Almost exactly six years ago, Sir David Clementi, a former deputy governor of the Bank of England, appeared via video link at a showcase debate at the IBA’s annual conference in Auckland. In one short presentation, Sir David outlined how he proposed to transform the legal profession in England and Wales. Bar associations would have their freedom to regulate lawyers curtailed. Supermarkets could sell legal services along with baked beans and credit cards. Law firms could merge with accountancy practices, or float on the London Stock Exchange.
Fast forward to 2010, and Sir David’s reforms are at the final stages of being implemented. Now, the UK conference circuit is humming with discussions about what impact the reforms will have on existing firms, and which new legal providers will emerge. Meanwhile. the European Commission is also monitoring developments closely, to see if UK-style reforms can be imposed on lawyers throughout Europe.
At present, it is unclear just how far up the “value chain” Sir David’s reforms might spread. But, right now, forward-thinking private client law firms are beginning to band together in an attempt to create recognisable, consumer-friendly ‘brands’. That’s probably a wise move, considering the UK’s Justice Minister, Kenneth Clarke, recently told a Law Society meeting in the English city of Birmingham that the reforms could lead to the closure of more than 3,000 law practices. Meanwhile, innovative firms, such as Irwin Mitchell, are positioning themselves as ‘back office service providers’ for those companies hoping to sell branded legal services.
Even large London firms are rethinking how they operate – although this may have more to do with impact of the UK’s recent recession, rather than regulatory reforms by themselves. But, when well-known law practices such as Eversheds decide to offshore their firm’s support functions, and Slaughter and May begin to talk about offshoring legal work to India, the scale of the upheavals facing the country’s legal profession quickly becomes apparent.
Past upheavals within the legal profession have tended to focus on improving the quality of legal advice, or making firms larger or better managed. But these new reforms are about offering legal services in a completely different way.
Of course, traditional law firms may still survive and prosper in this brave new era – but only if they market themselves aggressively, and offer a genuinely excellent service at competitive prices. That’s quite a big “if”, considering many firms’ attitudes to business development, quality standards and charge-out rates.
Welcome to the future of law (in the UK at least). How do you feel these changes will affect you?