alternative business structure

English and Welsh lawyers are waking up to a new competitive threat. It’s called bullshit, also known as PR.

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Law firms inEnglandandWalesare preparing themselves for battle. In October this year the Alternative Business Structure comes into force, opening up the market to a new glut of competition. 

In addition to this, and the seemly increasing number of unqualified Will writers and employment law charlatans exchanging crap advice for hard earned money, is QualitySolicitors. This is to my knowledge the UK’s first legal franchise which is being fronted by everyone’s favorite TV show panel judge for the mentally ill –  Amanda Holden.

The QualitySolicitors concept has taken a hammering from the legal world who, by and large, feel they are cheapening the profession. Whist there is a real danger of this, most comments I have read by lawyers could be translated into: “we’re scared and don’t know what to do.”  

I actually think that their approach, and that of the Alternative Business Structures, might result in law firms taking an objective look at themselves and sharpening their own marketing efforts. In addition law firms might benefit, by which I mean make more sales, by ‘piggybacking’ on the back of a general increase in awareness of the need for their services – for instance that 4 out of 5 people still don’t have a Will.

Anyhow, aside all that, law firms will start to understand just what a dog-eat-dog world we live in and how marketing can have a massive impact on their fortunes. This brings me on to my main point, public relations. A marketing tool that wields huge power but is very rarely used to full impact by law firms.

This is clearly not the case at QualitySolicitors. A couple of weeks back Amanda Holden appeared on ITV1’s This Morning programme promoting the brand she is paid to. She apparently commented: “You can walk into WHSmith… there is a list that is now recommended by the public, for the public, of solicitors who are kosher, who are not going to rip you off and who can help you. And it’s completely free, you get advice free and then you can get any information you need.”

Asked who drew up the list of solicitors, she suggested QualitySolicitors had official Law Society backing as she continued: “There’s a governing body for solicitors and what they’ve done is they’ve gone to each town, they’ve picked the best solicitor from each town so there’s not a whole load of them and they’ve done a survey, they’ve contacted the clients… listened to the feedback, picked the cream of the crop and put them on that QualitySolicitors list.”

This is bullshit of the highest order that has got thousands of solicitors up-and-down the land moaning on websites and contacting the law society to issue a clarification.

However law firms need to wake up as this is how the competitive world of business works. At every opportunity businesses try to get valuable media coverage, preferable via a celebrity, to promote their brands even if what is being said is questionable. Even if an apology was made by QualitySolicitors or a clarification issued by the Law Society the message is out and the damage done. Now I am not condoning lying about your service and marketing proposition, I’m just being honest about the reality of business and the tactics used.  Law firms need to stop obsessing about competitors marketing efforts and look at how they are going to compete in a new competitive world.


Tesco Law and change management

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Last Wednesday I attended a seminar in London organised by Hubbard One, the law firm customer relationship management people.  The seminar was all about business development in law firms and covered a range of marketing topics most of which I found helpful, particularly the section on improving website conversations and new client acquisition – something law firms always struggle with. Anyway, I was speaking to the marketing manager from law firm Dickinon Dees on thesubject of managing change and I mentioned an article I had published in Legal Marketing Magazine towards the back end of 2009. She seems to like my opinions on the subject and also Flint Bishop’s approach to changing its marketing mix and portfolio of services in response to Alternative Business Structures.

To be honest it’s pretty old now, and I don’t have time to rewrite another up-to-date version, but I thought it might be helpful to share it – so here it is:

Mastering change management

Carl Weston on the actions regional firm Flint Bishop has taken to safeguard against the introduction of alternative business structures.

The legal profession is currently facing a seismic shift in the way it operates, thanks to the Legal Services Act 2007 (LSA) and, in particular, the emergence of alternative business structures. And while some firms may have previously thought the impending changes to be of little consequence, the potentially profound implications posed by external ownership and alternative business structures (ABS) should not be taken lightly.
There was a time, not that long ago, when most lawyers doubted that the LSA would change much of the environment in which they operate – now the picture is very different. And while none of us can predict precisely what effect the changes will have, the profession now recognises that this new regime will transform the landscape.
The smart practices are planning accordingly and taking positive steps, particularly in the sphere of marketing, to safeguard their operations against the increased competition that the emergence of alternative business strategies will encourage.
ABS, as enabled by the LSA, permit new possibilities for the more flexible and competitive delivery of legal services. This means that practices will now be competing with the offer of nationally recognised brands, such as supermarkets (hence the popular reference to ‘Tesco Law’) and motoring organisations, among others, which will now be able to own law firms or employ lawyers and offer legal services directly to their customers.
Most lawyers’ attitudes to ABS are determined by whether they see them as a threat or an opportunity. Some fear they will devalue the status of solicitors and commoditise legal services, and in the worst case, even put them out of business. Others see them as a chance to team up with other professionals to create exciting new types of business and to enable growth by attracting new investment into their firms. Those who support the new Tesco Law claim that it will benefit clients and, at the same time, offer attractive commercial opportunities to lawyers and those organisations that wish to go into business with lawyers. Those opposed to its introduction believe that clients will always have a natural inclination to use services provided by names that are familiar to them, even if they may not provide the best or most appropriate level of service to them.
They claim that the service provided by the likes of the Co-op, Tesco and the AA will inevitably be provided by unqualified call-centre staff, possibly outside of the UK, and overseen by an inadequate number of in-house solicitors.
The debate now, however, should not be about whether ABS are good or bad for the industry, but about how the High Street legal practices can ensure that clients, both individual and corporate, can access high-quality legal services from business structures of all types and sizes.

Taking action
The Midlands-based top-200 law firm, Flint Bishop, identified as long ago as 2005 that diversification was vital in order to safeguard its operation against the marketing of legal services by ABS.

When the LSA was published and it became clear that Tesco law would change the way that many aspects of our business operates, decisive action was needed to market our business in order to compete effectively with nationally trusted brands and increase the private client work that the firm generates from outside its traditional geographical area.
An extensive period of research into the marketing of legal services followed. Our findings showed that family law was viewed as an emotional purchase and not, therefore, suitable for the online marketplace; in addition, the online market for personal injury was already saturated. It became clear, however, that there was an opportuniy to expand our operating areas with the launch of a series of ‘commodity’ legal services, such as wills and conveyancing, which could be readily packaged.
This early research enabled us to steal a march on many competing law firms, who chose to wait and evaluate the impact of the change in regulations before deciding to take positive action.
Since then, we have worked hard to capitalise on our key strengths and have launched a series of ‘at a distance’ conveyancing and will-writing services, which have served to extend our client base substantially.
Working with a team of external consultants, we have developed two distinct brands: Flints Direct and FB Wills Direct .
Quality and reputation are of paramount importance to the firm and we are the first law firm in the Midlands to hold ‘Lexcel 4’, the Law Society’s new mark of excellence for client care and customer service. It was essential, therefore, that our ‘at a distance’ services maintained the same high levels of quality and service for which Flint Bishop is renowned. Both brands offer particular advantages over our traditional service offerings and are marketed and delivered using very different methods.

FB Wills Direct
FB Wills Direct is a dedicated wills and probate service, which aims to simplify and streamline the will-preparation process by enabling individuals and couples to prepare a will online, over the phone, or by post without having to visit a solicitor.
Guidance is available via the telephone to advise the most appropriate will for each individual’s personal circumstances and an online application form that can be saved, paused and revisited as needed – feedback constantly tells us how useful purchasers find this.

Flints Direct
Flints Direct is a dedicated conveyancing service, which simplifies the process of buying and selling homes. Clients from across the UK can obtain immediate online quotes, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Instant telephone quotes and help are also available around-the-clock (for out of hours calls, telephones divert to a call centre).
A secure online login facility has also been developed to enable clients to access real-time progress reports, while SMS text messaging is available at key stages of the transaction. A comprehensive frequently asked questions and information area is also available.
Detailed research was carried out before the launch of the two services. We made the conscious decision not to market the new operations using typical online marketing tactics, such as search engine optimisation or pay-per-click campaigns; instead, Flint Bishop based its strategy on targeting organisations with no fewer than 5,000 members or employees, thus creating a network of ‘affiliate partners’.
The key benefit for the member organisations was the opportunity to provide its existing target audience with an added resource of discounted legal services via its own individually branded website.
In addition, each organisation can opt to receive either a referral fee (with strict adherence to solicitor’s regulation authority rules), from each matter the website generates, or to pass on the fee to the member as an additional discount. Interestingly enough, the vast majority of our partners have chosen the latter.
FB Wills Direct has been hugely successful within the charitable sector; and given the increasing competition for charitable giving, one unexpected by-product from the launch of FB Wills Direct is the opportunity that it presents for the consumer to leave a legacy to the charity in question.
In order to maintain control over our brand and ensure that we continue to deliver the highest possible levels of service, we elected not to join one of the growing number of alliances of firms marketing private-client legal services.
Clients using our services can be assured that they are marketed and delivered solely by our team of experts. Working with partners enables us to maintain total control over our brand and by owning the whole brand we are able to react quickly to feedback in order to ensure constant improvements to the services we offer.

The outcome
Since the launch of the schemes back in 2007, more than 30 high-profile organisations have signed up to become an affiliate partner. They range from regional financial organisations such as the Loughborough Building Society, the Earl Shilton Building Society, the Dudley Building Society and a user group of more than 450 IFAs, through to major national and international organisations including The British Medical Association, The Land Registry, Breast Cancer Care, Marston’s brewery, The Children Mutual, Voice (previously The Professional Association of Teachers) and, most recently, Oxfam, the world’s third-largest charitable organisation.
This gives us a total audience of more than five million people – more than any of the current alliances, which have been forced to unite to market their services.
In fact, our ‘at a distance’ services have generated in excess of 500 transactions per month – and from a geographically remote client base that would otherwise not have used the services of Flint Bishop.

Going forward…
Not content to rest on our laurels, however, we will shortly be extending our portfolio of brands, with the launch of a UK-wide fixed-cost employment law solution targeted at the small-to-medium-sized enterprises market, which will also be marketed online.
In return for a fixed monthly fee, registered users can download a whole host of employment guides and documents drafted by our lawyers. There is also the option to contact a lawyer directly where required.

In summary, I believe that the legal profession needs to ensure that it is ready to face the challenges of the new legal marketplace. And providing that like Flint Bishop, firms continue to plan and are prepared to expect markets and conditions to change, then it will be equipped to face change.