Former Junior Justice Minister Bridget Prentice believed that obtaining legal advice should be as easy as buying a can of baked beans. The Labour government had just created the Legal Service Act (LSA). We are now witnessing a fundamentally different regulatory landscape for a legal services sector that was otherwise protected from the forces of liberalisation.
Consumers and potential business clients are looking for a clear proposition – one that sets out exactly why choosing a traditional, local law firm might suit their needs better than the big brands. Law firms that are merely talking about putting in place a strategic and targeted communications plan will almost certainly get left behind… if they haven’t already been.
The Legal Services Act relaxed the tight ownership restrictions on legal businesses; non-Law firms can now, for the first time in history, own or invest in them.
If we step back to October 2011, we will find an industry braced for its ‘Big Bang’ moment. In recognition of radical change that the LSA represented, RTS Media commissioned the Legal Services Survey (LSS) to assess how the act might impact on traditional law firms. The report posed the question: Do high street brands historically unconnected to the provision of legal advice, in fact, represent the future, and can traditional firms compete and thrive?
The LSS attempted to gauge the public’s sentiment and understand their buying behaviour. Commenting on the report, Ralph Savage, the managing director or RTS media, noted that: “The results of our survey indicate a genuine interest from people to buy legal services from brands not commonly associated with that market”. 26% of consumers indicated a preference for high street brands over traditional solicitors when presented with a choice over whom they wished to have handling their affairs.
Although striking, and certainly worrying for traditional firms, those results were offset when consumers were asked to rank the factors which influenced their propensity to select a firm. The overwhelming majority (43%) of consumers indicated that personal recommendation was the most important factor. Also, high on the list of influences was the desire for a transparent and up-front pricing structure (17%) and the perceived experience of firms (14%). Only 3% of consumers indicated that brand recognisability was the most important factor in choosing a law firm.
Fast forward almost two years and the industry is greeted with the news that both Direct Line and Eddie Stobart are planning to set up their own law firms. The big brands are entering the market place. Direct Line, in partnership with Parabis Law, have applied to the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) to launch a wholly owned in-house law firm. Eddie Stobart are a step further down the line; they have confirmed that the SRA has granted them a licence to create a law firm to complement their direct access barrister service, claims management arm and insurance broker division.
When confronted with suggestions that non-legal businesses should stick to what they know, critics are often pointed in the direction of the big brands that are successful for doing the exact opposite. Virgin is the record company that runs a railway and Marks and Spencer’s are the underwear retailer that offers personal loans. It seems clear that a strong brand allows a company to transcend their traditional commercial focus.
The Eddie Stobart ‘brand’ is a phenomenon; the haulage firm boasts its own television documentary, cartoon, fan club, festival and has even made its mark on the pop charts. The Direct Line brand is no less strong; they are responsible for creating one of television’s most enduring characters, and they are trusted by eight million policyholders.
There is no comparable brand in the legal industry and the traditional law firms will no doubt be threatened by the customer bases and marketing budgets of the big brands. It is these concomitant factors that are likely to translate into customers that are unsure where to seek legal advice being successfully courted by the companies that already provide their other services. While there is some comfort in knowing that consumers value the personal recommendations of others above all else, there is an increasing likelihood that this recommendation will come from a consumer that has chosen a brand with which they were already familiar.
Obtaining legal advice may soon be as easy as buying a can of baked beans. The only question is; which brand will people choose?
And when it comes to legal PR and marketing, a spot of fresh thinking might just be in order. Claims such as being ‘market leading’, ‘well-established’ and ‘an expert in the field’ decorating pretty much every law firm website out there at the moment.
With a strong network of media contacts and in-depth knowledge of professional services, Christina advises a range of businesses and law firms on media and business development initiatives.