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Saturday, 24 November 2012

Legal Futures Conference on the Cutting Edge of Law

I was delighted to be asked to speak at the Legal Futures Conference on the Cutting Edge of Law in London on 19 November 2012.  Neil Rose, the creator of 'Legal Futures' has for some considerable time now been a beacon shining a light on the path opening up before us in the modern legal landscape in the UK and it was no surprise that a significant number of overseas visitors were in attendance both as speakers and part of the audience.

The USA were well represented by LegalZoom, speaking and listening, and Daniel Katz from Michigan State University, whose startling presentation is commented on below.  I am aware of at least two Australians in attendance, one of whom I met in the post-match pub debate.  He is the founder of his commercial firm in Adelaide and I was astonished on asking him what brought him to London to hear him say that he had flown in specifically for the conference.  The UK is leading the way in changing the infrastructure of legal services and the world is watching.

It's a long time since I've witnessed such an attentive audience.  Most stayed right to the end and this was no CPD points gathering exercise.  It seemed to me that everyone in attendance was in one way or another part of the great changes that are taking place and the rapt attention in the conference room was matched only by the highly charged buzz of exchanging ideas in the lunch and refreshment breaks.  It was a good place to be.

So who said what?  Arlene Adams, CEO of Peppermint Technology, opened with what has become something of a benchmark in terms of client expectations.  This is not a place to go into detail on the findings, which are summarised well in Neil's blog.  I was surprised to learn quite how many people still want face to face communication with their lawyer, but I do expect this to change as other options become mainstream.  Nonetheless, I agree with Chas Rampenthal's view expressed on behalf of LegalZoom that people (let's not get hung up here on the tiresome client/customer debate) want choice and they should be offered that choice in terms of how they receive the help that they seek.

Adam Sampson, Chief Legal Ombudsman, treated us to the view of us from the client's shoes and my favourite of his observations was that until taking on the job he had never heard of the term 'disbursement' that we so glibly bandy about.  (For that matter why do we call our fees 'costs'?)

I don't think any of us were surprised to hear Brian Weston of the Institute of Customer Service tell us that 67% of disaffected clients will spread word of a bad experience, but nice to hear that 1 in 4 would pay more for excellent service (or at least tell a researcher that they would).

Karl Chapman, CEO of what has in my view been the most dynamic new entrant into the market - Riverview Law - told us a lot about the impact they are having, but said quite simply that none of it was rocket science, just stuff that any of us could do if we thought enough about those we are serving and what they want.  Who can seriously argue with his assertion that the status quo is untenable?  The only blot on his otherwise pristine copy book was to offer a day at Chelsea FC as part of a prize for an online competition.  Still, nice to spend as much time there as the average Blues manager I suppose.

Conveyancers look away now.  Harry Hill (In-Deed, former Countrywide) had some very depressing figures to show us demonstrating just how far Conveyancing firms have allowed agents and other third parties to suck all the profit out of the work.  I hope that at least the firm that charged a happy Harry £5,500 for a Will (that's an awful lot of tax planning) attracted his custom without having to pay anyone else for the privilege.

Trevor Howarth showed just how simple it is for a well known brand such as Eddie Stobart can drive (sorry!) willing clients and barristers to meet in the middle for a fixed fee.

So far, much of what we had heard was a story about marketing, so it was interesting to hear Doug Crawford, CEO of myhomemove, explain how automation was at the heart of the success of the country's first ABS.  Telling too, and no surprise, that Avin Rabheru of Smedvig Capital, behind this ABS, explained how dealing with the traditional partnership structure was not usually fruitful in terms of multiple decision makers not making effective (or often any) decisions.

Saleem Arif of Quality Solicitors spoke eloquently about the brand, but I would have liked to have heard more about how the work that the brand is generating will be processed.

"Partnerships are dead!" exclaimed Tim Oliver of Parabis.  Actually Tim doesn't go in for exclamations; it was more of a statement made with quiet authority that a partnership is not a suitable business structure for making dynamic decisions.  Rather, said Tim, resolutions often come down to the lowest common denominator.

Mention of quiet authority, not to say, massive confidence, prompts me to note how Greg Shields, CEO of Forster Dean, spoke with pride about the work of this 29-office firm, which specialises in personal injury and conveyancing and yet does not pay referral fees.  The open culture that Greg spoke about was refreshing and he was pretty clear that separation of ownership from management of the firm was central to its success.

If you've wondered about the story behind James Caan of Dragons' Den investing in Knights, David Beech, the firm's managing partner, was happy to tell the tale.  David's background is in private equity and has shown the way for traditional law firms (Knights was established in 1759) mixing it with modern investment.

Onto the last lap, I found myself sandwiched between two impressive American speakers in Chas Rampenthal, General Counsel of LegalZoom (see comments above) and Daniel Katz, Assistant Professor of Law at Michigan State University's College of Law.  Once Daniel got going (and he took off with all the speed of a Harrier Jump Jet), I felt guilty that I had delayed him in apparently going over time with expressing my views about online legal services and how I have sought to manifest them in the shape of Road Traffic Representation (with many more services of this kind to follow).

Daniel teaches computational legal studies and his students must know that they can't attend his lectures with a hangover, for he cracks on at a pace but great lucidity when explaining how much better predictive technology is becoming and how no one can take for granted that humans will always be the master of sorting all the nuances required in considering and applying the law.  The saving grace is that he is of the opinion that man and machine together will beat the machine on its own, but the message is clear in that we would be foolish to assume that we will always have centre stage in advising on the law.

This was easily the most worthwhile conference I have ever attended.  The learning didn't stop in the formal setting and some of the best ideas were exchanged in a pretty full pub afterwards, or at least I thought so at the time...

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