Big brands providing legal services will face “risks and pressures” which are not present in smaller private practice law firms – but the measures in place to control them “are likely to be substantial”, a senior member of the Co-operative Legal Services team has claimed.
Explaining what new entrants to the law will bring, James Atkin, head of legal, risk and compliance at CLS, predicted that “the strength of internal controls and the demand for ongoing compliance assurance are likely to overcome concerns in the majority of cases”.
He told last week’s Legal Education and Training Review Symposium in Manchester: “That will be especially true of larger providers, where senior staff will be approved by the relevant regulator and subject to its extensive powers. They will have no truck with any risks arising from inappropriate operation of a legal services subsidiary.”
He said new legal services providers owned by big brands are likely to have access to a wide range of benefits, ranging from overarching codes of business conduct and customer treatment, “democratic and accountable business models without dominant power broker partners or ‘unmanageable’ issues” and significant investment, to centralised functional specialists, advanced case management systems with inbuilt controls and bespoke development, and advanced customer service insight and service delivery methodologies.
Mr Atkin, a solicitor, described the Co-op as “the UK’s most successful and most recognised ethical consumer brand, now supporting consumers’ legal services needs. That includes a genuinely free legal advice service open to everyone, covering a broad range of subjects, many of which are not provided on a fee-paying basis”.
He explained that all new recruits spend a day being taken through the ethical foundations of the Co-operative movement.
More broadly he argued that change in the legal profession is “long overdue, not least because legal services providers will become more recognisable as businesses”. ABSs will empower consumers with “transparency, value, national service delivery and informed choice about how services are delivered”.
Mr Atkin continued: “All legal services providers will require a genuine service focus. Well-organised and efficient businesses will continue to deliver high-quality legal services; practices delivering legal services without following organisational efficiency norms, or without a niche specialism, may struggle.”
This means that small firms that “deliver an excellent and tailored service to very appreciative clients” will survive; “whilst they are known as solicitors, I think they are better described as specialist legal services consultants”.
But the broader problem is that “efficient service delivery has not always been a prime concern of some law firms”, Mr Atkin said. “In some cases, firms appear to have relied on uncritically loyal clients paying relatively high hourly rates.
“Whilst elements of all legal work can properly carry a high price tag, sometimes fees seem to be earned relatively easily, using standard templates delivered with little client interaction. There is on occasion possibly also a limited appetite for taking the time to genuinely understand the client’s needs.
“In some cases, the client will not be in a position to estimate what a service should cost, or indeed, which service they require. I am also not convinced the label ‘solicitor’ automatically carries with it an assurance of good service.”
While acknowledging that he was generalising, Mr Atkin said some legal services have traditionally been delivered to the firm’s quality specification, not the client’s. “In most other spheres of life nowadays it is the client who is the judge of quality. The client should be empowered and in control.”