QualitySolicitors enters the big time - what a spectacle!

As I sat in an excruciatingly long, unmoving queue at Lanzarote airport on Thursday I nearly caused a stampede when I read about the QualitySolicitors deal on my iPhone. My little whoop of excitement and slight leap into the air made many of the frustrated travellers around me think that Spanish ground crew had finally turned up to check us in.

Their rumblings of discontent were all too audible as they realised it was just me reading the legal news (they didn’t know this of course, but they did know the check-in desks were still empty).  If I’d told them I suspect they would have been underwhelmed.  Nonetheless, it’s a revolutionary deal that will surely change forever the way most of those travellers will buy their legal services in future.

In case you missed it, the news that brightened my queuing experience was that QS has secured an undisclosed amount of private equity investment that will help them become the ‘Specsavers’ of the legal world.  Palamon Capital Partners already has experience of fragmented professional services markets, specifically dentistry and independent financial advice.  This won’t silence the QS critics, but they can no longer dismiss it as an irrelevance.

This is probably the point at which I should admit that private equity is not something I normally get excited about.  If it weren’t for our current perilous economic state, I would rather not think about finance much at all, so why am I so excited?  It’s not just because I write the QS blog.  No, what is exciting about this investment is that it is, at last, the coming to fruition of something I have long campaigned for, written and spoken about and even made myself rather unpopular over:  the ‘consumerisation’ of legal services (apologies for horrible made-up word).

This first private equity deal in the legal sector, enabled by legislation that came into force on 6 October, will enable QS to run a national marketing campaign, invest in training and new systems for its member firms and improve customer service.  Chief executive, Craig Holt, has said this would include, for example, Saturday opening, fixed fees and free initial consultations.  These may not seem revolutionary developments, but are quite groundbreaking in the staid old ‘9-to-5’ world of legal services.

The comparison with Specsavers is apt, even if many solicitors don’t think so.  Back in the early 1980s the opticians’ market was a medical service with thousands of independent practices.  There were no national brands and firms weren’t allowed to advertise.  My first trip to my local optician was pretty scary, admittedly I was only about ten, but I think even my parents were put off by the gloomy, slightly shabby building and unapproachable staff.  I didn’t much like the horrid glasses I was given either, one-style only in a choice of three glamorous colours, baby pink, garish blue or white.

Deregulation of optometry allowed advertising and external investment and along came Specsavers.  I imagine many of the traditional opticians felt just the same way as many high street solicitors do now:  it won’t affect us, we have loyal clients, people won’t want to buy their glasses from a chain, you can’t sell glasses as a commodity like a tin of beans….Well, ahem, look what happened.  Specsavers has a 40 per cent market share and dominates every demographic, including the most wealthy (which does for the snob factor).

Why shouldn’t the legal market go the same way?  Why won’t people choose an approachable, customer-friendly law firm with clear pricing that is open on Saturday and provides online services over the traditional model?  So ok, getting your will done in a gloomy, shabby office might not blight your childhood quite like my glasses did, but the experience probably won’t make your day.

I spent an amusing half hour reading the comments on the Law Gazette’s article about the QS deal. I still cannot believe there are lawyers out there who think the revolution will pass them by and that ABS, QS and any other acronym you care to think of are all smoke and mirrors (at least I assume they are lawyers, since most post anonymously).  Mind you, it’s hardly surprising they think this if they believe the economies of scale the QS deal will bring to member firms is the same as ‘pile ‘em high and sell ‘em cheap’.

While optometry isn’t an exact comparison, providing eye tests, glasses and contact lenses is infinitely more complicated and important than that ubiquitous tin of beans.  Get it wrong and there could be serious consequences, as serious as getting a will or conveyancing wrong.  It’s simply arrogance and a misunderstanding of what consumers want to say that high street legal services are particularly special or too complicated to be delivered differently.

Consumers like brands because they know what they are getting and generally they get good customer-focused products and services. But sometimes they use the ‘boutique’ outlet because they want something special or different.  There are individual opticians that survive, or local butchers that manage to weather the storm of Tesco and the other supermarkets.  They are still there because they provide added value that the major brands don’t.  Rather than sticking their heads in the sand, if firms don’t want to join QS, or the Co-op, or whoever else enters the market, they should be looking to identify their added value.

I am sure, although I probably shouldn’t write it here, that QS will make mistakes.  I am sure that not every QS firm up and down the country will get it right all of the time.  But that doesn’t negate the whole project.  Craig Holt and his colleagues have shown real vision and a determination to lead this particular revolution.  While everyone else has been theorising and criticising, QS has just gone ahead and done it and no one can argue this deal is not an impressive achievement.  Right now the only thing more impressive I can think of would be for Spanish ground crew to turn up before the passengers.

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