Clients will order their law just as they order their groceries.
The new year is a time for predictions. Let me make one based on personal experience. Last year the administration of my deceased father’s estate was finally completed after endless hassle. Ironically, 2014 was also the year in which my research on digital delivery of legal services to people on low incomes was published (available at the Legal Education Foundation).
Bear with me: these come together. This year will prove the tipping point for the impact of digital technology on what was high street practice.
Let us begin with the probate. I went to the lawyer who drafted the will – a typical contact route. We had months of silence. No replies to letters. No indication of what was being done or why. An immediate demand for a large sum of money to pay inheritance tax came out of the blue. Letters of complaint. Telephone calls of apology. An eventual halving of the bill which must have made it unprofitable. The point of this is not my personal distress or the individual failings. It was an indication of a way of practice which cannot hope to survive.
And so to the research. This concluded that the internet is at the point of breakthrough in changing the delivery of legal services by private practitioners, charities and government – even for people on low incomes. In England and Wales, the private sector is in the lead – aided by liberal regulation on advice by non-lawyers compared with the US, and the influx of capital that has accompanied alternative business structures.
There is a potent mix of ‘unbundled’ fixed-price services, automatic document assembly programmes, national branding and exploration of various forms of virtual legal practice. And, if you do not think that these will gain traction against traditional solicitors, then just think of all those who doubted the impact of Amazon on retail outlets.
Web-based delivery demands a change of mindset. The money is to be made in smaller amounts from larger numbers. A lot of information may have to be given away free. For example, look at roadtrafficrepresentation.com or the video guides to family law on co-operativelegalservices.co.uk.
Costs can be cut by delivering legal services through third parties such as Slater & Gordon’s tie-up with the Cycle Touring Club, or Epoq’s with legal expenses insurers. The potential to practise without a physical base can be expanded: divorce-online.co.uk does exactly what it says on the tin; wikivorce.com and LegalBeagles.info provide online forums for discussion of legal problems which can lead to referrals to solicitors.
Much high street practice used to be based around legal aid. As that has been slashed, successful firms are likely to reorientate around the web – with all the consequences that are entailed. And these do not need to involve anonymity. As video communication becomes more standard, it can be integrated with ease.
The technological revolution affects lay advice agencies just as much as private legal practitioners. Leading advice sites are now re-engineering information for the digital age. The CAB website is, to be honest, pretty two-dimensional at present: no wonder it has a project to upgrade it. Currently, it is being shown a pretty clear pair of heels by its smaller, more agile rival, Advice Now.
This provides information much more through ‘guided pathways’ that run from your requirements to your needs as a user rather than the provision of a didactic note which might as well be in print. How interesting but not really relevant to my practice, you may think. Except that the Dutch Legal Aid Board has produced an internet-based, user-oriented module that private practitioners can add to their site which helps those thinking of divorce to make up their minds and prepare their case. You could imagine similar tie-ups over here.
The potential of the web really begins to show when jurisdictions develop ‘end-to-end’ systems that integrate advice, mediation and online dispute resolution. This year will see the launch of groundbreaking programmes in British Columbia and the Netherlands. Lawyers need to watch these and look at how they can be integrated. Do not worry too much. It will not happen here in a hurry – the Ministry of Justice will be reluctant to bear the initial capital cost.
However, lawyers need to make sure that they are not actively excluded by any technology that is developed. They need to work with the programmes, not against them.
Clients who use the internet to track the delivery of a parcel will demand a similar transparency over legal cases. Frankly, I now feel justified in demanding it of my own lawyer. There all sorts of systems that, even now, allow that. Clients will order their law as they increasingly order their groceries. And firms that do not adapt will fail.
Roger Smith is visiting professor at London South Bank University and former director of human rights group Justice