The legal services market appears to be on the up, at least for the big firms. Mortgage approvals are rising. Halifax Legal Express wants to recruit a panel to deal with the legal services enquiries its automated system can't handle. This and other news appears to mean the legal sector is emerging from the recession. As you would expect, though, there is a 'but'.

This is a particular marketing 'but' that needs to be considered carefully when planning a long-term future for any firm. Halifax's panel recruitment, alongside the increasing number of new legal service providers, enquiry broker services and the future development of legal services, raises the question: 'Who will own the relationship with the client in the future?'

This brings up more questions on the approach of a practice towards gaining new business: is your firm a transaction firm or a services firm? To explain that a little further, if you join a panel and the organisation that generates the legal service enquiry retains the customer relationship, then you're a transaction firm. Your role is to just deliver the result on this one occasion. Future work from that client goes back to the big-brand business, which can dole it out to whichever practice it likes. This would tend towards low-margin, high-volume approach run by supervised 'non-qualified' staff. This gets into the territory being explored by Professor Mayson in his recent comments on the future of training contracts.

Where the panel members gain a matter and the client, there's an opportunity to build a long-term relationship with the prospect of profit from future work. In this situation you are a 'service firm' and need to develop a customer proposition that services their needs. This is often seen in the high-margin, low-volume approach. The PI sector is facing this exact quandary as we wait for the Lord Justice Jackson's costs review.

Both approaches, high-volume/low-margin and low-volume/high-margin, have their pros and cons. But at the heart of the issue is still the question: which organisation owns the relationship with the client? As the market for legal services changes, this question will shape legal organisations of any type as they adjust to the market.

While this is a simplified view of the marketing approach we all know, it's worth considering who owns the client relationship when planning for the future.