Tag Archives: Law Society

To infinity and beyond: Google law prepares for blast off

Several years ago, when I was campaigning to bring about the Legal Services Act, some bright spark at Which? suggested to me that it wasn’t Tesco law that would bring about a revolution in legal services, but Google Law.  I wouldn’t say I dismissed his prediction out of hand, but at the time it was quite a big leap to see how you could buy legal services in Tesco, never mind from Google.  Well, last week this colleague’s prediction turned out to be right as the Google-backed Rocket Lawyer announced its intention to launch in the UK in 2012.  It’s a measure of how far we’ve come that the news caused merely a ripple, rather than the tsunami we would have surely had in the past.

It is a strange coincidence that this was the same week in which the Law Society launched its annual ‘solicitors are great’ campaign.  As you can imagine, I’m a bit of a sceptic when it comes to this sort of thing, but to be fair, the Society’s efforts have improved immeasurably since the toe-curling ‘my hero, my solicitor’ of a few year’s back.  This year’s effort, a slightly more modest call to ‘choose quality advice’, will be seen, the Society says, more than 450 million times, which is about eight times for every man, woman and child in the country (although as lots are too young to read that’s even more times for the rest of us).  I have no idea how they work this out, but it sounds pretty impressive.

I also have no idea if these annual forays into mainstream advertising are beneficial to high-street law firms.  The Society claims that last year’s campaign generated 85,000 click-throughs to their website and a 40% increase in searches on its ‘Find a Solicitor’ database.  On the face of it, this is quite a result, but I’ve had a look at Find a Solicitor and it’s little better than the Yellow Pages (if you’re old enough to know what that is..).  Without customer feedback or complaints information, getting a long list of solicitors is next to useless (for more on my views about this, see my blog about the Solicitors from Hell website here).

Which is where Rocket Lawyer comes in. I’ve had a look at their website and even registered on it (I pretended to live in Arizona so I could imagine I was sitting by the pool in the sun rather than snuggled up in my loft room as the rain beats down on the skylights).  Generally I don’t like making such an overt plug, but I love it.

It’s exactly what an online legal service should be – it’s clear and easy to navigate, it has bucket-loads of information and, on the whole, seems to be written in comprehensible English (which is quite a feat given, at the moment, it’s just an American site).  There’s even a nifty little section with tips on working with a lawyer (I would make this available as a checklist to take to the solicitor’s office – that would put the wind up them).

I am particularly excited (yes, genuinely) by the ‘legal health check’ as this taps into what, à la Richard Susskind, I have been banging on about for ages:  the latent demand for legal services.  As reported on Legal Futures last week, founder Charley Moore argued that services such as Rocket Lawyer expand the market for legal services, rather than compete with lawyers, by making them more accessible, citing as an example that, as in the UK, less than half Americans have a will.

This latent demand is something traditional lawyers, on the whole, have failed to address.  This is partly because individuals might not think they have a legal problem:   research published last year by the Legal Services Research Centre found such issues included faulty goods and services, noisy neighbours, benefits, children’s education and homelessness.   But it is also because your average high-street solicitor doesn’t take a ‘holistic’ approach to the law.

This is where Rocket Lawyer really comes into its own.  When you register, it asks about your lifestyle – work, home and family – and makes recommendations for legal services based on your answers.  Alternative business structures, and the multi-disciplinary partnerships they will enable, are all about this ‘lifestyle’ approach, enabling consumers to purchase packages of legal services at certain points in their life – getting married, buying a house, having children, retiring etc.  This not only makes more sense for the consumer but taps into that lucrative ‘latent demand’. This is surely how legal services should be delivered in future, whether online or by more traditional means

So back to that advertising campaign.  The problem is that it fails to acknowledge any of these developments.  It may well encourage someone already looking for a solicitor to go to the Society’s website and use Find a Solicitor.  But it is still harping back to the ‘good old days’, when solicitors were learned men in stripy suits and bowler hats sitting behind mounds of dusty books.  What we are approaching now is beyond Tesco law and buying legal services like a tin of beans.  Whether the Law Society and the firms it represents like it or not, we are approaching the age of Google Law and nothing will ever be the same again.

Can a leopard change its spots (and, more importantly, will we believe it if it does)?

Yesterday, as I sat in a planning meeting for the Sound off for Justice campaign, I became quite depressed that, for all its boldness and ingenuity in fighting legal aid cuts, the Law Society was probably going to fail.  More depressing still, while a major reason is undoubtedly an intransigent government hell bent on cutting at all costs, part of this failure will be because it is being led by the Law Society.

I haven’t gone native, but I’ll put my hands up and say I’ve been very impressed with Sound off for Justice, and the Law Society now feels a million miles from the organisation I’ve spent years berating for its protectionism and failure to embrace change. The problem is that the general public probably don’t believe that the Society is doing it ‘because it is the right thing to do’ and see Sound off for Justice as driven by self interest.    

This bothers me.  Why don’t people see that access to justice is as important as access to healthcare or education?  Although the Legal Aid and Legal Advice Act of 1949 didn’t set up a national legal service, it did recognise that equality of access and the right to representation before the law was fundamental to a just society.  I guess many think legal aid is something for ‘benefit scroungers’ and other ne’er do wells. that if they don’t break the law and keep their heads down they’ll be ok. 

But it doesn’t take much to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and suddenly find you need legal assistance.  The government has said it has no intention of removing the right to police station advice, but has, worryingly, left the provision in the justice bill.

And it doesn’t take much to become a victim of clinical negligence – it happens to one in ten people who undergo treatment in hospital.  You won’t get legal aid, so without a stash of cash you won’t get justice. 

It also doesn’t take much, if you are one of the thousands who’ve lost their job, to find yourself at the wrong end of a repossession order.  You will get legal aid if you are about to be made homeless, but then it’s probably too late.

Then there’s the ‘legal aid fat cats’, those criminal legal aid barristers raking it in.  One of them is David Cameron’s brother, who was paid over £1.13m in legal aid fees over the last decade.  Another is the brother of Justice minister Crispin Blunt, who took an almost unbelievable £5.86m over the same period.  This diverts the public’s attention from those at the sharp end of civil legal aid who probably earn less than me (and, arguably, I’m not doing anything particularly useful).

Sound off for Justice rightly targeted decision-makers rather than the mass general public.  But with ministers failing to respond, maybe now it’s time to garner more public support.  The 26,000 signed up to the campaign is a start, but far more are needed if Tory MPs (and, let’s face it, it is Tory MPs) are going to start worrying that cutting legal aid is a vote loser. 

Despite being a campaign genius (my own words) I don’t know how they’ll do  this.  Never mind ‘giving’ fatigue, I fear we are entering a period of ‘campaign’ fatigue, or frankly just general fatigue at trying to keep all the plates spinning, as jobs are lost, services slashed and prices rise.  If people are targeting their efforts, they are probably not going to choose a campaign run by lawyers for the benefit of other lawyers, even if it’s not primarily lawyers who will suffer.  I understand this.  But it will be the most vulnerable in society who lose out, and don’t forget, that could be you.