updated on 16 April 2013
The need to make legal services more flexible, cheap and accessible for the public, while ensuring that providers can continue to profit, was a key discussion point at a recent Westminster Legal Policy Forum seminar, at which many of the profession's leading practitioners, pundits and modernisers gathered to discuss innovations in the profession.
Much was made of the need for legal services to diversify beyond the old model of law firm partnerships staffed by solicitors with broad, one-size-fits-all qualifications. Crispin Passmore, the Legal Services Board's strategy director, argued that the legal profession needs a more "flexible" workforce to meet the needs of modern legal services 'consumers'.
Similarly, Co-operative Legal Services (CLS) director Christina Blacklaws insisted that legal services providers must charge fees which the general public can afford. CLS's formidable financial resources and ability to establish a nationwide presence on UK high streets means that it is, like other big alternative business structure (ABS) entrants to the profession, well placed to provide legal services at affordable prices using a range of paralegal staff and fewer solicitors. Blacklaws argued otherwise, but CLS and other big organisations clearly represent a threat to smaller high-street law firms, which may lose business due to an inability to charge so cheaply, among other things. Though this may make access to legal services cheaper for the public, what effect this may have on consumer choice and in limiting the nature of many legal careers remains to be seen. There is surely some weight to the prediction that large ABS organisations will come to dominate the provision of high-street legal services such as wills, probate and personal property law at the expense of smaller practices, in similar fashion to how many independent grocers were driven out of business when consumers flocked to supermarkets. Wannabe lawyers interested in high-street law should be aware that CLS and other ABS organisations are likely to be among the main employers in this sector, while it is also likely that many high street legal jobs will consist of a specialist paralegal role.
The old model for larger firms was also argued to be in need of innovation due to its perceived inefficiency. One speaker's anecdote concerned an unnamed commercial firm making associates redundant after finding that many were not kept busy at all times. The firm's new answer to any shortage of lawyers during busy times is to outsource tasks to a growing number of freelance lawyers through legal work agencies like Lawyers on Demand. Modern technology enables these lawyers to work effectively from home for multiple employers throughout the year to earn their living, which certainly increases the flexibility of both their lifestyles and the resources of law firms. However, this free market approach may, in practice, leave individual lawyers with fewer rights and safeguards against hard times than they enjoy currently.
More commercial law firms are likely to adopt such innovations (eg, outsourcing more work or employing more specialist paralegals at the expense of solicitors) and continue to operate profitably. The fact that these firms have different client bases and practice areas to those of high-street legal services providers means that they are unlikely to compete directly with ABS organisations like CLS, while other speakers at the Westminster event pointed out that the prestigious reputations of the elite law firms should also help them to retain their clientele in what is an increasingly competitive marketplace. The upshot of this for aspiring commercial lawyers is that high-flying City careers are here to stay, though top firms may also start making more use of diverse paralegal roles.
The changing needs and demands of employers and consumers are also beginning to be reflected in the way that lawyers are trained. The CILEx vocational route into the profession is likely to become even more popular with the introduction of government-funded legal apprenticeships, while the forthcoming Legal Education and Training Review is also thought to recommend work-based learning in the training of lawyers, plus a variety of new entry and exit points to the profession not provided by the established degree-based route to becoming a solicitor or barrister. This is not to say that the time of solicitors and barristers is over, but it remains to be seen if their lucrative and numerous hay day might possibly be drawing to a close.