The recent warning from the British Retail Consortium that high streets could reach a ‘tipping point’, beyond which they will no longer be viable, highlights an important question. Macro-environmental factors like the global economy, technological innovation and the rise and fall of international power blocks have unpredictable effects on local economies, industries and professions. In uncertain and complex business environments, how can law firms develop robust business strategies?

Small firms probably take Peters and Waterman’s famous advice to ‘stick to the knitting’ – that is, keep on doing what they do best. They also keep a close eye on visible competitors and may try to copy them when they successfully exploit new ideas.

Of course, ‘sticking to the knitting’ and watching your competitors doesn’t work if you’re not clear, or simply wrong, about what you do best or who your competition is. From the 1870s to the 1990s, for example, Eastman Kodak’s production expertise was in chemicals. Sticking with photographic products in the face of a digital revolution meant it had to abandon much of its existing expertise and master electronics. It then had to survive competition from powerful competitors with strong capabilities in electronics – such as Sony.

As the Law Society’s current Improving Residential Conveyancing consultation makes clear, residential conveyancing solicitors face a difficult environment and a need to make strategic choices. Technology is a significant factor in success or failure in this environment. It has the potential to change the business landscape for high street conveyancers as profoundly as the BRC fears the economic environment will impact on high streets. Survival will involve abandoning paper-based routines, acquiring expertise in the management of digital systems and facing formidable new competitors. It’s an obvious challenge but, as a recent In Business special report (see [2009] Gazette, 23 July, 12) made clear, virtual law firms are already emerging and thriving despite recession.

‘The future is already here – it is just unevenly distributed,’ is a saying attributed to science fiction writer William Gibson. What that phrase means in practice was brought home to me in a discussion with Richard Barnett, chair of the Law Society’s Conveyancing and Land Law Committee and head of Barnetts Solicitors.

Mr Barnett argues that the TransAction Plus vision outlined in Improving Residential Conveyancing is a way to help all conveyancing firms cope with a turbulent future. TransAction Plus will mean common conveyancing protocols, offering a much more open and transparent system for clients, and completion-ready packs, enabling estate agents to use a seller’s solicitor to deal with the home information pack and allowing the profession to offer a consumer-friendly alternative to the basic HIP. There would also be opportunities to build on TransAction Plus by developing a secure electronic portal.

Mr Barnett’s strong advocacy is not based on the false assumption that all law firms need to develop the internal capabilities of a firm like his. Firms without specialist IT expertise may well benefit disproportionately from common protocols and a ‘shared’ IT infrastructure that they will not need to develop for themselves from scratch. Maybe this is just outsourcing the future?

The Land Registry’s most ambitious plans for e-conveyancing have gone, but electronic registration is on its way. So are alternative business structures. The switchover from the paper-based past to the digital future may arrive sooner than some firms expect. The technologically savvy may already have the internal capabilities to respond quickly and flexibly. For others, TransAction Plus could make the difference between survival and death.

The Improving Residential Conveyancing consultation closes on 18 September, and one factor that may shape many responses is the prevailing view on what it is that conveyancing solicitors really do best and who their competitors are. For any organisation, finding the ‘right’ answer to questions like those is fundamental to finding robust strategies that cope with technological change.

Timothy Hill is technology policy adviser for the Law Society