Posted by Duncan Finlyson, manager of Lawyers Defence Group, a Legal Futures Associate
Today’s Law Society Gazette carries an article optimistically entitled “Small firms will be ‘resilient’ in the face of ABSs” (see story). This sums up a report by consultants Oxera, commissioned by the Law Society, and first revealed by Legal Futures last week (see story). It came to the conclusion that alternative business structures (ABSs) are not only unlikely to undermine geographic access to justice for consumers, but would also not have a detrimental effect upon the businesses of small practitioners.
Apparently the research, which was so in-depth that Oxera actually managed to speak to 20 (yes, 20) law firms by telephone found that existing ‘commodity’ legal providers, such as bulk conveyancing firms, might have problems competing with an ABS firm that is built on a trusted brand and might therefore choose to merge with a branded provider seeking to enter the market. But smaller firms would be able to “differentiate themselves” by finding themselves a specialised area of the market not suitable for “high-volume, remote legal access”.
The report went on to state that some of those interviewed believed that small firms would need to “specialise in clients who value face-to-face contact, such as the elderly, disabled or high net-worth individuals, or areas of the law that involve more bespoke advice, such as child custody or divorce.”
However, where the article really began to lose credibility was when it went on to say that those interviewed thought they would be safe from competition because they focused on market sectors such as elderly clients or because they had their own strong local branding would “insulate them from larger firms offering a more remote service”.
Finite amount of work
Who are they trying to fool?
The elderly is surely the very sector that the Co-operative, for example, will be best able to target, and as for a remote service, what is remote about having the Co-op or Tesco Express just around the corner?
The vast majority of smaller firms are finding it hard enough to eke out a living as it is without having to share it with the Co-op around the corner. Moreover, many do not do the kind of work that would lend itself well to niche or specialised service provision, and more to the point there is a finite limit to the number of people who can provide niche services – the clue is in the word “niche”.
ABSs are (nearly) here, and there is not much we can do about it. In many cases they may not reduce the public’s access to legal services. Indeed, if they are regulated correctly and put in place procedures that ensure quality of service is maintained, they may even benefit the public by reducing costs and improving standards.
So, by all means let us work towards a legal marketplace where the ABS operates and undertakes work. But let us not pretend that it is not going to make a difference to the current players who want to carry on as they were, relying solely, it would appear, on their own, usually non-existent, “strong local branding”.
I would challenge any firm to go into the street in their local town and ask a few people to name some local solicitors. They may be in for a shock.
The public, and I count myself amongst that happy band, are a fickle bunch. They will invariably buy that which is cheapest, or is most effectively marketed, or has the most well-known brand name or appears to be best value for money. So, if an ABS comes along that can offer one or more of these “values”, the chances are that they will take work away from the firms with their self-delusional strong brands.
If an ABS enters the market, it will do so to produce a profit. It will produce that profit by attracting to it as much work as it can undertake profitably. Since there is a limit to the amount of work available, so that work will have to come from somewhere. That somewhere is going to be those solicitors who are already providing those services.
Do something about it
So instead of deluding ourselves into thinking that it won’t make a difference can I make some suggestions. Why don’t we:
- Start to tackle the problem head-on;
- Become better at offering the services we want people to buy;
- Improve our internal procedures so that we become more cost-effective;
- Make our premises look less forbidding and Dickensian;
- Market ourselves to those whom we would like to have as clients;
- Find genuine unique selling points that really do differentiate us from the competition;
- Address risk and client care;
- Adopt a “right first-time” approach to the work we do;
- Have work carried out by appropriate grades of fee-earners so as to keep the firm’s costs as low as possible and the firm profitable; and
- Use the Internet as a tool to assist our work rather than a vehicle through which to offer hideously designed brochure sites which do nothing other than make the firm look out-of-date.
In a nutshell let’s stop pretending all in the garden is rosy, take a good look at ourselves and then do something about it.
Many solicitors will inevitably find practice in the future difficult. Perhaps some need to let go of the over-powering need for independence and embrace the ABS as a potential future employer rather than as a competitor. However, it may be worth bearing in mind that many of the available jobs may be for paralegals rather than qualified, over-paid professionals.
A losing battle?
We may be witnessing the same process in the legal sector as has happened over the years in relation to supermarkets. Local shop-keepers started by putting forward precisely the same arguments to oppose them – lack of a personal service and the fact that the local shop had been on the high street for 100 years.
But the supermarkets won. The simple fact was that they were more convenient, user-friendly and:
- They had parking spaces outside;
- They stocked more products;
- They were often cheaper;
- They opened branches in railway stations and motorway services where the people were rather than expecting the people always to come to them;
- They extended their opening hours to suit the customer;
- They opened on Sundays;
- They offered ancillary products and services; and
- They offered Internet shopping and home deliveries.
Look at any town centre and count the number of small food retailers. There may be a specialist butcher of fishmonger – although it is highly likely that there will not be – and if there is a baker then it is likely to be one of a chain of bakers.
So please, by all means accept that there is a challenge to be met, but let’s stop pretending that it won’t make a difference. We don’t have long – but if we do something, it will be better than sitting back and pretending that things will still be the same.