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Andrew Woolley on Practice Management

Date:2 JUN 2010

Alternative Business Structures and the end is nigh?

Andrew WoolleyHave we actually heard anything that will happen with Alternative Business Structures (ABS) except from commentators such as I? Certainly I've not heard that Virgin, Tesco or similar will enter the market. But I think they will. I also think that large competitors perhaps large financial services businesses, banks and accountants will see the benefit of picking up certain types of work.

Will they do family law? I like to think not as surely they would upset about 50% of their customer base, being the opposing spouse. But it will allow, it seems, businesses like Divorce Online to do the defended and ancillary relief work too. 

But in general I fear these things will happen:

- The end of smaller firms within 5 years, especially the inefficient medium sized "we do everything" types.

- Note how there used to be an insurance broker on every street - not now. That will happen to law firms; we know that the work is more complex but clients don't.

- Maybe small specialist firms can survive, but only if they get the customer care and procedures right whilst trying to do so on a small budget.

- Massive demand to move to fixed fees. We have offered these for some time and they are very popular with clients but much less so with lawyers. Other providers will offer them.

I have spoken at various Law Society events including for the Scottish Law Society recently and I note that there is always "knowing laughter" when I say that the people who attend events on how to progress law firms in the future actually have a big problem as they are by their nature interested in and committed to improvement and change. The problem is almost certainly with at least one of their partners who opposes and will block change. Due to the structure of many smaller law firms, they have to face that now and get rid of them now. This will destabilise many firms or paralyse them through inaction.

I think the public understands law so little that they just want someone, anyone, who they believe can remove their pain. (I talk here about the most likely things causing a legal need for the average person).

They view conveyancing, divorce etc as simple transactions which lawyers make difficult and expensive.

I think they view lawyers as slow, expensive, hard to use and likely to run up a bill if you let them. Sometimes I am sad to say they are right, although very rarely with intent from the lawyer.

When other major brands offer these services they are much more likely to think they will use them. They will probably charge less. But above all they will be clear about charges and make themselves easy to use. That will be the deciding factor for many clients.

It follows that we must act now. We must be very careful when recruiting to look for good people skills as much as legal ability. I have to say that we have recruited heavily recently with this in mind. We are now only two lawyers away from the maximum we have decided to have within the firm. Many good lawyers have moved from apparently "good" firms but then we lawyers tend to view a good firm as one which is good at law. That is less and less important.

Andrew Woolley is the Senior Partner of Woolley & Co solicitors which he set up in 1996 as the world's first 'virtual' lawfirm with no traditional offices but a network of home based lawyers. Click here to follow Woolley & Co on Twitter

The views expressed by contributing authors are not necessarily those of Family Law or Jordan Publishing and should not be considered as legal advice.