LAW IN ACTION
BBC Radio 4's Law In Action
Tuesday 27 January 1600 GMT
On Radio 4 and online
Clive Coleman examines how three powerful forces are converging to cause radical change for lawyers and for their clients.
The first is the recession which is causing big shake-ups in law firms across the country.
Sue Rutherford is one casualty. A few years ago, she gave up her job as a midwife and trained as a solicitor. Then, a few months ago, the conveyancing work at her firm in Sussex started to dry up.
"I began to get a very uneasy feeling in my stomach and it dawned on me that they were probably discussing my redundancy," she says - and she was right.
She's now having to retrain as a midwife once again - and expects to see her salary cut in half.
The second change is the deregulation of the profession under the Legal Services Act of 2007.
This allowed new companies to form partnerships with law firms and opens much of the industry up to competition.
One potential new entrant is DAS, the legal insurance provider. Its CEO, Paul Asplin, predicts that old-style lawyers won't survive.
"In the future, simply putting up a brass plate and hoping that clients will simply walk through the door will not work," he says.
The third and potentially most disruptive force is new technology. This is going to allow clients direct access to many legal services without having to pay for the traditional face to face meeting with a lawyer.
When combined with the rapid trend to outsource legal work, the results could be dramatic.
Clive meets brothers Grahame and Richard Cohen who have created software that allows users to draft outline legal documents on the web, without any previous expertise.
All these changes are likely to result in what legal IT expert Richard Susskind calls the "commoditisation" of law - which could cut costs for consumers but mean creative destruction across the professional landscape.
In next week's programme we report from the US on how the economic squeeze means many states are rethinking their long-standing policy of "trail 'em, nail 'em and jail 'em."
No More Lawyers? Your thoughts
I was staggered by the programme just broadcast on opening the law to market forces. A real blast from the past - have the journalists not noticed the effect of opening the banks to market forces? Was it not possible to at least ask questions that related the appalling consequences of that deregulation to the possible consequences of opening up the law? The word "justice" was mentioned once in a ridiculous context. Is buying legal services from some equivalent of Tesco - small or large - likely to result in justice? Why were there no comments from users of lawyers' services whose needs are not straightforward? No comment on the large numbers of people who are completely incapable of doing a relevant first draft? And so on and so on. What about criminal lawyers, family lawyers, employment lawyers who struggle to help the semi-illiterate, the fearful, the distressed and are often having huge problems with low rates of legal aid which are based on a fee for service. Why was there no discussion of the fact that lawyers in these areas are often not earning large salaries?
What about the number of cases already being encountered where wrong, and sometimes very costly, advice has been given to clients by non-lawyers drawing up cheap wills? It needs a properly trained expert to write wills, or plan estates where complicated provisions are required by the client. Paralegals or lay people are just not qualified to give advice in a lot of cases. Change is not always for the benefit of consumers.
News that non-legal speculators are likely to become increasingly active in the ownership/management of community law practices should send shivers down the spine of anyone needing advice on important issues in the future, as it appears the very same organisations which helped bring about the current financial chaos will figure prominently among those seeking to profit exponentially from their "skills" being deployed.
Things can only improve for the man in the street if he can get legal services from organizations who understand customer service, like Tesco. Many solicitors have no idea at all about customer service, and the sooner they are replaced by customer orientated companies operating in a transparently competitive environment the better.
I cannot see how you can commoditise a complex legal service as it is probably more difficult to create the website to do that than it is to solve the problem. Also the clients have to work out how to use the site at a time they are stressed and anxious and trying to do everything else on line as well including Tesco etc. And after all that the client would still have to be seen. However that is not to say Lawyers cannot be undercut by legal project specialists. Persons with legal training who have hived off specialist legal services and provide them direct via Google and then just employ the lawyers to do the court bit over which they still hold a monopoly. Project specialists are making a silent march upon their fat profits and they are getting worried. This is their real fear. If they think they can stave off the inevitable march of project specialism into law by putting a few basic legal services on line then they are deluded or have little respect for the intelligence of the clients they have been overcharging for years.
Change in legal services is happening now. I am a little surprised that your programme suggested legal services changes will be in the future, when banks, insurance companies, Which? and others are already offering legal services. The Legal Services Act will allow solicitors to catch-up and possibly compete on a "level playing field". More importantly I would suggest there is a prosperous future for High Street solicitors if they communicate the benefits of the use of their services to their current and past clients/customers. Benefits that deliver for clients avoidance of risk and saving money/time. Epoq systems are a great step forward along Prof Susskind and Prof Mayson's predicted path for legal service delivery. However these systems in marketing terms are a method of capturing legal service enquiries by engaging the potential client. Potentially these systems do not deliver the client's required outcome because the client is unaware of what they actually need. For example: is it a shareholders agreement or a partnership document they require and what are the risks associated with each type of arrangement? Is it a divorce petition or mediation that's needed?
Many large law firms have already poured thousands into internet services only to discover that they do not (to be brutally honest) deliver the sort of clients who are financially viable. The internet certainly drives down prices but only those who are prepared to undercut everyone else will get the work and the quality of rock-bottom legal work is about as good as rock-bottom builders' work. With respect to on-line programmes ability to reduce cost: what was not (I think) mentioned was the liability any lawyer who accepted such a self-created draft would take on. If a client gets his initial draft done cheaply on-line only a very stupid lawyer would accept it without interviewing the client and going through the whole process again to make sure that, as is his or her duty, it actually fits the client's requirements, which might be extremely complex. What humans do supremely well and machine do not is to pick up unspoken information from other humans. Five minutes with a client will tell you more than an hour on the phone.
The de-skilling seems very similar to what the banks have done and from the point of view of the customer is a complete failure. Bank branches used to have a manager and a series of qualified workers that you could discuss your particular requirements with, who knew their job and could make you an offer based on your individual case. Now you go and see an operator who fills a form in. If your requirements don't fit on the form they consult a manual on the internet. If your requirements are not there then that's it, goodbye!
Contact the programme
If you have thoughts on any of the topics we've covered, or any other legal issues, you can contact us by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by post at Law In Action, BBC White City, Wood Lane, London W12 7TS, or you can call us on 020 8752 5646.
Law In Action is broadcast on Tuesday 27 January 2009 at 1600 GMT on BBC Radio 4.