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Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Quality Solicitors Game Changer - Part 1 at least

The announcement that all 200 members of Quality Solicitors are to abandon hourly rates in favour of fixed fees has the potential to be a game changer.  I say potential, because something else needs to happen before an even more significant change occurs.

I have long been dubious about the merits of the QS model.  I could see the benefits of pooled marketing budgets and the consequent raising of profile.  I had no doubt that the brand would attract more work for the member firms.  I questioned, however, what was the point of taking on new instructions if the way in which they were processed was the same as ever, because clients would not be impressed and would be unlikely to return.

In the many years I have been working with law firms in the introduction, application and improvement of technology, two universal truths invariably emerge.  The first is that a steady influx of clients willing to pay hourly charges is a disincentive for lawyers to adopt new working practices, especially the committed use of technology and the delegation of tasks that do not warrant a highly qualified hourly rate.

The second truth is a corollary of the first: fixed fees change this outlook.  It has long been the case with residential conveyancing, which has been remunerated largely through fixed fees for decades now.  On the whole, firms undertaking this work arrange themselves and their IT in a way that gives them a fighting chance of making a profit.  Yet under the same roof, their colleagues enjoying the luxury of hourly rates eschew these practices.

The lessons learned here are what cause me to refer to the QS initiative in terms of potential rather than certainty.  They say that even litigation will be charged at fixed fees and this highlights the absolute necessity of analysing all processes and identifying where technology and delegation can be introduced to make the work profitable.  It is no use adopting the strategy that some high profile new entrants have of trumpeting fixed fees, which are in reality a calculation of what the hourly rate model would have produced and then some more. That might wash in certain commercial sectors, but not in the consumer market.

Slater & Gordon have demonstrated how hard the battle for the hearts and minds of consumers will be fought.  If QS firms are to win a good share of the market, they have to adopt Part 2 of the strategy.  This will include self-service online, streamlined internal processes and charging only for those parts of the work that is of real value to clients.

I await with great interest the unfolding of that strategy.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Reinvent Law Conference London 2013

I was privileged to be able to speak at the Reinvent Law Conference in London on 14 June.  It was inspiring to hear so many contributors demonstrating their deep thinking about how legal services could be delivered in a way that is better for those who need legal support, regardless of whether this is in the best commercial interests of lawyers.

The assumption inherent in all the presentations was that technology is changing the game, so instead of trying to resist that and uphold protectionist practices, let us ask how we can use that technology to bring change for the better.  The questions were not just asked, but were answered with some fascinating insights into what is going on and what is coming next.

The format of the conference was unlike any other I have attended.  Most of the presentations were limited to between 6 and 10 minutes, which enabled a great variety of topics and kept the content sharp and to the point.  The range of approaches may be illustrated by two titles: "Reinvention is Doing, Not Talking" (Joshua Kubicki) and "Understanding the Law with Metaphors, Spread the Law with Images" (Olivia Zarcate).

I must also put on record the first time I have ever witnessed a presentation without words, when University of Westminster student Lah Leutrim Ahmeti treated us to his vision of "URLaw" by interpreting his slides through the medium of robotic dance!  I could sense a collective dropping of chins, but no doubt about the message that was being delivered.

The School of Law at the University of Westminster is going beyond the usual diet of black letter law, having introduced a new module, 2'1st Century Law Practice in the UK', which will meet the approval of final speaker Professor Richard Susskind.  Professor Susskind has argued for many years, most recently in 'Tomorrow's Lawyers', that legal educators have a duty to prepare aspiring lawyers to the world as it is now and is fast becoming rather than the practices that will soon die out.

Judging by the quality not only of many of the student presenters, but also their sharp and delightful contemporaries attending in support, the University should be proud of what it is achieving.

Presenters hailed from the USA, UK and France.  It struck me that the USA/UK split in particular is between a huge amount of research and knowledge in the former and the emergence of practical solutions in the latter (albeit nothing like as rapidly as it could be).  The fact that this is nothing more than a generalisation is proved by the amazing creation of Don Philbin, 'Picture It Settled', which predicts settlement parameters in negotiations with remarkable accuracy, the event showed just what could be done when marrying these two strands together.

Congratulations to Dan Katz and Renee Knake of the Reinvent Law Laboratory at Michigan State University for putting on such a stimulating event.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Lawyers need more money (apparently)

I was somewhat taken aback this week to read an article by John Grimley entitled "Why ReinventLaw needs reinventing".  In commenting on the ReinventLaw event to take place in London on Friday 14 June, the author was suggesting that whilst innovative use of technology is all very well, it's really not as important as business development and growing law firm revenue.  To quote:

"While I strongly believe in technological innovation in legal services – I believe it’s grossly overemphasized when one considers what law firms need most: Solutions focused on more effectively generating new law firm revenue."

A mild Twitter Spat (I feel an acronym coming on) followed, in which Mr Grimley maintained that what is needed most is revenue.  Quite apart from the fact that the principal purpose of the ReinventLaw conference is to explore how technology is bringing great change to the way law is and will be practised and is not therefore an appropriate forum to discuss business development any more than it is to muse over the latest trends in trust law, the argument spectacularly misses the point.  I am, however, grateful to Mr Grimley for demonstrating a substantial body of opinion (or at least hope) that the double, or triple, or bouncing or somersaulting cat recession will eventually go away and we can all get back to making lots of money again.

This wishful thinking does not stand up to much scrutiny.  Technological change has barely begun and we either embrace and work with what is happening or we subside into Canute-like irrelevance.  Come to ReinventLaw on Friday and hear how all around us those binary numbers are eating into what has been a lavish lunch for centuries.  Clients will increasingly be offered new, less labour-intensive, more responsive and intuitive and, sorry Mr G, far less expensive ways of handling their legal affairs.  In many instances, no human interaction will be required.

There might be short term gains to be had from milking the status quo, but those who change the way we work will be the ultimate winners, alongside the benefitting clients that is, for they are supposed to be the reason we as lawyers exist.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Unbundling gathers pace

Following my recent blog on unbundling legal services (or rebundling as Professor Stephen Mayson prefers to call it), I'm seeing many examples of the concept emerging into the market, including http://lawyersupportedmediation.org.uk/, http://www.evident-legal.com/ and http://www.absolutebarrister.com/.  Some law firms are getting their act together too, with a client firm of mine recently asking me to write workflows for 'supported divorce' and 'kick start' divorce packages.

This may well turn out to be the most disruptive and lasting impact on the legal market and one which will take hold quite firmly over the next 12 months.  Watch out in particular for initiatives from this site, all of which will be available on a white label basis.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

OPG's April Fool's Joke

What is it about April Fool's Day that regulators find so hard to resist foisting their unfunny jokes on the beleaguered legal profession.  The Jackson reforms were set to be implemented from 1st April notwithstanding very late publication of the rules, a less than fine tradition going back at least as far as the Woolf changes implemented on the same date in 1999 when, guess what, the CPR were published only a couple of months or so before the Day of Practical Jokes.

Clearly, someone at the Office of Public Guardian has taken a shine to the idea, hence the notice published today, that in 10 days' time many of the forms used in the making and registration of Lasting Powers of Attorney will be changed and must be used from that date.  When will the forms be available? On the 1st of April, the very day from which they become obligatory.

Now, in a world that the OPG seems to think still exists, where every form is either printed and written on or downloaded and completed from scratch, this would be fine.  But the OPG apparently has some inkling that some of us have become a little more advanced in our working practices, for it makes the helpful suggestion, "check that any form-filling software you use has been updated in line with the changes to the [forms]".

Well, thanks guys.  Form-filling software comprises collection of data and workflows and the programming of forms.  It is not a 5-minute job.  At a stroke, the investment in such systems is rendered useless until the software can catch up.  Would it have been too much to supply the forms a month or so in advance of the changes, so that software amendments could be properly planned and implemented?

I should know better, but I felt compelled to ask these questions of the OPG by email this afternoon, but received a reply that Kafka would have been moved to write about, to the effect that their targets are to answer correspondence within 10 working days and we know what date that takes us past...

Friday, 15 March 2013

Unbundling legal services

The Law Society President has suggested that unbundling legal services could enable law firms to help legal aid clients denied legal aid after 1 April.  My initial inclination to comment on this in The Law Society's Gazette was dampened by a quick trawl through the comments section.  This is not a good place to go if you want quality of debate.

Perhaps understandably, the comment pages of The Gazette have become the refuge of a lot of disaffected solicitors struggling to keep their head above water, but many of them do a discredit to their profession and themselves by displaying an alarming degree of hysteria and a propensity to abuse those who dare publish anything unpalatable.  The most vicious insults tend to be hurled by those who hide behind an anonymous posting.

The President's message is that there will be many people who could do with some help and guidance on particular issues but cannot afford to pay for a full legal service from beginning to end of, say, a Family case.  I don't wonder at this, regardless of whether legal aid withdrawal was going to happen.  I have never been able to fathom how there could ever be much of a market for people able and willing to pay in the region of £200 an hour for any service, or at least not for a service that could be racking up those charge out rates for many months.

This model has been sustainable for a very long time for two principal reasons, mystique and protectionism.  The mystique surrounds the complexity of the law and its procedures, making it hard for the uninitiated to go it alone with any confidence.  The closed nature of the profession and the concept of reserved activities has kept it safe from commercial competition.

Protectionism was pulled down by the Legal Services Act 2007 and we are now seeing a wave of non-lawyer owned companies entering the market and challenging the old ways and costs of doing things.  Many are, however, still making the most of the status quo in terms of how work is done, which still keeps prices high even if they are offered as fixed fees rather than hourly rates.

The big game changer is the power of technology to pull back the curtain of mystique.  We largely gave up paying scribes to read and write for us centuries ago and there is now no longer any reason why we need to pay someone to tell us what the law says and how it can be applied.  The tendency of the Internet to reduce pricing to zero is well illustrated by a domestic experience I had recently.

My tumble dryer had broken down and I didn't know whether the problem could be fixed or was terminal.  Not so long ago, I would have had to call out an expert and pay for the call out just for the answer to that question.  Now, I was able to go online and within seconds find any number of helpful videos explaining exactly what the problem was and how to fix it.  I then had the choice of doing it myself, in which case I could order the parts online from the site that told me how to do the job, or call out an expert from the same site to come and do it for me.  As it happens, the problem was shown to be terminal, so I invested in a new machine, but did not have to pay an expert to tell me that this was necessary.

Where would I go again if I needed further help?  Back to the same site, where I know that they charge only what is valuable to me (doing something I can't do for myself), and who share their knowledge over matters that they know someone else will share if they don't.

Legal services are no different in principle.  Many lawyers still cling to the view that their websites shouldn't "give away the Crown Jewels", i.e. should tempt you into the shop but not tell you anything that will make this unnecessary.  This is a view that will soon mean no one will even bother to look in their window.

I have sought to put these words into practice, through the launch of Road Traffic Representation, an online legal service for those faced with prosecution for motoring offences.  Here, you will find not just an explanation of the law, but an online process that will without charge diagnose not only the likely penalties for the offences charged, but also the potential for any defence.  The processes use artificial intelligence in a question and answer to process to arrive at the advice.  Only if the visitor then wants representation does the site select and appoint a barrister and then automatically brief Counsel by collating all of the data collected during the online process.  It is at this point that the visitor pays a fixed fee for representation, i.e. pays for what is valued and not for mere process.

This will be the future for legal services.  I am now actively making RTR available to law firms and ABSs on a White Label basis and this will be followed by similar services in many other areas of law.  Unbundling and pay-as-you-need is here already.