The imminent introduction of the Legal Services Act presents new challenges for high street firms as it enables companies other than solicitors to provide legal services under what is known as an Alternative Business Structure (ABS). This means that individuals can visit an ABS for various legal services, such as, wills, probate and conveyancing. Already companies such as Co-op, the AA and Saga have become ABSs in direct competition with the traditional high street solicitors practice.
The problem facing a majority of solicitor’s practices is that large companies will clearly have a commercial advantage over the high street Affordable Legal services practice that used to dot every high street. Going forward a well known ‘brand’ will get custom regardless of the quality of their legal service merely due to their reputation in other areas. They also benefit from economies of scale, so can undercut the prices of smaller high street solicitors and advertise aggressively, knowing that their smaller rivals cannot compete. In addition, they have the benefit of convenience; why visit a solicitor when you can get a will written while doing the weekly shop? A survey by Yougov has shown that 60% of those surveyed would buy legal services from a known retail brand rather than a local solicitor. This makes the future look very gloomy for the average high street solicitors practice. You only have to glance down a high street to see the lack of independent retailers due to being priced out by large corporate brands. By visiting the same brand for legal services, the legal profession will go the same way.
More worryingly, critics argue that it will damage the independence of the profession. Solicitors often work in small partnerships, independent from the clients they serve, striving to provide good quality legal services building client confidence, loyalty and client recommendations. However, bring in a major retailer with interests in several sectors and the outlook changes dramatically. Solicitors are responsible for their own reputation which is earned through the service they provide, making them personally liable for the work they undertake. Larger retailers simply do not have the same degree of liability; if a mistake is made it does not affect the company on a national scale. With large companies there is also the possibility that they will only be interested in the relatively simple tasks in order to make a quick buck, leaving the riskier and more expensive work for their high street competitors.
If an ABS can offer routine legal services without what may appear to be a hefty price tag, why choose a high street firm? Firstly, there is the personal service and client relationship; a solicitor can build up a strong relationship with a client over several years, thus better understanding the needs of each situation. In law, due to the vast diversity of situations, there simply cannot be an effective one size fits all model (the likely approach of the likes of the AA, Co-op etc). Instead of a mass-produced product, a high street solicitor can offer you an approach tailored to meet your needs. Most solicitors firms operate in a team of highly qualified specialists to provide a quality service rather than one solicitor heading a large group of paralegals or unqualified legal assistants. Put simply, high street firms offer quality over quantity. To ensure their future high street law firms have to maintain their professional standards.
It is true that high street firms need to adapt to have a chance of competing with big business. However, the days of the sole practitioner will soon be gone. For the smaller firms to survive they may no alternative but to merge with other professional services, such as, accountants and IFA’s to provide all business and personal services under one roof.