Where next for provincial law firms?

  • //images/scales_of_justice.jpgThe legal industry has been turned on its head in recent weeks with a set of changes that has been likened to the Big Bang deregulation of the City in October 1986.

    The introduction of Alternative Business Structures or 'Tesco Law' on 6 October (in plain English, the ability for non-lawyers to invest in and own law businesses) opens up the provision of legal services to banks and High Street shops amongst others - businesses that will thrust innovation upon an industry that has been resisting change for years.

    The debate about fixed fees is now competing for attention with the prospect of solicitors and accountants joining forces to form super advisory firms and internet entrepreneurs launching low-cost, online delivery models.

    The change has already started.  Last week we saw the launch of Legal365 by Ajaz Ahmed, founder of Freeserve.  Legal365 is offering a multitude of legal documents online for a fixed fee: a non-disclosure agreement, for example, can be created for £80 by answering a set of questions on the website.

    There will be lawyers who will argue that the pigeons will come home to roost when the absence of £200 per hour advice will manifest itself in a contested clause. Others will be saying that a fixed fee cannot possibly be determined until the extent or direction of a piece of work is underway, or that a fixed fee will inevitably be more expensive for the client as the lawyer will play safe and ensure that there is an adequate margin for error in the quote.

    As Legal365 proves, there is any number of letters and documents that can be created in an entirely determinable period of time - it is just a matter of process.  Even non-standard pieces of work can be broken down into a series of stages that will give clients clarity about the cost and what the jump off points can be.

    Martin Pollins, MD of Bizezia, summarised it succinctly when he said to me earlier in the week: "clients don't want a fixed fee, they want certainty."

    Neil Glover, a marketing manager at international law firm Withers, a firm that is unlikely to be troubled by the launch of Legal365 and its compatriots, believes the effect will be dramatic on the smaller provincial firms.

    "They have to get out from behind their desks and change their attitude to business development" said Neil. "If they don't, they will see their core base of business slip away from them".

    There can be no doubt that provincial law firms, and to a similar extent accountancy firms, need to rapidly reassess their value propositions and business models.  Nobody is saying there is no longer a place for them in the market, but where they fit and, therefore, the type and extent of opportunities available to them, will fundamentally change.

    The partners in these firms must rapidly reassess what value they deliver to clients, what segments of the market they should be targeting and how clients in those segments want to engage with them.  This is a question of simple competitor analysis.

    Legal 365 is using a platform based business model to allow it to centre its proposition on cost reduction and accessibility for the mass market.  This leaves the way clear for the 'traditional' firm to major on tailoring services to sectors and the specific needs of individual clients. The benefits of dedicated personal assistance and long term relationships should be highlighted over self-service and automated delivery.

    Traditional firms need to think about their accessibility too - how inviting and easy to do business with are they?  Now is the era of digital natives, community commerce, the super consumer and frictionless living.  How does law delivered from labyrinth offices in the centre of town fit with the current age?

    The advent of change is not all doom and gloom for firms with the right attitude.  Oliver Asha of Acumen Business Law in Brighton struck me with a particularly enlightened point of view when he said: "The more people that use the law the better.  There will always be a point where people find themselves on the edge of their comfort level and decide that now is the time to seek face to face advice."

    The industry should welcome and embrace disruptive influences like Legal365 and use them, not as an opportunity to dismiss and criticise, but as a prompt to reassess and revise long held views of what clients really want.

    Our legal industry was designed and structured in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. We are now 11 years into the 21st.

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