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Louise Restell, head of public affairs, Russell Jones & Walker
The legal landscape is changing, but a large number of lawyers do not even seem to have noticed. Discussions around the Legal Services Bill, which is making its way through Parliament, have focused almost exclusively on the minutiae of regulation and have largely failed to look at the big picture of what the industry will look like in 20 years' time. This could be fatal for those in the profession, who are likely to face increasing competition.
The bill's proposal to allow alternative business structures (ABSs) is a direct response to the 2001 report by the Office of Fair Trading, which recommended an end to restrictions on competition in legal services. ABSs will make it easier for new providers to enter the market and will encourage innovation, the delivery of higher standards of customer service, greater efficiency and improved price and quality. They will also enable multidisciplinary partnerships and one-stop shops delivering packages of legal and other services, for example conveyancers, estate agents, mortgage advisers and surveyors, to work together to make home buying and selling easier.
This will be good for consumers who have suffered for too long from poor customer service and poor value for money from legal advisers. When people go to a lawyer they are pretty clear about what they want to do, whether it is write a will, sell their home or get divorced, and they want a professional to sort out the paperwork.
But they also want a bill that matches the quote they were given, they want their calls answered promptly and they want to know when their case is going to be delayed and what can be done about it. And whichever way you look at it, up until now, lawyers have not been too good at this, with the equivalent of one complaint for every six solicitors last year.
So why will ABSs change this? Because brands such as Tesco and the Halifax take their customer service very seriously and have nothing to gain from offering second-rate legal services.
If they, or any other big consumer brands, do decide to enter the market, not only will they make sure they get this bit right, they will also strive to deliver legal services in a way consumers want. That will mean more services available online and out-of-hours, more 'off-the-shelf' solutions and even 'self-service law', and less reliance on resource-intensive, bespoke legal advice.
And whether the profession likes it or not, consumers agree. In a recent survey by Which?, 75 per cent of adults think it is a good idea to get legal services at supermarkets or high street banks, and six in 10 would consider doing this in the future.
With this revolution on its way, and with the Government itself acknowledging that there will be a number of firms which will not survive, you would think consumer-facing lawyers would be jostling for position to ensure they are not the ones left behind. But many are just sticking their heads in the sand. What they should be doing is looking to innovate and diversify, improving their customer service and developing strong brands - even if it is only locally.
The Legal Services Bill is only the catalyst. The real changes are happening because consumers are demanding services more attuned to their needs; and just as banks, supermarkets and even doctors have had to change the way they work, so will lawyers. And as far as I'm concerned, it's not before time.