Lawyers need to find new ways to differentiate themselves in an era when their professional titles will start to lose meaning for consumers, according to the chair of the Legal Services Consumer Panel.
Elizabeth Davies said the reality was that consumers are increasingly interested in the quality of what they get, the price they pay and their access to protection if something goes wrong – and not necessarily who provides it
Writing on the panel’s website, she said: “We are moving to a system whereby anyone who can demonstrate their competence to practise should be permitted to provide legal services to consumers under appropriate supervision.
“Professional titles will start to lose their meaning for consumers – a diverse range of providers, not just the traditional branches of the profession, will be authorised to do the same work.”
Ms Davies argued that these changes are not about diluting but about accepting that services are being delivered by an increasingly diverse range of providers.
“In this context couldn’t the label of professional justifiably be applied to anyone who pursues certain activities, normally involving specialised knowledge or skill?” she asked. “A much wider range of careers now include elements, such as ongoing training and ethical codes, which were traditionally the preserve of the professions.”
This meant it was up to the professions to find new ways to differentiate themselves in ways that consumers find valuable, she said.
“But the reality may well be that consumers aren’t interested in this differentiation going forward – they’re interested in the quality of what they get, the price they pay and access to protection if something goes wrong, and not necessarily who provides it. The future focus could be on competence to perform the function, not the title.”
Ms Davies said the standardisation and commoditisation of many professional activities is a consequence of competitive forces and reflects the fact that some aspects of work do not require expertise.
“This is a good thing for consumers as it should mean the work can be delivered more efficiently and cheaply, while it should also allow professionals to focus their resources on things actually requiring their expertise.”
The professions have to accept that they are subject to market principles, she continued, describing as “overstated” concerns of a fundamental clash of values between professionalism and market forces – that the focus on price threatens quality standards, or profit is undermining principle.
“These concerns… ignore the role of regulation to manage these and other risks. However, for the professions, there is no point hankering after a return to some golden age; instead they need to find ways of redefining and/or reasserting professional values in the modern world.”