Like its fellow pioneer QualitySolicitors, Co-op Legal is looking to a digital future after moving into the black.
They were the poster children of legal services liberalisation and their vicissitudes have the poignancy of parables. Co-operative Legal Services and QualitySolicitors promised a revolution. But Danton and Robespierre they ain’t (though Danton and Robespierre were lawyers, come to think of it).
What does this tell us?
In the Co-op’s case a corporate convulsion seemingly adapted from an episode of Breaking Bad (recommended, if you haven’t seen it) could hardly have been expected. But total operating losses over a two-year period amounting to a bruising £14m cannot all be blamed on brand contagion.
‘We grew too fast,’ Co-op Legal’s MD admitted to the Gazette last September.
‘We grew too quickly,’ the chief executive of QS told the Gazette last month.
Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before (to quote another Manchester-based group).
For the Co-op, the government’s tinkering with personal injury claims and referral fees has been disastrous, slashing millions from income – though family, and wills and probate have stood up well in a competitive market. There is, in this context, gallows humour to be had when you cite fewer people dropping off the twig (‘a decline in the UK death rate’) as a setback.
It seems the group is not ready to admit defeat yet
So where next? It may be back in the black, but Co-op Legal is not adding much to the group’s bottom line even now. So why hang on to it when your diversified conglomerate model is defunct? Isn’t it more trouble than it’s worth?
I predicted in this space a year ago that divestment is surely an option – but it seems the group is not ready to admit defeat yet.
Later this year Co-op Legal has pledged to release an enhanced platform enabling it better to compete in a ‘multi-channel, digitised market’. Just as, it's worth noting, QS is placing great store by its online customer portal.
But there is no more talk at the chastened mutual of a 3,000-strong workforce providing a one-stop shop for legal services from cradle to grave.
Like QS, Co-op Legal has become altogether more modest and considered in its aspirations. Its chances of building a prosperous long-term business are surely enhanced in consequence.
Paul Rogerson is Gazette editor-in-chief