I have seen the future and it works (sort of)

I wouldn’t want to compare the legal services market to Soviet Russia given how that’s turned out, but that is rather how I felt coming home from the Legal Futures conference on ‘the new frontiers of law’ on Monday. Having said that, there may be some similarities.

On returning from his visit to the Soviet Union in 1919, journalist Lincoln Steffens wrote he had witnessed the ‘confusing and difficult’ process of a society in the process of revolutionary change.  I imagine most people in the legal market can easily see that read across.

He also wrote that ‘Soviet Russia was a revolutionary government with an evolutionary plan’, enduring ‘a temporary condition of evil, which is made tolerable by hope and a plan’.  There are probably some in the legal profession who can see that read across too, but possibly without the sweetener of hope.

There may also be lessons for the legal profession to learn from a revolutionary caste that ultimately failed, in no small measure, because of its internal differences, which created paranoid and deadly suspicions among the protagonists.  It is worth noting that most, if not all, of these internal differences were of little interest or concern to the average turn-of-the-century Russian in whose name they had carried out the revolution.

I am probably stretching the analogy way too far, but you get the point.  There is a revolution happening in the legal profession, some of it isn’t pretty, and some are going to lose their heads along the way (hopefully not literally) but with any luck we’ll end up with something more useful to the typical legal consumer than the five-year plans were for the Russian peasants.

No one can say with any certainty that they know where this revolution is going to lead us.  The government (coalition, not Bolshevik) has spoken in glowing but fairly vague terms about how, for example, mediation and legal expenses can fill the gaping abyss left by the demise of legal aid and the reforms to no win-no fee agreements.

I am not alone in finding this laissez-faire attitude somewhat cavalier, particularly when it comes to the distressed, vulnerable and poor.  But to some extent I have to agree that commercial providers will find new and innovative ways to deliver accessible and affordable legal services to consumers, or rather, to those consumers who still have pennies to rub together.  Some of them already are, as I saw with my own eyes on Monday.

Co-operative Legal Services, one of the first alternative business structures, is to provide legal services through its banking network.  Consumer champion Which? has expanded its legal service to offer advice on employment and housing issues under its annual subscription and to provide low-cost online wills.  In less than ten years its membership has increased seven fold to about 140,000.

Arguably, QualitySolicitors were the first ‘legal brand’ to bring law directly to the consumer with their legal access points in WHSmith stores up and down the country, where uniformed staff can book appointments, provide conveyancing quotes, sell wills packages and fixed-fee advice sessions, and sign people up to the QS loyalty card scheme.  Hot on their heels, Instant Law UK is pioneering free consultations with a lawyer via video-links in libraries, community and shopping centres as well as to consumers at home through a skype-type application.

Riverview Law, a combined law firm and barristers’ chambers that sells fixed-fee advice to businesses says it has been stunned by the positive reaction to its offering and that ‘the opportunity is much bigger’ than they imagined.  Who’d have thought businesses would like predictable costs?  Not many traditional law firms it seems.

This all indicates there is plenty of innovation out there.  Even so, these services rely to a large extent on the consumer knowing they need legal advice.  I am concerned that little is being done to inform consumers more widely about their rights and how they can exercise them.

The government says it is in consumers’ interests to deal with problems before they get anywhere near a court, although in cutting legal aid for welfare cases they are, I would have thought, shooting themselves in the foot on this one.  I would argue it is in consumers' interests if they can deal with problems before they get anywhere near a lawyer.

Public legal education is not a sexy subject, it doesn’t roll of the tongue or have a particularly memorable acronym.  It isn’t easily definable, just have a look at the Law for Life website and the wide range of projects it showcases, from teaching prisoners to parliamentary outreach, citizenship classes and social policy campaigning.  And just like public health programmes designed to keep people away from hospitals, it attracts very little funding from anywhere.

I suppose you don’t make money out of empowering people to solve their own problems, but, and I am no marketing expert, isn’t that what’s called a ‘loss leader’?  The point with a revolution is you can’t carry on doing things the way you were doing them before, just look at what happened to the kulaks.

Changing the way people write wills or book an appointment is not revolutionary; changing the way they think about the law is.  Legal services, we are always being told, are distress purchases.  But do they have to be?  Isn’t there a way we can encourage and equip people to take responsibility for their ‘legal health’ just as with their financial health?

I don’t know how you do this.  I am not an innovator and, even if I were, I don’t have any money to do anything about it.  The new QualitySolicitors ad suggests they may be starting to think like that, but I have no idea how far they will go with the ‘for whatever life brings’ strapline:  they don’t tell me anything.

I’m not convinced anyone has seen the real future of the legal services market, for a start, there are only three ABS and the fallout from the cuts to legal aid and changes to no win-no fee agreements is at least a year away.  But I bet it’s not just about finding new ways of selling the same old legal services.  The real revolution has yet to begin.

Posted in: Legal services

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