A pioneering online legal business aimed at SMEs has obtained an alternative business structure (ABS) licence to reassure clients nervous of engaging with internet-based services that it is also a regulated law firm.
Lawbriefs, the legal advice arm of LawBite, the online documents and advice service, said it did not need ABS status from a regulatory point of view but found its visibility useful to give small businesses the reassurance of a law firm brand underlying the technology platform.
The strategy suggests a potential commercial value to law businesses from the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s (SRA) current approach to ABS approvals that could be weakened or disappear, depending on the outcome of the government’s promised consultation next year on removing barriers to entry for ABS models in legal services.
LawBite’s chairman and founder, barrister and professional negotiator Clive Rich, told Legal Futures: “From our perspective, doing law online is still something where customers are clearly getting more familiar with the idea and are more comfortable with it.
“But I think that anything you can do that makes them feel reassured that everything is going to be OK is a good thing.
“Having that SRA stamp on your website, that’s the important thing. It enables them to think, even if it’s a subconscious thing, ‘oh yes, they are regulated by the SRA, it must be OK’.”
ABS status gave the business an edge in differentiating itself from non-regulated competitors, he said. “As the industry is becoming less regulated, it isn’t required to do it, so we could have carried on [without becoming an ABS], and it would’ve been perfectly valid. But I just felt it was worth doing it.”
The SRA granted the ABS licence this week. Mr Rich is the ABS’s head of finance and administration. LawBite’s chief operating officer, solicitor David Vines, is the head of legal practice.
Mr Rich said the ABS had no immediate plans to seek external investment but “we are a growing firm and I expect there will be a point at which that becomes relevant to us”.
However, the opportunity to have non-lawyer directors was potentially attractive, he said. “Lawbriefs… sits alongside a technology platform which is an entrepreneurial technology business, and so we want people involved who have an understanding of law but also the disciplines to make a success of that as well.”
LawBite, which has the tag line “simple law for small companies”, has a dozen lawyers and successfully raised start-up capital in 2013, and again in 2014 from the CrowdCube website. As well as legal document templates, drafted in-house and offered in a variety of packages, SME clients can obtain legal advice at £130 plus Vat online or £140 plus Vat by telephone.
Mr Rich said business customers, which came “from every sector and in every shape and size”, were attracted to online legal services because “they appreciate the cost benefits and speed”. However, proper reassurance that a regulated law firm is also present is essential, he said.
He said a key to satisfying business clients was to offer a “human experience allied to technology”. For more complicated or sensitive matters, SME customers could communicate with lawyers via telephone or Skype, as well as online, and had the option to return to the same lawyer, who would become familiar with the business.
He explained that the business had been growing steadily since it launched: “The ratios of the business are now really excellent in terms of acquisition of customers and how many quotes we are converting to paying customers, and how many customers come back, which is a very good sign. So really now it’s just about scaling up.”