I had the privilege of attending the launch of the Co-operative Legal Services Family Law service at the Supreme Court on Wednesday. It was a fascinating and thought-provoking occasion.
Parts of it were truly inspiring. The Co-op’s deputy chief executive Martyn Wates made an outstanding speech reminding us of the origins of the co-operative movement in providing better-quality food to people who badly needed it and its essentially democratic basis. You sensed a commitment and set of values that are rare outside committed legal aid practitioners. This was not an alternative business structure that was going to cut and run – it was in for the long haul.
Christina Blacklaws talked about providing tailored services that will meet the needs and the wallets of consumers, of having spoken to consumers about what they want, reminding us that she would not herself have been able to afford the rates at which her firm charged her out at. She talked about investments in technology and a fixed-price service with no nasty surprises which was tailored to needs of all clients. She conjured up a vision of a brave new tomorrow's world - one where the Co-op would employ 3,000 lawyers to provide its legal services. If those were all solicitors, that would amount to more than 2% of solicitors with a practising certificate.
In the goodie bag we were handed when we left, with the Co-op-branded sweets and pens, there were leaflets setting all this out and reminding us that, in addition to family work, the Co-op also offers advice on wills, probate, conveyancing, personal injury and employment.
You'd need to a have a greater cynicism than even 20 years of close contact with lawyers has provided not to applaud the vision. There is a huge proportion of the population that isn't eligible for legal aid but can't afford the charge-out rates of a solicitor of Christina's expertise. Many people won't go to a solicitor quite simply because they don't perceive that a solicitor is for the likes of them, or that they could afford one. If the result of the Co-op's move is actually an increase in the market for legal services and a growth in employment for solicitors, it's hard to see why we shouldn't welcome this. More than that, there was a sense that the Co-op wanted to do it properly, providing good advice, outstanding client service, and with proper regard for ethics and standards.
On the other hand, if I owned a firm offering this advice just down the road from the local Co-op, I would be concerned. This venture isn’t just about opening new markets. The Co-op will be looking at the likely clients of existing firms. It has the capital to invest in major IT and the marketing to build on its brand. It will be training people in customer service and have had the resources to invest in what it thinks its customers want. It has direct access to those customers who come for its groceries. And if it achieves its vision, it will be attractive to many clients. If I were a small firm, I might feel that although the rules governing the practices are the same and there is, arguably, a level playing field, the same would apply to a match between Chelsea and, say, Lewes FC. I might feel that perhaps I should just send my CV straight to the Co-op and become one of the 3,000.
It’s an understandable feeling and, even in the cold light of day when the prosecco and the warm feeling of the grand surroundings had worn off, I still felt that I had witnessed the beginning of a game-changer even if one or two questions were surfacing. We weren’t told the amounts of the fixed fees – and their promise on this is sensibly caveated in the literature to make it clear that they would be fixed ‘wherever possible’. Will it be able to sustain the level of service to which it aspires at ‘affordable’ fixed fees? Are family cases (and they include children work here) susceptible commercially to fixed-fee arrangements given the sheer unpredictability of the participants – or will there be a lot of cases where a fixed fee isn’t possible?
If I shopped at the Co-op, I wonder if I would continue to do so if I found it writing me unpalatable letters on behalf of my estranged partner. Offering properly tailored advice in contentious legal matters is not the same as offering banking services and I wonder it will be interesting to see exactly how it will be delivered. And lots of clients will not seek advice there for the same reasons that they don’t shop there – they prefer the products and image of a different brand.
But if I were that solicitor in direct competition with the Co-op and thinking that actually, I don’t want to be an employee, I’d be thinking very carefully about what I could do to keep my client base and give them reasons for choosing me over the Co-op. Whether doing it on price, on outstanding local service, or bringing in a range of services or making sure I had the right accreditations, firms are going to have to find something to make clients choose them. And, as Desmond Hudson recently suggested, just being a solicitor is unlikely to be enough.
Whatever doubts there may be, I felt at that reception that a brave new world had arrived and that things are not going to be the same in this market any more. The Co-op can’t be ignored.
Mark Stobbs is the Law Society's director of legal policy