QualitySolicitors chief executive Craig Holt explains why lawyers need their eyes testing if they underestimate the impact of the Legal Services Act. QualitySolicitors is a Legal Futures Associate

Holt: by end of 2011, £1 in every £20 spent on SME/private client legal services will be with a QualitySolicitors firm

In the early 1980s the opticians’ market bore much closer resemblance to the current legal market than many lawyers would care to acknowledge.

Optometry was very much a medical, ‘professional’ service. The market consisted of thousands of independent opticians’ practices of varying size. There were no national brands. Advertising was prohibited. As Dame Mary Perkins, Specsavers’ owner, remarks: “You weren’t even allowed to put a sticker in the window saying you accepted credit cards.” Pricing was mysterious. Many opticians’ offices were dark, dusty first-floor places and thoroughly unwelcoming. Going to the opticians was not an experience anyone looked forward to. Sound familiar?

Then came deregulation. Just like the Legal Services Act does in the legal market, non-optometrists were allowed to own opticians’ practices. Advertising was permitted. Boots opened six opticians in 1983. Specsavers opened its very first franchise in 1984. One can imagine the debate amongst optometrists: “It won’t affect us”; “We’re very well established locally”; “We’ve been here for 200 years”; “We get all our work by recommendation and repeat business”; “These brands won’t really want to enter our market”; “It won’t appeal to our better middle-class clients”; “We’re a profession, it’ll never catch on” and so on. Again, sound familiar?

A lot of talking, but little action occurred, whilst meanwhile the new competitors went quietly about their business. Specsavers introduced such ‘innovative’ concepts as ‘Complete Price’ (displaying a total price for lenses and glasses) and ‘2 for 1’ on glasses. “We did take an awful lot of stick,” recalls Dame Mary. “The rest of the profession was very much against what we were doing.”

Fast-forward to the present. Independent opticians’ practices haven’t disappeared altogether but now account for just 10% of the total market that was once 100% theirs. According to Dame Mary, “their days are numbered” and the statistics support her view.  TV advertising and a physical presence in every UK town and city means Specsavers alone has grown from that first lone franchise to a 40% market share. They are dominant across every demographic, including the most wealthy.

The parallels to the legal market are plain to see. The legal profession is equally fragmented, with no brands. There are far too many law firms and an inability on the part of the public to differentiate between them, as well as a general reluctance to use them. It would be hard to imagine a more fertile ground for brand success.

Co-operative Legal Services have shown as much by growing, in just four years post-launch and in a difficult market, to be a top 100 UK private client law firm with a £25m turnover. They even found themselves nominated for regional law firm of the year by Bristol Law Society a couple of months ago – beaten to that title, I’m pleased to say, by QualitySolicitors Burroughs Day!

If you think your firm is immune because it is too big or too ‘niche’, or because its clients are high net-worth or SME clients, think again. There will be branded entrants appealing to all demographics: banks’ legal services for SMEs, ‘Virgin Legal’ for young professionals and ‘Tesco Law’ for, well, just about everyone.

Providing a ‘personal service’ isn’t enough of a unique selling point either; the legal desk next to the mortgage desk, upstairs in Barclays, staffed by a helpful and friendly member of the ‘legal team’ will provide that. Video conferencing technology will take care of those occasions requiring a client/lawyer discussion. Equivalent ‘revolutions’ to the Specsavers’ ‘Complete Price’? Well, watch this space…

The legal market isn’t going to change, it’s already changing – and fast. Joining the Co-op, AA and SAGA launched legal services websites a few months ago and have around 18 million members. By the end of the year there will be over 200 QualitySolicitors branded firms, a feat that took even Specsavers nine years to achieve. At that point, a combined group turnover of over £500 million will mean that £1 in every £20 spent on private client/SME legal services in the UK will be with a QualitySolicitors firm.

Our aim is to increase this 5% market share to a 30-40% one; eminently achievable in such a fragmented market.

The good news in all this? Well, your firm can apply to join QualitySolicitors and take advantage of, rather than suffer against, this forthcoming brand dominance. Failing that, the actual number of opticians hasn’t fallen, far from it, so provided you don’t mind working for the Co-op…

Craig Holt will be taking part in the plenary debate on the future of lawyers at the Legal Futures Conference, taking place on 11 April.

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    Readers Comments

  • Scott Baldwin says:

    Hmm. Yes and no, Optometry is a very narrow field to say the entire legal profession will go that way is a giant leap. Will Tesco be dealing with a client charged with rape or murder, probably not but will they be dealing with wills or conveyancing almost definitley. Change is upon us but each different tradtional area of the law will change depending on the new competition, the market place it finds it operating in and the attitude of those who practice that area of law.

  • I speak as a modern,progressive independent optician,successfully practicing in three towns despite the arrival of specsavers in all three. Mary Perkins is wrong,our time is not limited,the public appreciate the individual personal service that we offer, and see through the blanket coverage of so called special offers. Specsavers represent the dumbing down of our profession and are not universally well thought. I would urge you to not to succumb to the same processes but instead continue to offer your clients excellence in advice and service.

  • The issue for me is not so much whether firms can survive but what they will have to do to do so. The brands will sell themselves on ‘service’: how will smaller competitors persuade their client base that they are better? Some clients may simply be anti-brand, some will be loyal and/or recommended by friends, but that loyalty may attenuate.

  • Terry Sutton says:

    While it’s an admirable ambition, I can’t see it to be honest.

    I don’t think a 30-40% market share (even with a pretty nebulous market definition) will be achievable – the brand won’t stand up against the well known corporate brands (not least because IMHO “Quality Solicitors” sounds like the equivalent of Tesco’s Value range to me as a consumer) and while I understand QS have some mass media advertising planned, I doubt the firms will have the appetite or deep enough pockets to cough up enough cash to compete with the big boys.

    That said, I wish all member firms the best of luck – at least they are doing something, unlike the ostriches!


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