The combination of the new Standards and Regulations (STaRs) and the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) “will drastically increase the supply of lawyers”, the European head of online legal services business Rocket Lawyer has predicted.
Mark Edwards said the changes meant that “all the pieces were in place” to transform legal services and “solve the access to justice problem”.
Speaking at last week’s Legal Futures Innovation Conference, Mr Edwards said: “The vast majority of families and small businesses don’t go to lawyers for legal help when they need it. This is the unmet need people talk about. If 80% of them are not getting help, there really is a big opportunity there.
“On the other side, and people often don’t think enough about this, about 70% of law graduates looking for a training contract don’t get one and don’t get to fulfil their dreams of becoming a barrister or a solicitor. I think there’s something wrong there as well.”
Mr Edwards said the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) had responded by introducing the STaRs last month, allowing solicitors to practise from unregulated firms and as freelancers, and switching from the “training contract model” to the SQE from September 2021.
“The two together will drastically increase the supply of lawyers onto the market, which will inevitably help with prices and make the law more affordable.”
Mr Edwards said this meant “we all have all the pieces in place” to transform legal services “much faster” than before.
“There are going to be a lot more lawyers. Why is that a bad thing? I think it’s an amazing thing and we’re going to solve the access to justice problem.”
Mr Edwards said a waiver from the SRA obtained 18 months ago had allowed Rocket Lawyer to provide direct legal advice to consumers and small businesses, and “now it’s the norm”.
He said “the 80%” were looking for low cost or free solutions, along with price transparency, good communication with their lawyers and convenient access to legal help outside business hours – on their computer or mobile phone.
“We’re building a platform to solve those problems. Having a small legal practice at the heart of that is really useful. It helps us reduce prices and build this tech-enabled model.”
Mr Edwards said Rocket Lawyer’s work for small businesses consisted entirely of contract matters. All of its advice was fixed price and agreed up-front “and they pay for it up-front”, so the firm did not hold “any client money”, though it did have the same professional indemnity insurance as a law firm.
He said Rocket Lawyer was training up paralegals “in the hope that they will be able to qualify under the SQE when it comes in”.
Since there was still some uncertainty about when the SQE would arrive, Rocket Lawyer had a “back-up plan”, allowing staff to qualify through ‘equivalent means’ – the first paralegal to do this qualified this year.
Mr Edwards said the arrival of SQE would “accelerate innovation in the legal sector, so that those people who can’t afford advice today will be able to in the future”.
Dan Garrett, chief executive of online will-writer Farewill, told delegates that in 20 years’ time legal services would be “done totally online”.
He went on: “At the moment it’s the same 1950s model where you wander down a high street and there’s man who’ll do your conveyancing – above a chicken shop or something.
“When you buy things online, what matters is customer experience, transparency and price.”
Launched in December 2016, Mr Garrett said his “deathtech” business had become UK’s biggest will-writer in 18 months, growing its staff from 15 to 63 this year.
Farewill’s probate service, launched in April this year, already accounted for 50% of the firm’s business.
He said Farewill had launched a cremation service and “as of 3.30pm yesterday, we started burning bodies”.
Mr Garrett said that, in an unregulated business like Farewill, the head of legal was “incredibly important” because they dictated the pace of change. He said Farewill had a further three solicitors and half of its will and probate staff had gone through the graduate diploma in law and legal practice course, but not obtained training contracts.
“Law firms are unbelievably weird. They way they’re structured you’ve just got lawyers and more lawyers and at the top there’s a big lawyer.”
Mr Garrett said lawyers were “terrible managers”, with an “unbelievably specific and bizarre skillset”.
He added: “The crazy thing about it is that you do 25 years of back-breaking work to get to partner level and when you get there you spend 15 years just milking the cow. Why would you invest in technology?”
Meanwhile, Kaplan – which is the assessment organisation appointed by the SRA to run the SQE – has sold its Kaplan Altior business to US training company BARBRI.
Kaplan currently has more than 750 law firm clients, while BARBRI was announced last week as the partner for the new online law school College of Legal Practice, which aims to help students through the SQE.
Sarah Hutchinson, managing director for BARBRI International, said: “This is an exciting development for BARBRI as we build our expertise in the SQE preparation course market.
“Not only does it expand our client service team, but also significantly enhances our base of experienced and well-respected tutors for specialist trainee and solicitor skills training.”
Separately, a consortium of six major City law firms has chosen BPP to provide their SQE preparation for future trainees: Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Herbert Smith Freehills, Hogan Lovells, Linklaters, Norton Rose Fulbright and Slaughter and May.