and they swim.
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.