And they're off! The race to capture the consumer is finally underway
Many many years ago, a friend at university said I was a Luddite for refusing to use a computer (that's right kids, I am of the old world). I wasn't too far into writing my 15,000 word dissertation by hand before I realised he was probably right. Even so, my fear of accidentally deleting everything I'd written kept me from embracing technology for at least another year. I like to think when I gave in to the inevitable I did it gracefully. I am not sure the same cannot be said for those lawyers attempting to prevent alternative business structures (ABS) or those who think the legal revolution is nothing more than a very small storm in quite a large teacup.
Having given up my Luddite tendencies, I am now quite keen on progress and am a big fan of opening up the legal market to the opportunities offered by external capital. That’s not to say I want a general free for all, but I do think many of the ills suffered by consumers at the hands of lawyers ignorant of the finer (or even rudimentary) customer service skills, can be cured by the profession having to face up to competition. Which is why I was quite excited by last week’s news that Russell Jones and Walker (RJW) is being taken over by Australian firm Slater & Gordon, the world’s first to be listed.
Excited but not particularly surprised, although this wasn't because of a remarkably prophetic nudge I had from someone (not at RJW) a few months ago. It has been clear for sometime that the firm intended to be in the vanguard of the legal revolution and, as their acquisition of the Claims Direct brand a few years ago shows, they are not afraid to be daring when it comes to claiming their share of the consumer legal market.
Good on them. I am sure that others whose hats are already in the ring, including QualitySolicitors, will be delighted. Nothing like competition to drive innovation and promote consumer choice, whether that’s based on quality of product and service or price. I haven’t seen much in the way of a response from those predicting ABSs would be a damp squib. No doubt they are frantically polishing and shaking their crystal balls to try and find out what went wrong, because the RJW takeover hasn’t been the only excitement.
Quindell Portfolio plc, a ‘brand extension company’ if you know what that is, announced it was taking over Liverpool law firm Silverbeck Rymer and today private equity outfit Duke Street announced it was ‘acquiring a significant stake’ in the Parabis Group, which includes actual law firms, Cogent Law, the power behind both the AA and Saga legal services websites, and Plexus Law.
Duke Street also owns Asian food chain Wagamama, which may not look as if it has much to do with wills, divorce and personal injury but if you’ve never been to one, they are pretty efficient and have an interesting approach to customer service, bringing the food out when it’s ready even if that means you’ve finished yours before your dining partner has even started.
If you're like me, you won't have heard of any of these, apart from Wagamama, which I think would be a great name for a law firm if they wanted to go that way. But I am quite sure there will be some serious investment in branding and marketing in the near future. The battle is on for the heart and soul, or rather the retainer and credit card, of the legal consumer and these new beasts on the block will be determined to get the biggest slice they can.
In my Which? days I commissioned quite a few surveys asking consumers what they thought about getting legal services from big brands, whether, for example, Tesco, the AA or Barclays. Generally people were pretty positive about the idea. Since then I’ve read several surveys suggesting exactly the opposite, including one in December by YouGov that found consumers aren’t keen on the idea of getting their conveyancing from a ‘non-legal brand’.
Which just goes to show you shouldn’t believe opinion polls, as Neil Kinnock learned to his cost. However, I’d be inclined to think my initial surveys were right, because I bet if you’d asked people 20 years ago if they would buy financial products from Sainsbury’s they would probably have said no and laughed at the suggestion you could buy insurance and a tin of beans from the same brand. I should, of course, point out that there are other supermarket financial products available.
There is no getting away from it, we like brands. This is because they give us peace of mind and we know what we are getting, both in terms of the product and the likely standard of service, no matter what we are buying or when or where we buy it. We also like brands because, in a world offering far too much choice in just about everything, it’s one less choice we have to make.
However immune you think you are to brands, you can be sure that you will probably return to the same places to make any manner of purchases, from clothes to insurance. Mind you, it would be wrong to suggest that the only brands are big brands or that law firms can’t develop their own. QualitySolicitors have made a good fist of it so far and I agree with Neil Kinsella, chief executive of RJW (disclaimer: he's my ex boss) that there is room for others:
“I feel very strongly that when it comes to legal services reform and ABSs that the legal profession should be bold, and grasp the opportunity. Why are we standing aside and letting the retail brands swoop in to take the space? Consumers want something different, that's clear. But it's really important for the profession that there is a proper, independent law firm brand to provide this, not just the retail brands. The legal profession should be standing up and saying 'We can do this.'”
To build a brand consumers know takes time and money. But to make them come back means having high-quality products and services they need or want and can afford, and first-rate customer service. The legal profession has to shift its attitude from ‘you should be grateful I am willing to help you’ to ‘thank you for choosing me to be your lawyer’. As the brave new world dawns, it looks as if that could finally start to happen. The Luddites will be smashing their crystal balls as we speak.