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What follows is a personal, and commercial, analysis, of the coming ABS tsunami.
Like the Firm, I have been following the reports of the 15 potential ABS outfits in discussion with the English and Welsh Solicitors Regulation Authority, and am aware of the other burgeoning alternative law projects getting going - Quality Solicitors tie-up with WH Smith to put Legal Access Points in all their stores (though those can be done under the traditional regulatory regime as the access points are owned and run by individual firms) . The Co-op have taken the field in the provision of legal services by a different route.
The threat, if that’s the right word, is that the high street legal market will get hoovered up like the high street optical market has been, in which 80 per cent of the trade is owned by a tiny number of brand names. Indeed my branch of Dollond & Aitchison where I got my Colin Firth lookalike specs is now Boots.
Part of me says I have seen all this before. I am old enough to remember the immediate aftermath of the end of the scale fee for conveyancing, which was greeted with lamentation. But after a short period of adjustment, solicitors sorted themselves out and got more efficient and more business-like, and made the same or more money again. Likewise with the entry of advertising to the profession. Plenty of lawyers thought it demeaning, and the thin end of a dumbing-down wedge. But one or two motorbikes apart, it actually did the opposite, and brought the legal profession more clearly into the public’s arc of attention.
The rise of commoditised remortaging (remember remortgages? Er, remember …mortgages?) threatened to take all our conveyancing clients away. Didn’t happen. Some minor and niggling work got diverted, but clients still thought/think their lawyer was/is the trusted adviser of choice for real legal work. In fact it left us with a clearer desk to get on with the meatier stuff.
As ABS raised its head, I thought a similar pattern would continue. But I fear it is actually different this time. Companies have identified the worth of the legal market - over a billion in fees annually in Scotland alone, which is a tenth the size of England. They have done their homework – executry fees are substantial and the technicality of the work is manageable compared to some other areas. Accident claims companies have been around for a long time, and their success is a driver for expanding the range of legal services. These are to be cherry-picked by entrepreneurs - not lawyers themselves – and around which ABS systems can be crafted to get the work in, do it profitably, and hire the minimum number of lawyers to supervise unqualified staff.
If this is what happens, the core workstreams of many firms will be decimated, with obvious consequences. I am not making a political point, but do please remember the governments here and down south demanded these changes, so it is no use crying about the injustice or the Law Society of Scotland’s position. Once the unstoppable machine was set going, all we have been able to do is to nudge it and direct it to achieve the best results we can for our members and the public.
So much for worry and negativity. I still fear the future, but I challenge the inevitability of solicitors disappearing off the high street.
What is the one strand that links all solicitors in Scotland (and beyond) whether they be in a small firm, a big corporate firm, in-house with a company or council, a sole practitioner? They solve problems for people. They plan strategies for people. They arrange things for the success or rescue of clients. You know the old saying about the cobbler’s children being the worst-shod? We as lawyers often do not treat ourselves with the same medicine we give our clients. Sure, there are many (very many) superb managers and administrators in the legal profession, and lots of well-run firms. But how many of us are professional marketing executives, how many have taken a course in marketing, or gone and learned the trade of sales? How many of us are entrepreneurs?
Sales is not all about dodgy suits and double-glazing. Selling is an art and a science, and is a bloody hard job. I greatly admire men and women who can go out and make the sale, whether it be investment, property rental, cheese, holidays, or haberdashery. It is a creative and intellectual process. Getting new customers in requires a range of skills that are often not a natural gift, but must be learned and earned, and the sales person – however, titled as -executive, -representative,- director, -person, is constantly on a knife-edge of targets, regular reports and management expectation.
Lawyers have traditionally looked down on pretty well everyone else, and certainly on the likes of sales folk. Whether that’s as a result of having to serially turn away an army of unwanted IT sales men and women, or closing the door on someone who sounds like they’re trying to tell you how to run your business, or just snobbery, it is not an easy alliance.
But marketing and sales are the answer (answers). They’re not the same thing, but are both essential tools in the fight to keep the solicitor profession ahead.
The Law Society of Scotland’s job (now if not before) is to market the profession to Scotland. You know that doctrine you hear in one form or another – all lawyers are fat cats/crooks/arrogant/horrible – but my lawyer is wonderful. I want in my capacity as an Office-Bearer of the Society to turn that saying on its head – though not entirely (the lesson - All lawyers are wonderful but mine’s a crook - is not ideal). The public and the nation need to have the message shouted loud and clear that the legal profession is one of the fundamental emergency services in a civilised society, and ours is so professional and efficient and diligent and trustworthy that you don’t NEED to reinvent it with non-lawyers coming in to fill a gap that just isn’t there.
That ought to be a good message to send. I will bust a gut to send it and keep sending it and send it again until it is the first thought everyone has. And the message needs its counterweight. We do as solicitors need to be sales-savvy, market-alert, entrepreneurial. My little firm is not resting on any laurels it might have had. We are in the late planning stage of a range of projects to sell more services to existing clients, to increase awareness and interest in our services for those clients and beyond, and to raise our profile so that we, and crucially our badge as SOLICITORS is what draws the clients present and potential into our offices, website and inboxes, rather than having to watch as companies with increasingly bizarre names and brands try to elbow their less-qualified way into the market place.
The days when we as solicitors set up in an office or joined an existing firm and waited for the business to come in at an even pace are about to end. We need to get a new set of commercial skills to maintain (and develop) our market position. ABS? stand for Alright – it’s Better with a Solicitor
Watch out. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.