He went on to say that proof of lawyers’ deficiencies could be seen in the success of organisations such as Co-op Legal Services, which “has become in five years from a standing start a £30m legal business… which takes it into the top 100 [law firms] very comfortably”.
“I don’t believe the Legal Services Act would have been possible if we were really creating a profession that was fit for its purpose… lawyers who were doing what the marketplace wanted in ways it wanted, at times it wanted, at prices it wanted,” he said.
Speaking to an audience that included legal academics, Professor Mayson, (who is also a director of the Legal Services Institute) said: “I am delighted there are so many law teachers, law faculties, law firms and professional regulators who are delighted with the outcomes they create.
That, however, is an internal view. It doesn’t take much account… of those who use and pay for those outcomes.”
Despite the October 2011 statistics, that 81% of consumers want an out-of-hours service from law firms and 96% of businesses want to communicate online with a law firm, Mayson’s views were challenged by other speaker in the debate and also from the floor.
Philippe Sands QC, argued that it was necessary to resist the view that legal education should be “informed by the need to respond to what consumers and the marketplace want”.
It was important for society to decide whether lawyers were business people or have a different social function. Professor Sands rejected the notion that law is a business: “When I provide legal advice as a barrister, I don’t think of myself as a business person; I think of myself as a professional person bound by a duty of independence,” he said.
Professor Sands went on to say that the number of law graduates had increased from 5,200 a year in 1998 to 13,000 in 2010. The reason, he said, is that “the provision of undergraduate and other graduate legal education is hugely profitable. Universities are turning to it because it provides a massive subsidy to other areas.”
And that is the crux of the matter. Law students pay top fees and they only need a classroom, a blackboard and maybe some free wi-fi. Their fees go on to subsidise other academic areas that may need extensive resources such as laboratories as one example.
This system churns out too many law students that leads to too many lawyers chasing too few jobs and therefore the existing spend on legal services gets diluted. Combine this with the recession, the Legal Services Act and new entrants such as co-op legal and we start to see market forces at work.
There have been recessions before, and legal services have survived them.
But this time, it’s different. Lawyers may think they’ve seen it all before but the Legal Services Act is unlike any purported revolution that has come before and come to nothing.
As Professor Stephen Mayson went on to say, “Previously there were internal opportunities that lawyers, en masse, decided to ignore. But now change is being driven from outside the profession. It will be impossible to ignore”.
While it’s nearly impossible to predict how the new world of alternative business structures (ABSs) will eventually turn out, some developments surely seem unavoidable.
Making the process of using a lawyer more customer friendly is one. Every law firm in the land proclaims how client focused it is, but the level of complaints against solicitors * would indicate that they do not all practise what they preach – or at least that there is still a serious disconnection between what customers want and what lawyers think they want. And that should not matter whether you consider yourself as a business person or as a professional person bound by a duty of independence.
*1589 complaints a week in England & Wales
And for the Scots readers amongst you: http://www.scotsman.com/the-scotsman/legal/number_crunching_most_solicitors_are_bad_business_managers_1_1914251