Lawyers who don’t believe the “writing is on the wall” that unregulated legal services will increase “may find themselves on the wrong side of history”, the founder of direct access website Absolute Barrister has warned.
Simon Gittins, himself a barrister, advised barristers to focus on their legal expertise more broadly, given that consumers “probably don’t know or care” what is meant by the word ‘advocacy’.
Mr Gittins argued that a “much more apt and memorable distinction” between solicitors and barristers was the analogy with GPs and consultants or ‘specialists’.
He said barristers should focus on the work they did, since “advocacy doesn’t define the boundaries of our case work (and therefore market) any more than litigation defines a firm of solicitors”.
In a blog for the Bar Council website, Mr Gittins said although barristers made up around a sixth of the combined total of barristers and solicitors, they had “just 2%” of the £12bn market for legal advice to individuals and small businesses being studied by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA).
Describing the Bar’s current market share as “almost totally irrelevant”, Mr Gittins said that, given that the legal services market was growing by about 6% a year, “the entire market for the Bar could be grown from scratch three times over, each year”.
He went on: “Whilst we think the market is for advice and representation in court, what the market is really looking for is expert legal services.
“Again, you might find the word ‘expert’ too limiting to describe the Bar, but if the Bar makes itself a destination for those who want to pursue a career in legal excellence, then there are few other legal brands that could compete with it.
“But the Bar isn’t just a brand, is it? No, of course not. But if the Bar is not clear about what distinguishes it, it will not get the air time it needs to present a developed argument – certainly not in the face of a single regulator and increased unregulated services.”
Mr Gittins said it should “come as no surprise” that the Legal Services Board had “signposted” its wish to see a single regulator to regulate ‘some’ activities and hinted at maybe even eventually one day reducing the titles available to those practising law to just one: lawyer.
“Whilst ‘some’ activities will be regulated, some will be (or become) – by necessity – unregulated. Taken together with the interim report by the CMA, which states that unregulated providers don’t prove to be a greater risk than the dominant regulated sector, we can and must expect more unregulated legal services.”
Mr Gittins said that although it was “too late” for the Bar to “get a chance to pit its regulated services against others in the face of deregulation”, it was not “time to panic”.
He went on: “Anyone in any market will tell you that one goal, in an established market, is for the expertise to drift down to the larger mass market. You see even if – which won’t happen – the entire legal market becomes unregulated, who would you use if you had a choice?
“An expert. A barrister, right? The consumer will seek out expertise and the Bar is best placed to offer that expertise – so long as it doesn’t cost too much.”
Mr Gittins concluded that if barristers were willing to market themselves as “specialists, experts, and innovate even just a little”, the future of the Bar was “very bright indeed”.