The Law Society President has suggested that unbundling legal services could enable law firms to help legal aid clients denied legal aid after 1 April. My initial inclination to comment on this in The Law Society's Gazette was dampened by a quick trawl through the comments section. This is not a good place to go if you want quality of debate.
Perhaps understandably, the comment pages of The Gazette have become the refuge of a lot of disaffected solicitors struggling to keep their head above water, but many of them do a discredit to their profession and themselves by displaying an alarming degree of hysteria and a propensity to abuse those who dare publish anything unpalatable. The most vicious insults tend to be hurled by those who hide behind an anonymous posting.
The President's message is that there will be many people who could do with some help and guidance on particular issues but cannot afford to pay for a full legal service from beginning to end of, say, a Family case. I don't wonder at this, regardless of whether legal aid withdrawal was going to happen. I have never been able to fathom how there could ever be much of a market for people able and willing to pay in the region of £200 an hour for any service, or at least not for a service that could be racking up those charge out rates for many months.
This model has been sustainable for a very long time for two principal reasons, mystique and protectionism. The mystique surrounds the complexity of the law and its procedures, making it hard for the uninitiated to go it alone with any confidence. The closed nature of the profession and the concept of reserved activities has kept it safe from commercial competition.
Protectionism was pulled down by the Legal Services Act 2007 and we are now seeing a wave of non-lawyer owned companies entering the market and challenging the old ways and costs of doing things. Many are, however, still making the most of the status quo in terms of how work is done, which still keeps prices high even if they are offered as fixed fees rather than hourly rates.
The big game changer is the power of technology to pull back the curtain of mystique. We largely gave up paying scribes to read and write for us centuries ago and there is now no longer any reason why we need to pay someone to tell us what the law says and how it can be applied. The tendency of the Internet to reduce pricing to zero is well illustrated by a domestic experience I had recently.
My tumble dryer had broken down and I didn't know whether the problem could be fixed or was terminal. Not so long ago, I would have had to call out an expert and pay for the call out just for the answer to that question. Now, I was able to go online and within seconds find any number of helpful videos explaining exactly what the problem was and how to fix it. I then had the choice of doing it myself, in which case I could order the parts online from the site that told me how to do the job, or call out an expert from the same site to come and do it for me. As it happens, the problem was shown to be terminal, so I invested in a new machine, but did not have to pay an expert to tell me that this was necessary.
Where would I go again if I needed further help? Back to the same site, where I know that they charge only what is valuable to me (doing something I can't do for myself), and who share their knowledge over matters that they know someone else will share if they don't.
Legal services are no different in principle. Many lawyers still cling to the view that their websites shouldn't "give away the Crown Jewels", i.e. should tempt you into the shop but not tell you anything that will make this unnecessary. This is a view that will soon mean no one will even bother to look in their window.
I have sought to put these words into practice, through the launch of Road Traffic Representation, an online legal service for those faced with prosecution for motoring offences. Here, you will find not just an explanation of the law, but an online process that will without charge diagnose not only the likely penalties for the offences charged, but also the potential for any defence. The processes use artificial intelligence in a question and answer to process to arrive at the advice. Only if the visitor then wants representation does the site select and appoint a barrister and then automatically brief Counsel by collating all of the data collected during the online process. It is at this point that the visitor pays a fixed fee for representation, i.e. pays for what is valued and not for mere process.
This will be the future for legal services. I am now actively making RTR available to law firms and ABSs on a White Label basis and this will be followed by similar services in many other areas of law. Unbundling and pay-as-you-need is here already.