Far from driving the extinction of high street practices, technology has become one of the main weapons in their armoury.
In 2013, Professor Richard Susskind predicted that a liberalised legal services market would bring competition from alternative business structures, particularly from big brands with technology-powered, automated offerings and efficient call centres. This, combined with the general movement from high street shopping to online shopping, would hasten the end of the high street firm.
Susskind is known for the accuracy of his predictions for the legal sector, but it looks like he might be wrong about high street firms.
Although the high street has experienced its share of losses, these need to be considered alongside the various failures and distressed mergers involving mid-market and larger firms. Furthermore, after huge initial investment and a relatively short honeymoon period, not all the big commercial enterprises are thriving. This year saw Stobart Barristers close its doors and Co-operative Legal Services, which was the first ABS to be approved by the SRA, reported losses of £5.1m for the first half of this year.
This article takes a different perspective on the battle for the high street, to identify how technology, rather than driving the extinction of high street practices, has become one of the main weapons in their armoury. Technology has enabled them to strengthen their market presence and client relationships; enhance, deliver and promote their services; and differentiate themselves from faceless commercial enterprises entering the legal services market.
Small firms have limited resources, but they are agile businesses and many have an entrepreneurial spirit. Solicitor Paul Hajek, who has been principal of Clutton Cox in Bristol since 1985, has built his firm, which has just one office, into a massive online presence through blogs, articles and media appearances.
‘“Bricks and clicks” are still the right strategy for the high street because the internet offers social proof,’ he explains. ‘People still ask each other for recommendations, but they also check them online, generally via a Google search. It is therefore important to have a strong online presence. I don’t see how a high street firm could survive without the internet.’
As well as providing online visibility and promoting brand awareness, cutting-edge technology enables the modern high street firm to deliver on its (online) promises.
Brian Inkster of Inksters in Glasgow has created a powerful online presence for himself and his firm through twitter and his blog, The Time Blawg. Inksters’ strategic use of technology enables a firm which employs just 16 people to handle specialist crofting work and compete for high street business throughout Scotland. ‘Online legal services are looking to capture everyone, while high street firms concentrate on local markets and niche work. It’s about focusing on geography and capturing the people who are looking for you,’ he says.
Inksters’ business model is powered by technology which is designed to support mobile working. The firm’s systems are all cloud-based and can be accessed through any operating system on any device, and include a voiceover internet protocol phone system. Digital dictation is transcribed in Glasgow.
Inksters employs a legal process engineer to streamline processes and integrate them into the firm’s case management system. On the client facing side, all the firms’ websites are configured for mobile access and the firm has more twitter accounts than people.
Although much business comes in through website enquiries and social media, Inkster underlines the importance of face-to-face contact and much of his strategy focuses on bringing the law to his clients. Lawyers travel around the country bringing ‘pop-up law’ booths to agricultural shows, crofting law seminars and other events. Connectivity with the main office in Glasgow enables the firm to offer commercial skills and other specialist expertise and compete effectively for local business.
‘Our satellite offices are small, but our Glasgow practice is bigger and offers more specialisms than many high street firms,’ says Inkster.
Hajek’s efforts at Clutton Cox are also underpinned by the latest technology which includes best-of-breed software-as-a-service systems, notably using HubSpot to bring website enquiries into a marketing sequence with calls to action, follow-up emails and so on. ‘Many firms focus their IT strategy on process improvement and compliance, whereas I use it to support my sales strategy and keeping in touch with clients throughout the transaction as well as getting their feedback.’
Strength in numbers used to be a competitive advantage for larger firms, networks and franchises, particularly as many high street firms are relatively isolated geographically. Gary Yantin, who started his career as a solicitor in a high street firm, changed this, using popular collaboration tool Workshare to establish HighStreetLawyer.com, a free online community of practice for local firms across the country.
Yantin advises firms to concentrate on tech that facilitates and improves communication with clients, colleagues and lawyers in other firms. ‘HSL Workshare is an innovative social network where small law firms share ideas, work, strategy and humour through online discussions.’
The differentiator for local law firms in terms of competitive advantage is that they get closer to their clients than any commercial enterprise can, and that they can use technology to leverage and enhance this. ‘Social media enables us to get closer to our clients than ever before,’ observes Hajek. ‘It means we can give them the service they really want.’
Yantin posted my request for input on HSL Workshare, where one solicitor commented, ‘It’s all down to understanding clients and their needs, and training their expectations’. Technology offers the opportunity to enhance that understanding through communication on different platforms – email, Skype, mobile messaging, LiveChat and so on.
As Yantin put it, communication is the glue that binds high street firms to their communities – their clients and their peers. And taking advantage of online communication is central to the entrepreneurial legal services models that are keeping the high street alive.
Joanna Goodman MBA is a freelance journalist and editor of Legal IT Today