let alone the USA, to follow us.

Mr Edwards said he believed that the most important change in legal services over the next 10 years would be the arrival of the big brands.

However, as I was reminded on Twitter, some small business owners prefer to be advised by other owner managers – partners in law firms.

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