The future for high street lawyers is to evolve into a relationship manager who can direct clients to find the right advice from a range of legal and non-legal sources, the managing director of LexisNexis in the UK has said.
Dubbing this “GP Law”, Josh Bottomley said it would mirror the modern role of GPs, “who diagnose what ails the patient, treats the problem if possible, sends them to a specialist if necessary or provides a drug that has had huge sums invested to develop it.”
High street lawyers have the opportunity to become the “trusted adviser” who sends the client to a specialist service provider or guides them in the use of a “self-service” offering, he said.
He explained: “Whilst ‘self-serving’ may appear a way to reduce cost for the customer,as most people have experienced when attempting to self-serve in a supermarket, you sometimes need a specialist to come and help you. This approach would reduce cost to some extent but still retain the knowledge of a lawyer and reassurance for the client.”
Mr Bottomley pointed to research conducted for LexisNexis last year  which found that 60% of the public wanted a lawyer with specialised knowledge, as well as someone who was approachable and able to explain the issues involved.
Though high street lawyers have a broad legal knowledge that allows them to deal with clients’ most common legal needs, like a GP the lawyer is also a specialist on the legal market, knowing who to direct their clients to, Mr Bottomley explained.
He continued: “In addition to referring to another lawyer, the connection may well be to a professional from a different field, such as an accountant, an offshore or virtual service or, at times, the lawyer may suggest the client self-serves, with the lawyer helping them through the process.
“This final part of the jigsaw could put the small law firm at the centre of all the changes that are taking place in the legal services market. It positions the lawyer as the invaluable source of information about how to extract value from an increasing number of options open to SMEs and consumers – as long as the lawyer is someone who is known and trusted in the community.
“Over time, it may lead to the lawyer being the professional who channels fees to the innovative service providers: a de facto budget holder for the client.”
Mr Bottomley said small firms should also collaborate with other lawyers, introduce fixed fees and involve themselves in their communities – “real and virtual” – to build profile.
The future of high street firms was debated at a roundtable hosted this morning by LexisNexis and attended by Legal Futures. There was broad agreement that the traditional sole practitioner will struggle to survive in the emerging legal market, although small firms can thrive with innovative thinking.
One solicitor from a small London practice explained how he cannot afford to employ full-time employment lawyers, but has arrangements with two employment specialists to call on their services when required; they are networked into the firm and covered by its indemnity insurance. The roundtable was conducted on a Chatham House basis, meaning we cannot identify the individuals taking part.
The solicitor said he saw his firm as a business providing legal services, and that its purpose was to take clients from A to B, rather than to provide legal advice. This meant better understanding what the client wanted – for example, he visits elderly clients in their homes, dressed less formally than in the office, to draw up wills for them. Clients will pay a premium for this kind of quality professional service, he said.
Consumers buying legal services on price mean a different dynamic. A law firm consultant said a problem for many firms is that they are set up to provide partner-led services to clients interested in lower cost.
Another solicitor highlighted the dangers of price comparison websites. While they may be good for driving referrals to firms, they are “terrible for client loyalty”, he argued, because the next time the consumer needs legal advice, they are likely to return to the website first rather than the law firm.