Stobart Barristers: did the legal earth just get flatter?
Legal services liberalisation has been a phoney war, but I think that ends with today’s news that logistics company Stobart Group is entering the market with the launch of Stobart Barristers. For sections of the bar, it makes the ProcureCo model look like Betamax to the green and yellow giant’s VHS.
Of course I have no idea if it will take off or not, but this is utterly different to a business that hopes to cross-sell wills from its funeral business, say. An entity like this could be a game-changer because it brings with it a way of delivering services that has radically altered the business landscape in many other business sectors.
In his book The Earth is Flat, US journalist Thomas Friedman tours the globe identifying the forces that have ‘flattened’ the business world - essentially eliminating traditional barriers to competition between companies in different countries, companies of different sizes, and employees in different places.
The ever-widening range of activities that one-time delivery businesses are now taking on comes in for a special mention. He looks at instances such as the company that noticed it didn’t need to deliver a computer sent for repair to the manufacturer, then bring it back to the consumer again after - it could get a contract with the manufacturer to repair the computer itself. Suddenly delivery costs are roughly halved.
The Stobart model seems to tick a lot of those boxes. Self-employed barristers are a highly flexible professional resource, and part of the ‘process’ has been taken out - the company notes it has been saving money by going direct to the bar for almost all its legal needs for some time.
Neither Stobart nor clients it aims to attract are bearing the cost of that slack. So, the argument goes, prices will come down. And in the public mind, barristers are hardly Third World call centre staff, pretending to know things.
Efficiencies in this model come not from salami-slicing aspects of the traditional firm setup, but from re-engineering the model entirely. That’s why this venture has the air of a game-changer.
One manager Friedman meets on his global travels remarks that making things is easy - but supply-chain logistics ‘now that’s hard’. He is right, and it would be an error for existing practices to look down their noses at this effort - again, remember barristers, not truckers, sit behind this offering.
And if you’re not sure that an old delivery company can do more than shift goods around, I can only advise you to switch on the CBeebies channel and wait for the new Postman Pat to come on. You will find out that Greendale’s changed, and that Pat’s now doing a lot more than delivering letters.
I expect many Gazette readers will pick holes in the Stobart model - and it is a commercial bet that might not pay off. (I wouldn’t seek legal advice this way.) But it has the air of a development that could do much more to change legal services than the launch of a new franchise. This is a space worth watching.
Eduardo Reyes is Gazette features editor
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