Brands on the run

And so it came to pass. Ever since the publication of the Legal Services Bill in 2006 there have been immense expectations that big brands will target the law.

So the Co-op confirming the extent of its plans may not be unexpected, but the clarification of its venture has – along with the abolition of conditional fee arrangements last week – thrown up big challenges for all law firms with major claimant practices. The perennial exception to the doom among claimant firms is Irwin Mitchell, which is rumoured to be making a significant Legal Services Act (LSA)-related announcement soon.

The Co-op’s move underlines how brand will be paramount in a post-LSA world. In this week’s think piece on the implications of the Co-op move on page 12, the experts we interview all single out the Co-op’s ethical brand as a big part of that sell.

I slightly tire of City lawyers declaring that the alternative business structures (ABSs) allowed by the LSA have nothing to do with the practice of commercial law. After October firms will have to answer two questions: why are you not recalibrating commoditised work?; and why are you not placing it into a separate, process-driven entity?

Berwin Leighton Paisner, whose Lawyers On Demand business has potential as a spin-off, will not be the only City firm investigating ABSs – you could scribble a back-of-the-envelope business case for Addleshaw Goddard, say. Its push to take away grunt work from associates and recalibrate it into a volume processing centre would be ripe for outside investment. The same goes for defendant insurance firms from Kennedys to Barlow Lyde & Gilbert.

Yet it’s hard to find a lawyer who admits that their firm ever does vanilla work, perhaps because it’s not something that sounds good at cocktail parties. If you believe everything that’s said, every law firm in the City is engaged purely on high-level advisory mandates. Absolute tosh, of course, but that level of delusion is not particularly healthy. In fact, the LSA presents big opportunities for ­commercial firms. It makes sense to ringfence volume work that could contaminate the brand and, rather like garlic and sunlight, ward off the threat of the legal process outsourcers. Time for firms to take control.;