A Co-op Divi for Law and Technology?

November 9, 2011

Those of us old enough to remember sticking little slips of paper in dividend books find it hard to grasp the idea that the Co-op can be innovative and a leader in methods of delivery of legal advice. But in October Co-operative Legal Services won the Legal Industry Pioneer Award from the FT and, while some might say that is like winning the Ryanair customer service award, the signs are that CLS really are going to shake things up. The rumour is that the Co-op is contemplating recruiting 8,000 lawyers, and it has just announced that it is going to create a family law service to supplement its existing probate, employment and personal injury services. Put it all together and that sounds like a game-changer. Many of these lawyers will, it is suggested, be in supermarkets not just on the end of a phone line as most CLS lawyers are, or in bank branches (as in the current CLS pilot scheme). Of course, this is mainly a threat to High Street solicitors dealing with ‘low end work’ . The majority of SCL members practise IT law and they will not be affected; there may come a time when, say, file-sharers under threat of enforcement action turn to their local Co-op for advice but we are a long way off the day that software developers go there for advice on licensing. (I did see a man who looked like Bill Gates at the Calne Co-op recently but he was buying vodka and chicken nuggets so I guess it wasn‘t him.) IT lawyers may be affected by the Legal Services Act by way of alternative business structures, as a result of which niche firms with great reputations in specialist areas like IT law might be offered loads of wonga to beef up and expand, but they needn’t worry about the Co-op.

The importance of this kind of venture (and one assumes that, in the longer term, the Co-op will not be alone) is in another area of SCL interest: the use of technology in the delivery of legal services. There is an obvious point – there is a very big customer for legal software – but I will be very surprised if any of the UK’s specialist suppliers get far in this market. What I would like to see is a change in the nature of the service and the extent to which the traditional model is altered to fully exploit the potential of document creation software and process support software. At present CLS looks to me like a pretty standard ‘crash and consumer law factory’ but the potential for greater outreach could change that.

To take an example with which we are all familiar. My banking service is now transformed from the service that I had when I started in business – face-to-face transactions have virtually disappeared and even sending payments overseas can be done online. Where once the bank did lots of work and charged me nothing, I now do all the work and they charge me lots. This is the sort of model that the Co-op should aspire to. By placing an emphasis on areas of the law where the client can take direct action under supervision, and training the client to follow the sort of procedures that can be supported by software and online assistance, the Co-op could meet areas of unmet need. It is a bit Susskindesque, but with online support supplemented by occasional visits to the supermarket. I may moan about my bank (and I do) but I do find it reassuring that there is a local presence available if I need it. Clearly, where legal advice is sought, the need for reassurance is stronger and access to a local, unintimidating source of advice will promote confidence.

The development of tools such as the Probate Wizard, covered recently {on this site: http://www.scl.org/site.aspx?i=ed22976}, and the more sophisticated document creation tools are key here. I am not sure that the fact that the Co-op is beginning its expansion with a family law service suggests that they are looking to reduce the amount of ‘hands-on’ time to a minimum – that can be an area of practice filled with blood, spit and tears , but even in that field there are some opportunities for the exploitation of IT. There is a clear unmet need for cohabitation agreements and low cost pre-nups might well become increasingly fashionable; both areas could work well with document creation tools or slightly more sophisticated systems of the kind that CLS no doubt already uses in will preparation and the like. If the Co-op’s strategists have any sense, as they expand they will focus more closely on the areas where IT support can transform the transaction and put as much emphasis on proprietary legal information engineering as on the actual provision of the service. Perhaps they will look to work in partnership with LexisNexis or others to do this.

I do believe that there is a great deal of unmet need for legal services and that the Co-op and their ilk can be wonderfully placed to satisfy it. But it has to be done right and it has to be with technology at the forefront of the strategic thinking – designed in from the word go.

If the Co-op try and place the emphasis on their other traditional strength, in the undertaking industry (where personal service is at a premium but is supplemented by the sale of grossly over-priced extras), that will be their funeral because they may find it difficult to make legal service provision pay.