Consumer demand for lower costs means the divide between solicitors and barristers will not be sustainable, the managing director of Slater & Gordon has predicted.
Andrew Grech also told sceptics of his firm’s publicly listed status that it is values, rather than business structures, which protect the profession’s independence and ethics.
Speaking at the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers’ annual conference in Newport yesterday, Mr Grech said clients did not care about fusion or otherwise.
“What clients want is the expertise. There’s no doubt that the Bar has particular expertise, but their franchise on hyper-specialisation has dissipated greatly over the last decade…. I don’t think it solves the problem for the client in a way that is better – it actually introduces some inefficiencies.
“I don’t think that will persist in most fields of at least consumer legal services at least, because the transaction costs between solicitors and barristers are too high. Lawyers are generally paid too much; the community’s telling us loud and clear that they don’t want to pay, so we have to devise clever ways of bringing down those costs without dropping the quality of service.”
Mr Grech acknowledged that this was difficult, but said Slater & Gordon’s way of addressing it in both Australia and the UK is size.
“Size allows you to have very intense levels of specialisation – that’s why I’m an advocate for growth and scale, and so we see specialisation as a pathway to professionalism, if that makes sense… It will become less and less necessary for us to contract out some of that expertise to the Bar.”
At the same time, he stressed that advocacy as “a particular discipline or skill” would not disappear, and there remained a “lot of merit” in advocates being independent from those instructing them.
Asked about maintaining professional ethics as a listed company, Mr Grech said there was “a lot of distraction around lots of business models… Lawyers have been facing conflicts of interest for hundreds of years”. Slater & Gordon’s constitution is clear that its first duty is to the court, then clients and thirdly shareholders
He said investors had never asked a single question about a particular case. “What I have been asked is what are we doing about risk management, about our corporate social responsibility… In other words, what investors mostly care about is that you can continue to be in the business you’re in.”
He continued that sceptics should remember that “just about all of the breaches of confidence of clients have occurred in partnerships. So if it were true that the business and ownership structure were the great protector of our independence, value and ethics, why is that so? It’s not about business structure, but about values.”
Slater & Gordon’s growth in the UK has been achieved through consolidation, and Mr Grech said the law was reflecting a wider trend within professional services more generally.
He predicted that in time there will be up to three large organisations sharing 30-40% of the consumer and personal injury markets. “We hope to be the leader of those three firms.”
But small firms will not be driven out. “If they are very good, they’ll flourish because in the end clients want quality,” he said.
Mr Grech also made it clear that Slater & Gordon was in it for the long haul. Asked whether a law firm can ever become a household brand, he said the firm had achieved it in Australia, where there are very high levels of brand recognition.
“How do you do it? Great work. That’s the most important thing… and then you have to be really good about marketing…
“We hope to have a very substantial impact on the market. But we’re not kidding ourselves – it will take as long as it takes. Two years, three years, 20 years, I don’t care. Our attitude is persistence and that single-mindedness to do what we want to achieve is the greatest asset we have.”