Solicitors should not rely on clients who express a desire for local, personal services, Professor Stephen Mayson has warned.
He also described the distinction in law firms between fee-earners and support staff as “horrendous”, “insulting” and a barrier to recruiting the best people in an era of fierce market competition.
Delivering a wide-ranging assessment of options open to solicitors’ firms at last week’s Legal Futures conference in London, sponsored by NatWest, Professor Mayson said clients might say they like corner shops or their local post office. “But is that where they are actually going to spend their money? Are they actually going to be there for the legal equivalent of the corner shop?”
He described the emergence of law firm brands as “an eminently sensible response” to the imminent arrival of major high street brands in the legal marketplace. “If you can’t beat them, join them. If you can’t join them, move up alongside them,” he said.
Law firms needed to have sharp business strategies and be very clear about what competitive advantage they could exploit, whether it was local knowledge of their clients, niche expertise, or personal service, he went on.
Key advantages enjoyed by big-brand retailers entering the business of legal service delivery included “scale in ways that most law firms can’t even dream of” and an ability to “mine data” far beyond that of law firms. “They use that data in some incredible ways, not only to work out what we have been spending our money on but also on how they can encourage us to spend it on something different in the future,” he explained.
Along with competition from brand entrants, solicitors might also find themselves competing for work with barristers, Professor Mayson predicted. “Don’t write [them] off. Barristers are actually quite bright,” he said.
He suggested lawyers who were “bold, dare to be different and don’t follow the herd” will be the ones to prosper in future.
Firms likely to stand the best chance of survival would be those that worked out the right resource mix for their practice – the balance between human and technological, lawyers and non-lawyers, physical and virtual services, in-house and outsourced. But they would also need to draw on retail, marketing and social networking expertise, as well as “people who understand process and project management”, he advised.
The “horrendous” split between fee-earners and support staff was “a historical anachronism and it’s insulting”, he commented, adding: “Unless we can get to a point where everybody in the business is treated as equivalent, and as being of equal value to the business, we actually have not a leg to stand on when it comes to recruiting and retaining the best people right across the board.”