Law Society strategy 2015-18: Lots of objectives but little substance

If I was one of the numerous members and stakeholders that the Law Society consulted in the run up to the launch of its new 2015-2018 strategy this week, I think I might feel a bit cheated.

The overarching strategy, unveiled yesterday (16 November) is to represent, promote and support solicitors in providing legal advice, ensuring justice for all and upholding the rule of law.

Call me old fashioned, but I thought a strategy was supposed to be forward looking and I’m pretty sure that the Law Society was always supposed to represent, promote and support solicitors.

Of course the strategy must fall within the Law Society’s remit and wider objectives and there is nothing wrong with a bit of clarification over what those are. But looking at the finer detail of the strategy report, it provides little clarification as to how those objectives will be achieved.

‘Representing’ solicitors means being recognised as the authoritative and knowledgeable voice of solicitors and the legal profession, seeking to “ensure that we are listened to by governments” and raising awareness of the role of solicitors.

‘Promoting’ solicitors means celebrating what it means to be a solicitor and, well, promoting the benefits of using solicitors to the public and to business.

The strategy, which is the result of research including conversations with members; round table discussions and one-to-one interviews; meetings with committee, section and division chairs; and engagement with government and legal regulators, says: “We will positively differentiate solicitors from other providers of legal services, whether the services are provided by a law firm or through a solicitor working in-house.” It’s not clear where that leaves alternative business structures licensed by the Solicitors Regulation Authority, although the Law Society makes plain at the start of the report that ABSs fall within its stable.

‘Supporting’ solicitors means identifying issues and market trends that may affect them and helping them to prepare for the future. This means focussing on education and training, helping members to expand internationally and identifying domestic opportunities and targeting information products and services where they are most needed.

As to how the Law Society will measure its success, that will be by “having detailed outcomes and measures for the next three years, and holding ourselves to account against these.” How the body actually achieves its outcomes we are so far none the wiser, but the Law Society hopes that having these broad objectives will help it achieve consistency and focus at a macro level while making micro decisions.

Of interest to many will be the Law Society’s identification of the key drivers of change in the legal services market, which include global and national economic business environments and technology and process innovation (see below for the full list.)

In a separate report, the Law Society sets out how it will deliver its strategy over the next three years, which is full of similarly high level ambitions – just more of them – within the body’s three aims to represent, promote and support solicitors.

Of most interest is the fact that the Law Society says it will make its ‘products and services’ increasingly relevant and accessible by creating a business development strategy to design high quality and innovative products and services. It will also be “developing commercial products and services that generate income enabling us to invest more in our members and ensure we build a strong financial platform.” One of its income generating products is conveyancing website Veyo, which is so far yet to get off the ground.

Other ambitions include supporting members by undertaking and publishing “robust research, which informs and enables the development of relevant products, services and support for our members.”

The Law Society, which is reviewing its governance arrangements as part of its new strategy, will be undertaking market research and providing opportunities for strategic thought leadership to help solicitors plan for the future. In many ways it is a shame that the body, which has over the past year to 18 months been shaken to the core by criticisms from the publicly funded bar over its handling of legal aid cuts, did not include more of the substance of its own market research in putting together the report.

The report adds: “We will be developing our IT and digital strategies and our knowledge management approach to underpin our work.” Part of that will include developing a digital strategy to engage effectively with members, including using social media.

It will also be developing its library services by “expanding reach and using digitalisation to improve access.”

It is reassuring that the Law Society recognises the need to have an up-to-date IT and digital strategy, given the pace of change and the feeling of lack of clarity among many law firm IT directors in the face of outcomes focussed regulation.

The question will be, much as with the Law Society’s other ambitions, how it reaches that strategy and whether the strategy has teeth.


Legal services in 2020

 We have identified key drivers of change in the legal services market which are:

• Global and national economic business environments.

• How clients buy legal services (including in-house solicitor buyers as well as small and medium sized businesses and the public).

• Technology and process innovation.

• New entrants and types of competition.

• Political policy agendas around the principles of access to justice and the provision of affordable legal services.

• Policy agendas around the regulation of legal services.

The combined impact of these forces is likely to lead to a legal profession where:

• The gap between successful and struggling firms widens further – leading to more consolidation, and at a faster rate.

• The globalisation of business activities remains a key feature for the Top 200, City, and large corporate firms. For these firms, emerging players such as China will have an impact.

• In-house departments are providing legal support to all aspects of the business and demonstrating the value of that support. This is a break from the past when the in-house legal department was often viewed as a separate, isolated team.

• The expansion of in-house employer businesses on a global scale leads to a further fragmentation of legal departments.

This creates its own challenges, but also helps fully integrate in-house counsel across the business.

• The ageing solicitor population means greater numbers of small and medium consumer market firms are likely to face problems around closure or funding run-off insurance cover.

• Solicitor firms in the consumer market experience the squeeze from a mix of funding cuts, process automation and cheaper volume providers, again resulting in increased consolidation.

• The specialisation of work continues, in attempts to carve out profitable niches.

• Digital change continues to pervade legal services and everyday life. Digital infrastructure will increasingly improve performance across business-to-business and business-to consumer markets.

•There is a growing sophistication in the use of artificial intelligence to read contracts and other legal documents, with potential for machines to render judgment on formulaic cases.

• There is greater flexibility of work and employment contracts in response to the need to adapt to market volatility affecting all, from solicitors to paralegals and support teams.

• An hourglass shaped employment market develops, with increasing competition faced by lower skilled workers and specialists/senior staff, and the hollowing out of the middle of the workforce.

• The number of diverse business models increases, funded through external investment and using capital to drive innovation in service delivery.