Whether the name will stick around much longer is open to debate as last week it was hit with a double whammy: the announcement of an unapologetic ‘anti-supermarket-law’ campaign from QualitySolicitors, and the launch of the much-anticipated fixed-fee family law service from the Co-op.  Tesco will probably be relieved. 

If the news from Co-operative Legal Services was expected, the latest headline grabber from QualitySolicitors was more of a surprise and, arguably, even more of a game changer.  In securing an exclusive partnership deal with online legal services provider, LegalZoom, QualitySolicitors is again showing it is one step ahead of the competition.

Not that the Co-op would see it that way.  Whereas offering fixed fees for some services, like conveyancing and will writing, is becoming increasingly common, many family lawyers seem wedded to payment by the hour, leading to the perfectly reasonable assumption that they can often be more of a hindrance than a help. 

The chances are that there won’t be a huge uptake initially for DIY divorce (a bargain at £99 a pop), not because people want to use lawyers but because the process is often regarded as something you need lawyers to do.  But with major changes in legal aid effectively excluding all family cases from support unless they involve domestic violence, the Co-op’s new service could not be better timed.

In this consumer age, it seems bizarre to describe offering fixed-fee services as revolutionary, but the legal profession is well known for its Luddite tendencies.  Equally astounding, it means for the first time that there is real consumer choice emerging in the legal services market.  A choice made all the more appetising by the QualitySolicitors tie up with LegalZoom.

To the uninitiated and casual observer, this may all sound like the sort of boring business news you get on the radio in between the news and sports coverage.  But LegalZoom is the most recognised legal brand in the US and has been named by the influential Fast Company magazine as one of the world’s 50 most innovative companies.  It seems something quite interesting is about to hit the UK’s legal market.

The beauty of the tie up with QualitySolicitors is that individual consumers and small businesses will be able to access a wide range of online documents they can personalise but, and here comes the good bit, with local QS firms able to help, review, provide face-to-face advice or even representation where necessary. 

It is this link with local firms that differentiates the offering from the vast array of online legal solutions already springing up all over the place and ensure it isn’t, as Craig Holt of QS says, ‘faceless and entirely remote’ and missing ‘the crucial local, personal element’.  It is quite possible this is that very rare thing, a service that can be all things to all people.

My enthusiasm for the idea has nothing to do with the fact that my blog resides on the QualitySolicitors website (well, not much).  While providing consumers with an accessible, affordable, high-quality service that differs from the norm is important it is not this that will revolutionise legal services.  The real innovation is in redefining the law from being predominantly a distress purchase to something more positive, almost (and I hate myself for writing this) a tool for life.

This is the bit that gets me excited, the idea that the law isn’t just for when things go wrong, but can even help prevent those things from going wrong in the first place; that it isn’t just for lawyers, but for all of us: and that sometimes we don’t even need a lawyer to use it.  It’s what Richard Susskind calls the ‘latent demand’ for legal services, those things we don’t even know we could use the law for.

But now we can.  As well as the usual documents you’d expect to find online, LegalZoom will also offer contracts such as those for home building projects and for au pairs or nannies and various subscription plans.  This sort of ‘lifestyle law’, which often involves periodic legal ‘health checks’, can help consumers head off the worst problems by ensuring, for example, they have a will or prenuptial agreement.

The service will also offer a range of services to allow consumers and businesses to start litigation themselves including divorce and small claims, and then get support and advice from a local QS firm if they need it.  Possibly way too scary for lots of people but I reckon my dad would try it.

I am sure some lawyers are right when they say their clients don’t want wizzy online solutions or, god forbid, to conduct their own litigation, but I am equally sure plenty do.  I don’t think it’s a leap of faith to suggest that before long consumers will relish the greater affordability, accessibility, transparency and quality provided by these innovations and wonder what on earth we all did before.  Tesco law isn’t the half of it.