In the UK, high street law firms have always been the friendly face of law in practice. Their personal nature as the beating heart of accessible law characterises their unique way of business.
In particular, the high street law firm has always been connected to client needs and their challenges. When a client has a legal problem that they need to solve and wish to seek advice, the high street law firm are the first port of call.
High street law firms aren’t big corporate entities located in the capital but are often comparably smaller outfits with offices situated in hubs all over the country. Here, they serve individuals and small and medium enterprises (SMEs).
A recent EU-wide study noted that SMEs represent over 90% of businesses across the continent.
This is a substantial market and because client needs constantly evolve, high street law firms need to develop accordingly. Standing still in this changing market is risky. In order to survive, these businesses need to be able to respond to changing market conditions, consumer demand, political decisions and the advance of new technology and services.
Image Capture: Jun 2016 ©2017 Google.
Change is afoot: the ‘Uberisation’ of law.
Simply being aware of the law, attending to client needs and making senior-partner directed strategic decisions have traditionally worked for high street law firms. However, state-funded responsibilities, the global recession, market volatility and a changing market are having an impact on the viability of high street law firms.
This is particularly felt in legal provisions where client and community interaction is key. The Law Society has noted that high street law firms face “significant challenges.” Some examples are as follows:
- For instance, The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) 2012 has significantly reduced funding for legal services. High street law firms that have traditionally dealt with core practise areas funded by legal aid have been impacted the most.
- Economic volatility has impacted the domain of the high street law firm, business to consumer (B2C) sector. The ripple effect of the economic downturn from a consumer perspective is felt in property prices, consumer spending and lower interest rates. Cash-strapped clients are more discerning and likely to shop around. Known as “uberisation of the legal sector,” client’s purchasing power and their tendency to shop around directly impacts upon the nature of the services sought in high street firms.
It’s not just law that’s changing. Technology is changing the way law works too.
- Liberalisation of the legal market by the introduction of alternative business services where non lawyers can fund law firms in addition to innovations in legal technology threatens the traditional work of lawyers. New entrants in the legal market particularly in crossover issues is now a given. Accountancy firms utilising technology for routine legal work are now competitors to law firms. Professor Richard Susskind, a technology consultant and author of “The End of Lawyers?” in stressing that the legal industry will remain a “buyers market for the foreseeable future,” presents an opportunity for high street law firms.
- The automation of legal services presents a technological challenge for legal firms in general. The recent report by the Financial Times, “Legal Firms Unleash Office Automatons,” has noted that firms are now automating work previously done by junior lawyers. This could be seen as a threat. However, automation is currently about sorting copious data in complex cases. Legal problems remain case-specific and this is particularly so when considering high street law firms’ practice areas. Technological advances presents an opportunity for efficiency and growth.
Increased automation raises issues of regulation and compliance.
The key to survival – and growth: responding to change
Like all businesses market competition is rife and money is tight. However, this does not mean that there are no clients and no problems to solve. High street law firms’ strong personal connection to clients remains a practical variable that can work towards meeting these new challenges.
The resurgence of micro-marketing and multi-channel strategy in service provision can be utilised by high street law firms. With a right mix of accessibility and relevant service provision, there is a potential for high street law firms to develop a flexible marketing strategy that will secure their future and survival. For example:
- Market Differentiation and Redefinition. This is the first step towards the discovery of new market strategies. A self-reflective high street law firm should be asking themselves how they can differentiate ourselves in the market. Niche potentials in the light of challenges in its external environment is a given. As Professor Susskind noted, the “expert trusted advisor,” for complex and high value challenges is needed. Client engagement is key here. Bespoke engagement is generally not for cash-strapped clients.In response to the cuts to practice areas, the market for alternative dispute resolution needs to be developed. Currently, some firms are expanding beyond litigation to develop departments dealing with alternatives such as mediation. With lower cost implications, this best serves the interest of clients keen to minimise costs.
The key to survival is responding to customer demand quickly and efficiently
- Anticipatory Marketing: This is the preserve of a firm with lawyers keen to continuously evolve their skill set. In utilising technology to determine trends and anticipate needs of clients, high street firms can increase their relevance in the market as well as their advantage. Staying true to its core of client engagement, high street law firms need to operate with the mind-set of “prevention is better than cure” and market services accordingly. Clients will want to prevent legal issues rather than get bogged down with resolution and/or litigation. A high street law firm needs to adopt the culture of awareness and utility with the aim of positioning themselves for designing and delivering compliance programs tailored towards clients.
A firm with an online presence has an inherent global potential.
There are certain actions all high street law forms can take to prepare for the future:
Most importantly, a multi-disciplinary approach to legal service provision is key to the future of high street law firms. Referred to as the “hybrid lawyer,” Professor Susskind notes that the successful lawyer of the future is a “hybrid lawyer” unafraid to apply approaches from other sectors in firms’ strategic planning.
New tools for an evolving business
Legal services provision coupled with Lean delivery practices help put the customer first by delivering value to them efficiently.
Learning and adapting
Developing a model where learning and adapting to change is iterative. The fast-paced nature of challenges in the sector should be mirrored in the practitioners’ approach to discovery and innovation.
The future is bright for the high street law firms. Change brings opportunity. Changes in law and new technology will develop a growing client base for those who prepare to have the ability to respond to those changes quickly and effectively.
For more information about how to make your high street law firm fit for the future, get in touch.
About the author
Dr. Nkeiru Scotcher is a legal expert, speaker and peer-reviewed author on legal affairs. She has also taught international law classes at the Brussels School of International Studies, Belgium. As well a research fellow at the Vrije Universiteit Brussels, Nkeiru is passionate about the case-specificity and multi-disciplinary nature of law. She has extended her skill set to encompass areas where law and technology intersect. Nkeiru is currently a Joint Task Force member of the legal team for the International Telegraphic Union on submarine cable technology in ocean affairs. Nkeiru has work experience with organisations such as the UN Secretariat in New York and the European Parliament.