A pint of milk, half a dozen eggs and a divorce please. Britain’s supermarkets offer us greater choice than ever before, with lines including credit cards, loans, mobile phones and travel insurance. Now, with the imminent introduction of the Legal Services Act, talk has now turned to the concept of ‘Tesco Law’.
The proposed legislation, expected to pass into statute in 2011, will make it possible for people who are not qualified solicitors to become partners in law firms. These could be other professionals such as accountants, financial advisers or management consultants, or even unrelated companies with the nous for selling the products and services the general public need in everyday life.
The concept is getting professionals excited and hot under the collar in equal measure. The commercial advantage for small firms of solicitors to partner with larger organisations who offer marketing clout and slick advertising has been proven in the personal injury sector. The question with the introduction of the new Act is whether organisations such as InjuryLawyers4U or Tesco will want to acquire a stake in solicitors firms, or even buy them outright to create a national branded network. Is this necessarily a good omen for the profession as we know it?
As solicitors we’ve always prided ourselves as offering impartial advice to our clients, proudly holding up our credentials as independent counsel unswayed by pressure from outside interests. If we had a PLC paymaster to serve, could this see us focus too much on profit over what is truly best for our clients?
Steeped in tradition as our profession is, change comes slowly, so I’m not predicting an overnight revolution when the Act is introduced. But jump forward a decade and I wouldn’t be surprised to see ‘retail law’ offered as a module on legal practice courses – especially if companies like Tesco do enter the legal services market and start to recruit solicitors directly or even offer training contracts to law students.
Of course the other side of the coin is that solicitors will be able to think more entrepreneurially, and work more closely with other professions to broaden their service offering. Divorce, for example, is one area where a holistic approach to a client’s situation could be extremely beneficial. As well as the legal and emotional split, there could be children, savings, debts, pensions and provisions for the future to consider – so joined-up thinking from a team of professional advisers working together to give best advice in a ‘one-stop-shop’ environment is an attractive proposition.
In my practice, we realised five years ago that there was a simple way to provide our clients with this holistic approach. Gather together individual professional services practitioners together in one office with shared secretarial support and hey presto – a client can come along and have a meeting with their solicitor, accountant, financial adviser and even insolvency practitioner all at the same time.
At our Lichfield office we’ve called it "Professionals at Cathedral House". Structurally, we’re still separate practitioners rather than one firm (or "alternative business structure" as the new Act would dub it) and clients are billed separately by each of us. However, there are definite economies in time and cost from having everyone together in the same place. Even in these high-tech times, we still see the best results from face-to-face communication, and shared office space means this happens regularly.
This service works well on our small scale and we believe it’s a business model that could be effectively scaled up to have medium-sized firms working together. So do we need alternative business structures at all? Well, let’s ask who has most to gain.
The UK legal profession is one of the most respected in the world. Training, qualification and rigorous observation by our peers means when you visit a solicitor – any solicitor – you can expect certain minimum standards. We’re required to operate our businesses under the strict and prescriptive guidelines of the Law Society, and we are tightly monitored by the Solicitors Regulation Authority. There are strict penalties, where there is misconduct.
Do all other professions have such rigorous standards? Some, such as accountancy, certainly do. But within the wider professional services field – and I include banking, financial services and management consultancy in this group – there are not always comparable formal qualifications of entry, nor the same level of regulation.
By aligning themselves with a solicitors’ firm, these practitioners will undoubtedly benefit from our assumed standards of professionalism. The small print of the new Act means legally-qualified partners won’t necessarily be hauled up in front of the SRA if their new board members offer bad advice, but it does mean they’ll need to keep an active eye on these new areas of practice to protect the reputations they’ve taken time to cultivate.
The Legal Services Act may bring a host of benefits through the opportunities for diversification it offers, but we need to remember that our profession has built its reputation on offering unrivalled expertise in matters of law. If, by adopting alternative business structures, we assume the moral obligation to oversee the practice of other professions, we need to ensure we do not become the jack of all trades but master of none.
-Helen Bradin is a partner at Walsall’s Bradin Trubshaw Solicitors.