Tesco law or Virgin legal?

We’ve had the abstract discussions, but now the real fun is beginning. This year the Legal Services Bill will reach its final stages, but despite years of debate there has never been much in the way of vision. Isn’t this a bit odd? In most other industry sectors the prospect of a fundamental shake-up would be seen as a massive business opportunity: scary, yes, but exciting nevertheless.

Instead, most of the debate over Clementi gets bogged down in tedious point-scoring around regulation. Discussion of alternative business structures (ABSs) has been led less by the lawyers and more by a small handful of bankers and consultants wondering whether they can make a quick buck on law firm floats. It all adds to the gaiety of nations; indeed, last year The Lawyer ran a playful slide rule over how much the likes of Nigel Knowles might make on a law firm IPO. But as we’ve reported time and time again, there is very little appetite among City firms to go for outside investment. The biggest creative revolution will happen on the retail side.

And even here many law firms still hang back from shaping the debate. So far only commercial organisations such as Co-Operative Legal Services and Halifax Legal Services have put their heads above the parapet. So Russell Jones & Walker’s (RJW) declaration of intent – to become the first and leading consumer brand in legal services – is a hugely important development.

This is a massive entrepreneurial gamble and it’s going to be fascinating to watch. The hire of Louise Restell from consumer association Which? is key to its strategy. Meanwhile, chief executive Neil Kinsella is open to the idea of “buddying up with different brands”, as he puts it. RJW will need multiple points of entry. The firm will undoubtedly try to access the consumer via its existing insurance, union and membership services.

The fact that the firm already knows how to run a call centre also helps. RJW already processes around 10,000 claims a year through its acquisition of Claims Direct. There are also opportunities for Shoosmiths here: its residential conveyancing department handles 25,000 home moves a year, and it estimates that it already acts for something like 110,000 consumers.

A word of warning, though. Creating a high street brand is expensive. To build from scratch a serious consumer brand in what the advertising industry terms a ‘low-interest category’ would require a minimum spend of £20m. It’s a whole new world.