Leading welfare-to-work business A4e is planning to offer both consumers and businesses a broad range of legal services at a “more affordable” cost than currently seen in the market, it has confirmed.
The company, already a leading legal aid advice provider, is looking at offering family, housing, conveyancing, wills and probate, personal injury and clinical negligence advice to what it calls the “coping classes” – people who sit just above the eligibility line for legal aid – as well as a business-to-business service to support small to medium-sized enterprises and start-ups.
A4e has made no secret of its interest in the possibilities opened up by alternative business structures (ABSs), but has thus far been cagey about the scale of its ambitions.
Chris Peel, A4e’s director of advice services, told a report published yesterday on new thinking in legal services: “The reason why we are keen to expand on our traditional socially excluded client base is that if you look at our core business – getting people back into long-term sustainable employment – we are contributing to the “coping classes”. We’re shifting people out of legal aid eligibility. It’s a natural extension of our offer.”
On the business service, he added: “Much of our work is supporting people who want to set up their own businesses as a way out of unemployment.”
The report, Brave new worlds – new thinking in legal services, which was commissioned by online legal document company Epoq  and produced by Jures , painted a picture of a legal services market in transition with a number of existing and new players s
eeking to gain first-mover advantage.
Mr Peel told researchers that as well as having to rethink its business in light of the legal aid cuts, ABSs allow A4e “to think more innovatively about how we can move into services that are paid-for but at much more affordable rates than presently in the market.
“Our analysis has shown that there’s a lot of market failure in the paid-for legal services market as well as in legal aid.”
It is developing a “collaborative model” where it will work with “forward-thinking solicitors”. He said A4e offers three benefits to potential law firm partners: “a route to the market through diagnosing the needs of existing customers”; using “alternative delivery channels” through its experience with telephone- and Internet-based legal advice services; and having the ability and resources for “scalable delivery to our target cohorts on a national basis”. A4e has some 200 branches in the UK.
Mr Peel told Legal Futures that the company is still evaluating the most appropriate vehicle, timing and opportunity to fulfil its ambitions.
Speaking more broadly, solicitor Richard Cohen, the executive chairman of Epoq, said: “Law firm clients want and expect better standards of service and increased options in terms of how those services are delivered and how they are paid for.
“Opening up the legal services market – as controversial as many lawyers might find the process – marks a genuine opportunity for lawyers and their clients. As our report shows, a number of law firms and new entrants are now taking advantage of this opportunity and it’s important that the rest of the market responds, or it will be left behind.”
He said new entrants to the market like banks and insurers see legal services as an attractive addition to an existing service offering and a way to increase revenues.
“The bundling up of legal services with other complementary services is exactly the kind of one-stop shop envisaged by the Legal Services Act and new entrants to the market are already moving in this direction.”