Authority figures add up

If you’d said in 2007 that local authority legal directors would emerge as the profession’s most imaginative group of lawyers, most people would have gone slack-jawed in amazement.

And yet in the past three years those same lawyers, so long regarded as somehow inferior to their richer City cousins, have consistently responded to crisis and change with aplomb.

Kent County Council’s plan to spin off its legal function into an alternative business structure (ABS) is the first example of a legal entity outside the consumer sphere hatching plans to adopt such a structure, while Lambeth Borough Council is eyeing mutualisation, much to the applause of Tory think tank ResPublica.

Contrast this with private practice, where law firms seem to be mired in an intellectual dead-end. With less than a year before the implementation of the Legal Services Act (LSA), discussion is still ­centred on making shedloads of cash out of ABSs rather than using the possibility of external ­investment to further specific strategic aims.

The sort of structural change other sectors have had to cope with is finally arriving at the legal profession. I’m not just talking about the LSA, but also the need to adapt current legal practices to technological advances and – crucially – client demand.
Last year legal process outsourcing (LPO) providers looked to be unstoppable; even ­Slaughters was strongarmed into creating an LPO panel by client Carillion.

But one of the more intriguing trends of 2010 has been how reluctant firms have been to plump for the India option. Rather, we’ve seen Freshfields, Berwin Leighton Paisner and Travers Smith pick regional referral firms for lower-level work in a weird resurrection of the old Norton Rose-M5 alliance of the 1990s.

But this is still on-the-hoof stuff. No firm, as yet, has come up with a coherent vision of disaggregated legal services and applied it forensically across the business, with all the HR shake-up that implies.

The first that does will be on to a winner. But does private practice have sufficient creativity?

  • The Lawyer is taking a couple of weeks’ break from print, but we’ll be back on 3 January with The Hot 100 and will be publishing online throughout the break. In the meantime, merry Christmas and a happy New Year.

catrin.griffiths@thelawyer.com