There’s a wonderful moment of organised chaos at the start of every Grand National. No-one knows when the starting tape will lift, so the horses jostle and fidget, overcome by nervous tension and desperate to get started.
As the race gets underway, some are facing the wrong direction, while others charge off into the distance. It’s unpredictable and frenzied in a way that doesn’t happen when the horses are kept in stalls. October 6 was supposed to see the starting tape lifted on alternative business structures. Doom-mongers fretted that Tesco would ride into town and corral the legal services market. But it proved to be a false start, as the Solicitors Regulation Authority failed to get approval in time to authorise ABSs.
If we thought this delay would set the market back, we were wrong. Instead it has simply given the runners and riders the time to size things up and get in position. One can almost feel them champing at the bit. Competition will be fierce and from all fronts. Claims management companies, web entrepreneurs, embryonic franchises and yes, supermarket brands (the Co-op though, not Tesco) have all revealed radical plans to exploit the changing market in recent weeks.
Expect more - many more - to join them soon. They will be cash-rich, ambitious and ruthless in a way the sector has never experienced before. George Bull, head of professional practices at accountants Baker Tilly, admits he was wrong to think the change wrought by the Legal Services Act would be ‘slight’.
Speaking at the 16th annual PSMG conference in London this week, he said: ‘With all the new entrants limbering up and a lot of money stacked up I’m beginning to think the rate of change will be faster. In 2012/13 we will see a different landscape forming, and at the 18th conference I think we’ll see a fundamentally different services marketplace with lots of non-legal services.
‘The noise in the marketplace is going to be stupendous and people will be left bewildered by what they see in front of them. The big brands are going to have a huge impact, particularly around the high street, and maybe talk of its death is not premature.’ It’s easy to see why Bull was convinced we’d see evolution rather than revolution: solicitors told him so.
In a June Baker Tilly survey, some 55% of firms revealed they had not changed their plans to deal with the Legal Services Act - 28% didn’t even expect to do so in future.
Just a third expected their business to change significantly in the next 18 months, with more than half expecting some change.
I suspect those figures would be markedly different if the survey was conducted today. The ABS race has started without the starting tape being lifted - by the New Year it is likely to be a stampede.
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