"Survival in the high street' was not just the motto of last week's Solicitors Property Group (SPG) national conference in London; it has been the profession's major preoccupation since anyone can remember.
The big firms have their up and downs, but in general they jog along contentedly and their survival has never been in doubt. It is the high-street firms that are the endangered species, and virtually every row, every internal schism, at the Law Society in recent years can be traced back to this issue.
Martin Mears would never have been able to force an election, let alone become president, if there hadn't been a groundswell of anger in the provinces – anger from fear of going under, and what some solicitors saw as the Law Society's failure to help. Others say Mears' presidency actively set back the Law Society's attempts to help high-street firms, and that for all his corporate jargon, Girling is returning to mainstream policy.
But, as former Law Society mandarin Andrew Lockley told the SPG conference, the position of high street firms is irreversible and their problems stem largely from their failure to reassess their place in a consumer-led society. Lockley said: "The solicitor/client relationship [is] less one-sided in favour of the solicitor than it was just a couple of decades ago…when clients were typically less ready to complain. For some older solicitors, this has been a difficult transition from a period they might now regard as a golden age."
Lockley believes the solution is for these firms to deliver "the kind of service which exceeds the client's expectations" – a concept he calls "client-friendliness". Whatever you want to call it, this sounds like common sense. That solicitors are still attending conferences in 1996 to be told this suggests that survival may yet prove to be a bigger issue than any of us imagined.