Time for law's lone guns to unite

The drive towards franchising is bringing with it a supermarket culture – and small firms will lose out. Solicitors' chambers may be the answer, says Christie Davies. Christie Davies is Professor of Sociology at the University of Reading and co-author of Wrongful Imprisonment.

The late 1990s are not an easy or optimistic time for small firms of solicitors or lone practitioners.

Overheads are rising and net incomes are shrinking. Larger firms have expanded and driven down their costs through economies of scale and investment in information technology, squeezing their smaller rivals.

To be a high street solicitor is akin to running a corner shop, while hypermarkets with limitless choice and handy parking spring up on the edge of town.

Criminal law and other legal aid work have additional pressures brought about by successive Lord Chancellors' zeal for economies. Determined to have a cheaper legal aid system, regardless of any resulting decline in the quality of the work, franchising and block contracts have been introduced.

Few of today's small firms or lone practitioners, even if franchisees, can expect to be awarded a contract. The Government, as the only purchaser of legal aid services, is determined to reduce the number of producers of those services it has to deal with; it also prefers to deal with large bureaucratic firms that mirror its own red-tape way of handling things.

Franchising purports to be about preserving quality of service, but in practice it will drive it down.

Solicitors will have to turn their attention to the monitoring of files, meaning less human contact. This will be at the expense of what is most important to the semi-literate paupers who make up most of the UK's criminal community.

Personal contact is not a luxury, but vital to the proper conduct of a defence. Defending petty criminals is not about filing, it is about listening and responding quickly and well. Before members of the legal profession sneer, let them consider how they would feel if their GP or dentist were the semi-qualified employees of a large, faceless organisation. Does the ordinary burglar or shop-lifter deserve less than decent service?

Nonetheless both franchising and block contracts are here to stay and are advancing on firms fast.

So how are the small practitioners to survive in this unbrave new world? They are also under pressure to obtain franchises and block contracts, compete with their larger more affluent rivals on cost, yet still make a reasonable living and provide the personal and dedicated service for which they have been esteemed in the past.

The future seems to lie with the small but growing movement to establish solicitors' chambers – there are

currently about 50 people in nine chambers.

These allow individual solicitors to be linked, not in partnerships, but in flexible individual arrangements to share costs and facilities – libraries, interview rooms, secretarial services, copiers and the like – paying for what they use. In consequence some solicitors' chambers have reduced their overheads from 70 per cent of earnings to 35 per cent. Such massive savings are due in part to a fuller use of capital and support staff and partly by dispensing with unnecessary frills.

Criminal clients – and indeed many other clients – are not impressed by the knee-deep carpets, aspidistras, reproductions of 19th century paintings or swanky reception areas found at many large firms.

Lawyers can work equally well in a converted cellar or warehouse shared with other solicitors and take up only the space and resources needed for dealing with their own clients.

The sharing is done on a simple cash basis; there is no need for partners' meetings, petty squabbles over precedence and quarrels over time costing. No one needs to see anyone else's books and there is minimal bureaucracy.

A legal aid contract could be held collectively by the chambers, whose members may in principle only come into virtual, computerised contact with one another.

Meanwhile, the client gets what they want: service at all times from a qualified solicitor, someone they know, and continuity – the key to surviving in a cutthroat market. It is only possible to compete with large bureaucratic firms employing cheaper clerks by being willing to work with a degree of intensity and flexibility that is not available from the alienated employee of a faceless bureaucracy.

That is why commercial chains providing restaurants, garages or leisure facilities opt for genuine franchising, which encourages the franchise holder to be an entrepreneur rather than an employee.

The most striking quality of those who have already moved to the solicitors' chambers mode of organisation is the high level of work satisfaction it affords, because it is not fragmented nor under the direction of others. In turn, satisfaction brings with it efficiency, direct attention to the needs of the client and an entrepreneurial zeal for seeing and seizing new opportunities and discovering new and better ways of working.

Those in solicitors' chambers possibly work longer hours and often at more anti-social times than many of their colleagues in large firms, but that is the price to pay for the autonomy of being your own boss.

RIP: small practices

The Solicitors' Chambers Association was set up on 17 October 1998 at the RIP: Small Practices conference in Peterborough to help small firms and lone practitioners set up chambers. Neil Davidson of the Solicitors' Chambers, Peterborough was elected chairman. For further details about the association please call 01733 892237.