Instant Fish: Commodification and the Salmonella Problem

Instant Fish
by Phidias!
Add water
and they swim.

Peter Porter

An interesting story over at Legal Futures, with more details about Quality Solicitors emerging. I have blogged separately about the approach to quality being taken by them and a competitior organisation (Wigster). It confirms an emphasis on more consumer friendly service (interestingly branded to look like a bank), speed and a growing emphasis on fixed cost. Particularly interesting is the proposal for fixed wills: pop in the shop, give your instructions, take yourself off to John Lewis for some retail therapy, and then pop back: hey presto. A will. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a signed photo of Amanda Holden (I made that bit up, but she is opening two offices). Traditionalists will be turning in their graves. They will wonder, as Peter Porter does, whether a thing of beauty (okay, a well drafted will) can be turned out so quickly. I think it can, but I also think someone needs to be checking. There is a broader problem, though.

Commodification of legal services is not a new phenomenon. In the early 1990s, two firms pioneered a systems-based approach to the provision of advice. One had a highly structured system of manuals which structured the information gathering and advice giving process. The other more advanced firm had a computer based system which allowed non-solicitors to collect information, for example, generate divorce petitions and correspondence and assist the fee earner in giving advice. No one got to assess the quality of these approaches and, in fact, both firms met very sticky ends which brings me to the Salmonella problem. Now, close readers of my work will apprehend that I am not instinctively against commodification. There is a great deal to be said for it where the work can be standardised (readers of Richard Susskind‘s work will already be familiar with the arguments). There are however important risks. As I understand it, the two firms I mentioned did not fail because of quality problems: financial problems were the cause (and in one firm the senior partner was convicted of fraud). That is not to suggest that ‘post-Legal Service Act’ services such as QS or Wigster are more prone to fraud. What such mass-market models are more prone too, perhaps, is contamination through quality and business model problems. In particular, the advent of serious attempts to engage in fixed pricing (which I welcome), puts a premium on properly assessing the cost at which these firms can run a decent quality service. Get this wrong and they will either collapse or face growing complaints about quality. At some point, someone may stand up and say there is salmonella in them lawyers’ eggs. This happens under the current system, of course, but because the problems can be portrayed as being specific to single firms, or even individuals, the risk to the profession’s status is more containable.

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About Richard Moorhead

Director of the Centre for Ethics and Law and Professor of Law and Professional Ethics at the Faculty of Laws, University College London with an interest in teaching and research on the legal ethics, the professions, legal aid, access to justice and the courts.
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3 Responses to Instant Fish: Commodification and the Salmonella Problem

  1. “puts a premium on properly assessing the cost at which these firms can run a decent quality service”

    That’s the challenge, isn’t it? But it’s a good thing, from a consumer perspective at least, yes? The main consequence could well be a shake-out of law firm structures. Glad I’m not a practising solicitor…

    But the big question raised by your piece is whether your term commodification will win out over the more common commoditisation. I don’t think it’s looking very good for you, I’m afraid.

  2. Richard Moorhead says:

    Yes, that is absolutely the core of this and on the whole I agree it is likely to benefit consumers. Though conceivably fixed prices might be higher than hourly rates (because suppliers overprice the risk they take on in fixing the cost – just as CFA lawyers may overprice their succes fee), I think that is unlikely – IF there is proper competition.

    S or F – someone is going to have to educate me on the difference!

  3. I agree that commoditisation of legal services is appropriate in some areas and increasingly sophisticated IT systems can be used to make wills and, say, employment contracts/handbooks if not bespoke then at least “made to measure”, rather than off the peg. Firms of all sizes can offer the type of will-making service you describe and the challenge for them will be to ensure that someone going in for a bog-standard will when they have substantial assets and need tax advice is persuaded to buy a “bespoke” will.

    If lawyers/ABSs etc are going to pursue commoditised legal services the law needs to adjust to allow such work to take place on an “execution only” basis, in the same way that some stockbrokers operate. They will buy or sell the shares for you but they won’t advise whether the transaction is wise or not. We need that approach in the legal profession otherwise the prof. indemnity insurers are going to take a hammering in a few years’ time. I’d be interested to know what their view is of the LSA and brand entrants.

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