Last week’s announcement by the Co-operative that it is looking to add 3,000 staff to its 475-strong legal services arm over the next five years shows just how fierce competition is going to get in the legal market. Of course time will tell whether the Co-op achieves its ambitious plans. For now however, by aiming to become the biggest consumer legal brand in the country, the UK’s largest mutual business is laying down the gauntlet to traditional law firms, a challenge many of them, frankly, are ill-prepared to meet. It may not still be high stools and wing collars, but not every lawyer has moved with the times in recent years.
The Co-op is perhaps the highest profile of a series of innovations in the wake of so-called alternative business structures, a Labour invention taken on by the coalition, which for the first time allows lawyers and non-lawyers to share ownership of law firms. There are many other new names and faces entering the legal market as a result, such as Rightmove founder Harry Hill, who chairs an online conveyancing business called In-Deed. And it is not just in consumer law - Riverview Law has launched recently with a fixed-fee proposition for businesses.
We are entering the most Darwinian time ever in the profession. While it would be wrong to say that the law is a cosy club - with 11,000 law firms in England and Wales, competition is already significant - it has never faced such disruptive influences. So as the managing partner of a good-sized practice, I have to ensure we stay ahead of the chasing pack. We have an advantage because we are already well-established in our particular markets, but it won’t be long before this new competition is snapping at our heels.
Some of the steps are obvious - we need to invest in our people, our processes and our online presence. But when it comes to areas such as lead generation, conversion and branding, lawyers come out of their comfort zone. In any other sector this might be called ‘sales’, but we don’t like to use that word in the law. But actually it helps your mindset considerably if you realise that this is what you are doing, even if you prefer to call it business development.
Size is also a priority for us in a world where the prevailing trend is to get big, get niche or get out. Well-run and ambitious firms like ours are on the acquisition trail - it is said that you cannot make a tiger by inflating a cat, and certainly recent history is littered with sorry tales of law firm mergers that went wrong, where two plus two was meant to make five but ended up equalling three.
But there are a lot of good firms and good lawyers out there whose potential can be brought out by being part of a larger, well-organised practice and we are not shy of approaching them. This is a massive moment in the law. The market is changing fast - the good news is that it should grow as new and higher-profile businesses drive awareness; the bad news is that those same businesses are coming after our market share. Law firms can survive and indeed thrive, but doing nothing is no longer an option.
Peter Watson, managing partner of Simpson Millar LLP