Thursday, 19 November 2009

Not Change, but the Consideration of Change

I was at FoxWilliams this morning for the launch of the report written by Jon Robins entitled "The Big Bang Report: Opportunities and threats in the new legal services market". An electronic version is available from Byfield Consultancy here.

The report makes very interesting reading - and I'm reading it very thoroughly at the moment - but there were a few points raised in the discussion which followed the launch which have got me thinking.

One of the speakers was Tony Williams, the Principal from Jomati, who made a point that I have been trying to make for a while - namely that of the "deliberate decision". It is important for firms and chambers to decide what it is that they want to do, the market they want to work with, and to examine the competition they face now and will face in the future. Not rocket science. The point is to make a deliberate decision about the future of their firm or set of chambers before the market makes one for them. The decision may be to do nothing - that their model works and that those running the firm or chambers believe that they are well placed in the market. That is fine - it is a deliberate decision.

Decision time is here for legal services, there is no more time to prevaricate. Crispin Passmore from the Legal Services Board reminded the attendees that the Bar Standards Board was meeting today (November 19th) to consider the possibility of barristers working in partnerships, which (assuming a "yes" vote) would be a major step towards Alternative Business Structures (ABSs). He also said that the LSB expected to see the first ABSs in mid 2011. This is not very far away and so I repeat - now is the time for barristers and solicitors to seriously consider their business and what they would like it to be in the future.

I'm particularly interested in how the changes to the profession will have an impact on the bar. For many sets of chambers, I think that, following thorough analysis, the view might well be that they are more in the B2B (Business to Business) market than the B2C (Business to Consumer), and so their branding and marketing is focussed on professional firms rather than on the "end users" of the justice system. Many sets are specialised or have barristers who work at the very top end of the profession and so are likely to remain in demand after the shake-up. This will not be true, sadly, for every set of criminal chambers. The  new large branded law firms which are widely expected to enter the market are likely, as part of an ABS, to try to scoop up public defence work, while the Criminal Prosecution Service are squeezing the bar from the other side. I can almost see the junior end of the junior criminal bar disappearing - working for the new ABSs before starting in independent practice later in life when they can start to work on more specialised areas of criminal law. This will have a huge impact on the bar, on the Inns of Court, on barristers and solicitors and on clients. Exactly what that impact will be - I don't know.

In times of change, the only real fault is to do nothing - or rather to accidentally do nothing. Deliberately doing nothing to change your business model after careful thought is a positive decision. Firms are already starting to try new ways of working. Look at Turcan Connell a law firm based in Edinburgh with offices in London and Guernsey. They have expanded their Private Client work to include Asset Management - they have analysed their market and are providing their clients with the services they need, whether those are legal services or not. In all but name this is an ABS. Firms in England and Wales will, I'm sure, be examining Turcan Connell's success and analysing their business model. It could simply be one of the first of such practices.

So - my learning from this morning. Your firm or set of chambers must be considering the changes in the industry now. They should be engaging with advisers to examine their market, their place in the market, their strategy, their governance and their operations - and they should be doing this very soon. The bar in particular has been remiss in failing to address the Legal Services Act soon enough. Sets of chambers cannot wait for their regulator before they start to act. By starting the process now, they will be well placed to add what regulatory changes are decided by the BSB to chamber's strategy.

Consider the change now - before the market changes around you and your firm or chambers is no longer relevant in this new market.

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