WHSmith and QualitySolicitors – how high street law is fighting back
I happened to be in WHSmith the other day when I saw a glimpse of the future for high street law.
Between the celebrity mags and the assorted box files was a prominent stand advertising legal services. At the heart was a telephone reminiscent of those ‘call a taxi’ ones you see in supermarkets. Alongside was an invitation to use it to get legal advice.
I wondered who would want to discuss their marital dissatisfaction, workplace accident or any other personal matter in the middle of a busy shop. I wondered who was on the other end of the phone – and toyed with the idea that it could be a loveable, coke-snorting rogue such as Harry ‘I’m just a high street solicitor’ Venn from BBC’s Hidden.
In fact, the stand is just one of many ‘legal access points’ that WHSmith has been introducing to all its stores in recent months. Some stores just have these phones, whilst others have actual solicitors sitting at actual desks.
These legal portals are not just another example of retail diversification common particularly to supermarkets in recent years. This is the Legal Services Act (LSA) in action.
The LSA comes to town
The legal access points have arisen from a partnership between WHSmith and QualitySolicitors – a franchise operation in which law firms apply to become part of the QualitySolicitors umbrella brand.
Products reportedly include fixed fee advice, conveyancing quotes and will packages, although from the advertising it seems that nothing is off limits.
The LSA promised to enable non-legal organisations to offer legal services. And here it is – a real-life version of the much anticipated ‘Tesco law’.
But is it any good?
There are several exciting aspects to this venture. High street law firms have had a hard time of it in recent years. The work – such as personal injury and conveyancing – has become increasingly commoditised and managed by volume businesses. These huge firms promise to eat up local law firms, with many industry analysts forecasting the death of the traditional high street practice.
But this business partnership feeds into local firms. It combines the marketing nous and brand presence of one of the oldest retail chains with the expertise of local solicitors. By so doing, high street law may well get a much-needed competitive boost.
If successful, one outcome may be a new recruitment drive in high street law firms. After all, while initially there are lawyers based in 150 shops, that figure is set to rise to 500 across all WHSmith stores. In addition, the work created by the scheme may have its own effect on local legal recruitment requirements.
For the law firms, there is also the opportunity to be part of a nationally recognised brand – QualitySolicitors. The company has only been in operation since 2008, but given that it has just secured private equity investment from Palamon Capital Partners, the signs are good that it will be able to significantly develop its brand, and business, over the coming months and years.
The challenges ahead
The road ahead is not without obstacles though. There are critics aplenty among the traditionalists of law – just take a look at some of the legal forums if you are unsure. And some of them raise good points.
There’s some uncertainty around the calibre of firm involved. In recent months, QualitySolicitors has claimed to be in negotiation with several top-100 firms, although as yet no agreement has come about with any of them. Without a major name on its books, QualitySolicitors may struggle to defend a ‘quality’ reputation.
Critics also point to a lack of QualitySolicitor law firms in certain regions, including London and Newcastle. This, however, is surely just the natural and temporary consequence of a new company building up its national presence.
For me, the major issue still lies with the legal access points themselves. I just can’t imagine who would want to use them. Who would you be talking to? What law firm would you end up with? How do you know you’ll get ‘quality’ advice? And, I say it again, who would want to discuss legal issues in the middle of a busy shop?
But I can see the positives of this development too. And perhaps in the long-term they outweigh the obstacles – all of which could be resolved with time and experience.
Local law for local people
High street law firms need defending. I know in this day and age, that’ll be anathema to those who believe progress is everything and there is only one law: survival of the fittest. Unfortunately that often means survival of the biggest, not the best.
Contrary to popular belief, there are excellent and caring lawyers out there. They chose to specialise in private client in local law firms because they believed they could make a difference to ordinary people’s lives. They also provide what volume businesses cannot: a personal service where every individual counts.
In return they suffer pitifully low salaries (relative to their City peers), high rents, on-going cuts in legal aid, increasing insurance premiums and the constant threat from the ‘big players’.
If QualitySolicitors can help do for these lawyers what Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and his ilk have done for regional food, then it’ll at least be a refreshing slap in the face for high street doom-mongers and City snobs.
Even better, in the long term, it may revitalise the perception of high street law, encouraging more talented lawyers to seek out opportunities in local firms. With a younger generation increasingly demanding work/life balance and quality of life, the high street practice may find it has an awful lot to offer.
The QualitySolicitors/WHSmith partnership has numerous challenges ahead and success is far from assured. But if this is a sign of the LSA in practice, then I have to say, I like it. CP
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