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
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.