The introduction of the UK Government's Legal Services Act 2007 ('LSA') is spearheading significant changes in the way legal services are delivered. Described as a 'Big Bang' moment for the legal profession, the upheaval caused by the LSA could be nothing short of seismic with industry experts such as Professor Stephen Mayson predicting that as many as 3,000 high street law firms, or 35% of the total, may have to disappear in the subsequent upheaval. What can you say about this? Do you think many small high street firms - who do not have a sophisticated website - will be affected by this new development?
Steve Arundale: The LSA will clearly have a significant impact. Yet, to blame the projected changes on the legislation would be wrong, as the market for legal services in the high street was always going to change anyway. The reason is clear: in a tough economic environment and a fragmented market with too many providers, the level of client service simply has not kept pace with that of other providers of goods and services.
The fact that many firms lack an effective interactive website provides a powerful example of this shortfall. Nearly three quarters of businesses recognise the importance of technology in communicating more effectively with clients who are now more computer literate and buying more goods and services online every year. Yet, only one in four law firms have positively addressed this issue.
Having said this, there is a great opportunity for those who get it right. Even though the buying landscape may change, the overall market for quality legal services will continue to grow, in the face of increasing legislation and a generally more litigious society. Wherever you look, from commercial to employment to family, the ways in which we interact are becoming more complex, with an associated need for sound legal advice to help both consumers and businesses.
Peter Fleming and Steve Arundale: There are two questions here: how much would you trust a new entrant and how much would you trust a new way of purchasing legal services?
The answer to both may be the same. Many purchasers may trust the new provider's brand and make regular online purchases, yet are still likely to be cautious in making high-value and complex personal or family decisions via a highly impersonal route to the market. Such consumers are unlikely to be early adopters, having greater confidence in the more traditional, consultative face-to-face approach. However, 'Generation Y' (those born from the late 1970s to late 1990s) purchasers are less likely to be inhibited in this way and more willing to try new providers and new routes to market.
There are two other issues for high street lawyers who charge out on a universal hourly rate for their services to consider here. First, consumers willing to pay the rate for good quality professional advice will be far less willing to pay the same for form-filling and other administrative work. Once again therefore, a blended approach combining online and face-to-face is likely to be more cost-effective and competitive in giving the consumer what they want.
In addition, the new generation of consumers is now much more sophisticated and better-informed as a result of the internet (though this doesn't necessarily make them better buyers). This puts more pressure on the lawyer, as value depends on providing rather more specialist input and advice than the client could find out on Google.
Peter Fleming and Steve Arundale: In a more liberalised and competitive market, law firms need to concentrate as much on running the business as providing legal advice. Issues such as getting the right business model, profitability and developing a forward-looking strategy are all about the business and nothing to do with the law.
Do you think it is possible to make a proper analysis of a legal case if information is only provided over the internet?
Some other areas have a large process element which can be automated, yet in most cases there will continue be a small but essential degree of specialist personal involvement where there is some complexity to be managed. This will be due to the inherent nature of the legal issue to be resolved therefore rather than the desire of the client.
Peter Fleming and Steve Arundale: Research has shown that, though 90% of firms recognise that the market will change over the next five years, only 30% have yet done anything to address or respond to this. If they are to survive - let alone thrive - in the face of large newcomers with strong branded presence, an existing high street infrastructure and well-researched offerings, law firms can no longer afford to sit on their hands: standing still is not an option.
There will be opportunities for newcomers into what might be described as the 'traditional' high street legal service provision. These are most likely to be in niche areas, where the provider can evidence a strong specialist expertise and quality service for which clients are prepared to pay a premium. To succeed, they will need to be commercially aware and adopt a more aggressive marketing strategy.
Peter Fleming and Steve Arundale: 'E-lawyering' is already starting to become established as the de facto standard in dealing with many legal issues. This has a clear parallel with the medical profession that is embracing technology to deal with the administrative side of patient relationships, as this is both cheaper and what the public wants. Today, patients can book GP appointments online, confirm them via text message and also get repeat prescriptions via the web. The only thing that requires face-to-face intervention with the doctor is the diagnosis of the patient's ailment - the equivalent of the value-added expertise required in providing legal advice to unravel a complex legal problem.
Peter Fleming and Steve Arundale: Law firms have traditionally been good at recognising and learning from what the best legal practices are doing. Now is the time to look beyond the immediate competition and see what world class looks like in other sectors. This is especially pressing in the area of customer service provision, as newcomers enter the legal services market post-LSA. It is also time to take a step back from the business, review costs and efficiencies and take a fresh look at what they do best in the context of the changing market. In other words, take time away from working in the business to work on the business.