The British high street is not dead – many are confident, thriving places. That must mean there’s a future for the high street solicitor, Eduardo Reyes concludes.
The demise of Britain’s high streets is a complex lie, a ‘Tomorrow’s cities’ discussion hosted by law firm Wedlake Bell heard this week. Where does that conclusion leave the high street solicitor?
If the future of high street retail is often discussed in terms of planning law, it is interesting that the future of the high street solicitor focuses on relationships, regulations and referrals. The actual place is seldom mentioned.
Those three Rs matter. But they miss the significance of location. Where would a law firm put itself if it wanted to (awful phrase) survive and thrive?
There’s academic research on the high street – including work by Laura Vaughan of University College London, who attended the event. The high streets Vaughan looks at are ‘suburban’ in character.
So, according to the research, can one guess the best place to run a high street firm?
To vastly simplify the research, a high street that’s doing well, and will benefit the services and businesses on it, can’t just be focused on retail. These high streets have an ‘active range of non-domestic uses’ that sustain ‘the vitality and viability of town centres as a whole’.
Libraries, nurseries, schools, commercial outfits, maybe ‘production’ businesses, communal places like parks, and leisure services are all there.
There are physical boundaries that push such a centre together – in one case looked at, a small bypass created a better centre by changing the character of the road that had once divided the town centre.
And there is a special type of ‘traffic’ in these places too – they are places at an overlap between people travelling through, and people travelling to, the area. It is wrong to think of London’s suburbs, say, as dormitories for the centre. In many cases the morning trains will bring people to the place, as well as taking commuters away from it.
These suburbs in fact draw strength from a relationship with a city centre – the centre doesn’t suck the life out of them.
The street that is doing well includes businesses that compete. And it can start to fail where the shops are all on one side – with homes on the other, say. Such a street has a strong ‘third space’ which is that ‘space between work and home’ (cafés to you and me, in many cases).
Of course, the fact that law firms that have headed for out-of-town shopping centres and business parks for work or premises have decidedly not conquered all before them does not make legal sector success on the high street inevitable. There are plenty of high streets in trouble – especially those which are only thought of in terms of retail.
But the contribution of space and geography to the success of a business is real. Indeed, retailers at the Wedlake Bell event noted that there are businesses that are traditionally online-only have been taking concessions in department stores. The integration of ‘online’ and physical shop is a two-way process.
Locating a law firm on the sort of high street described above won’t guarantee success – but the likelihood is that high street firms that are succeeding, by accident or design, are practising on the town or suburban-style high street described above.
If you are thinking of moving, or opening another office, that’s worth considering. If our high streets have a future then, by extension (and with a bit of thought), so does the high street solicitor.
Eduardo Reyes is Gazette features editor