Christina Blacklaws (pictured), 45, qualified as solicitor in 1991. She specialises in child care work and is the Law Society council member for child care. She was formerly the senior partner at London family law firm Blacklaws Davis, until it merged with another London firm, TV Edwards, earlier this year. Blacklaws is also the chief assessor of the Law Society’s children panel and chairs its legal affairs and policy board.
This week she began her new role as a director of the Co-operative Legal Services (CLS), which aims to start offering family law services once it has been granted a licence to operate as an alternative business structure (ABS) by the Solicitors Regulation Authority.
A TV Edwards colleague, Jenny Beck, the firm’s managing partner, and Chris May, TV Edwards’ former head of business and development, have also joined CLS to work alongside Blacklaws in the new family law unit.
Blacklaws talked to Catherine Baksi about her new appointment.
What is your role going to be at CLS?
I will be a director of CLS and head of strategy and policy of the family law unit. I will be taking a full and active role as a director and am really excited about the opportunities this creates for helping to shape the strategic vision of CLS as it develops over the next few years.
What are Jenny and Chris's roles?
Jenny will be head of professional practice and Chris will be head of business development - both in the family law unit.
Basically, Jenny will be ensuring that the service provides excellent quality legal advice delivered by qualified solicitors. Chris will progress the development of the business and help create the systems and information systems technology to enable state-of-the-art delivery.
What is your plan for the CLS and what are its goals?
CLS is part of The Co-operative Group, which has a vision to create a better society. When it comes to CLS, we want to make access to legal services better for people by creating and implementing innovative and socially responsible services. We want to deliver expert legal advice and services with fair and transparent pricing, in which the public can have real confidence.
Family legal problems affect so many people in this country. It is often the worst experience of their lives. We want to help people get through this by supporting them with sensible child-centred and future-focused legal advice and assistance.
How did the move come about?
CLS have been clear about their desire to provide a full portfolio of business-to-consumer legal services.
Family law is an obvious choice of service extension for the Co-operative as it impacts upon so many people. To this end, the Co-operative believes the provision of good legal services meet a fundamental and important community and public need. To achieve this ambition they needed to recruit a team to head the new service.
Why have you decided to join? What is it that appeals to you about the group?
For me, the Co-operative was the only branded legal services provider I would consider. Their socially responsible and ethical approach, which runs through the whole organisation, is completely aligned to my own. The organisation is a mutual society run for the benefit of its six million (and growing) members and the shared values and principles are evident throughout the group.
How hard a decision was it for you to leave private practice?
I know that those already at CLS genuinely want to help people, so when I was given the chance to be a part of that, to grow a business that would reach out to people who currently have little access to justice, well it was a no-brainer!
How important is it to have excellent lawyers at the forefront of the changes in the legal market? And how can you help shape the way the market develops to ensure that the values you came into the law with are upheld?
It is crucial. The new entrants to the legal services market will need to be able to counter allegations of lack of quality and expertise, especially to critics that believe retailers and other ABS businesses can’t offer legal services.
The Co-operative operates in many professional service sectors and provides their customers with expert advice delivered through capable employees with the relevant expertise. To this end CLS will counter any critics by having reputable, serious solicitors in positions of responsibility and influence at the heart of the organisation.
Chris, Jenny and I hold the ethics and values which govern our profession close to our hearts. We are looking forward to developing the Co-operative family law service with these shared principles at its centre.
What impact will the CLS have on the legal market?
CLS want to be a force for good and positive change in the legal services market. We want to be seen as best in class and deliver that level of service consistently.
We aim to become a significant employer of solicitors and build upon the model and success we have delivered to date. We will continue to provide opportunities for young solicitors who can satisfy their own career aspirations as well as being open to experienced practitioners whose skills will be required to provide the more complex and demanding areas of work.
Our recruitment policies will reflect the society we live in and be socially inclusive and diverse.
Should private practice firms feel threatened? Is there room for all of you? And what should firms do to survive?
Of course, change is often unwelcome and I can well understand that many firms may feel anxious about how the implementation of the Legal Services Act will impact upon them.
However, there has been seismic change throughout the last 40 years in the profession and doom-mongers have always predicted disaster. The reality is that practising solicitors have increased from 36,000 to 122,000 over that time.
Solicitors are creative and pragmatic. I would urge every business owner to reality check the viability of their current business model and if it is not fit for the future then re-think quickly! I firmly believe that the opening up of the legal services market will lead to a significant increase in demand for the services of solicitors.
There’s no such thing as one size fits all. If firms are fully focused on the needs of their clients and succeed in meeting them then they will have a future.
Lawyers fear that so-called ‘Tesco law’ will lead to a fall in the quality of service. How can you reassure people that this will not be the case, and that the service will be of the highest quality?
I understand the fear from the profession that organisations which are not solicitor-owned and managed may not be able to attain the high quality of ethics and standards to which all law firms aspire.
However, I can reassure you of two things - the Co-operative as an organisation holds the highest ethical principles and is well known for its moral stance in relation to professional services. CLS family law will be led and delivered by solicitors. The Co-operative sees this as a critical component to deliver the quality of service across all its legal services. The Co-operative operates a multi-billion-pound business across retail, banking and other professional service operations. It delivers, open, honest and trusted services and would not jeopardise this reputation by not doing legal services extremely well and, more importantly, would not want to produce sub-standard services to our loyal and valued customers.
Are you able to say anything about how the service will be delivered - through a call centre, using solicitors or paralegals employed by the Co-operative or with panel firms?
We’ve only been in place for two days! However, I can say that we will look to roll out a national service which will be accessible to all and will be available in a variety of ways to meet the public’s needs. We will offer fixed price services, so that the public know exactly what they are getting and how much it will cost. It’s about being honest and giving the public what they want.
We will employ a range of experience in the teams which will feature solicitors, trainees and paralegals as appropriate.
There will definitely be a face-to-face service, but we also want to push the boundaries in delivering advice in other ways for people who would rather access legal services in different ways. We may also offer information leaflets and pro-formers to help people to help themselves.
The Co-operative has an outlet in every postcode in the country, so there is a huge opportunity in the way people will be able to access its services.
I assume you won't do legal aid work, so what is it like giving that up? How will your new role and the plans for the Co-operative promote access to justice?
I am as passionately committed to access to justice now as I was 20 years ago. I have and will continue to campaign for the rights of the most vulnerable and disempowered in our society.
Jenny and I have been prominent and vocal supporters of the Law Society’s excellent Sound off for Justice campaign. Indeed, I am ever hopeful that it will succeed and the proposals in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill will be dropped or modified. However, we all have to hope for the best and plan for the worst. If those cuts do take place, there will be swathes of people who will no longer have access to justice.
There are also those in the ‘coping classes’ who are not eligible for legal aid but for whom there are not uniformly good, reasonable priced and accessible services. Those people have little access to justice at present. We and the Co-operative want to offer them a real alternative.
CLS want to provide a full range of family legal services. It doesn’t make any sense to us to help some people and not others. We will be reviewing how we can assist those who cannot afford anything. We may also want to bid for a legal aid contract during the next bid round.
Will you retain any involvement with TV Edwards?
My firm, Blacklaws Davis, merged with TV Edwards in May this year. Merging Blacklaws Davis with TV Edwards created a very strong family team with huge credentials. At TV Edwards, we have undertaken eight strategic mergers. TV Edwards now has over 220 members of staff and is in a strong and competitive position which bodes well for its future. TV Edwards is a great firm with a long and prestigious history and an exciting future. I am sure it will go from strength to strength. This is good both for the Co-operative and for TV Edwards.
Jenny will continue to be managing partner but this function will be shared with Julian Overton (an LLP member and senior member of our criminal team). She will be distributing much of her additional activities to our fellow partners. I will continue to manage our consultants and ADR department.
We’ll carry on until we retire from the partnership in June 2012 when there will be a smooth handover of any remaining functions and we will become consultants of the firm. We are really proud of TV Edwards and want to continue our association with the firm for years to come.
Does the Co-operative want to be regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority? And what will you and the Co-operative be doing before the SRA can license ABSs?
The Co-operative is committed to regulation by the SRA and has put a huge amount of effort into the application. The press tell us all is on track for licensing in January 2012. Although we are making no assumptions, we sincerely hope to be one of the first ABSs to be regulated by the SRA. Indeed we will take great pride in being a part of the new legal services market.
All being well, we aim to open the CLS family law service by mid-2012. Don’t worry - Chris, Jenny and I will be fully occupied!
It will take an enormous amount of hard work, effort and energy to design the sort of service we envisage, get the technology and facilities in place and recruit the right people to deliver it.
What share of the market would CLS like to acquire?
Our goal is to be a leading provider of consumer legal services, recommended by those who use our services, revered by our colleagues and making a real difference to those who need and deserve access to legal advice, expertise and assistance. We fully recognise that this is an ambitious target and one which we will only achieve if we succeed in offering the very best customer service to the public.
It would be wrong of me to be overly confident. However, with quality services, honestly priced and expertly delivered with the trusted Co-operative brand and ethos behind us, I think we’re set to make a real difference for the benefit of the community and legal services sector as a whole.