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Back in March we reviewed the top US law firms, by brand, using the Acritas US law firm brand index.  At the time we commented that their focus seemed to be clearly towards international growth and development.  And it’s a theme that many experts seem to be pushing, in particular David Blat, talking about how law firms must get big or go bust… But here at Elephant Creative towers we’ve been pondering this.

You see, we’re huge fans of high street firms and we have a feeling that, contrary to belief, their days do not, actually, need to be numbered… as long as they are prepared to reconsider what the high street means in today’s market place.

Once upon a time firms were set up and grown by single individuals, living and working within spitting distance of their office.  We heard stories of firms bombed out during WWII and setting up in the local hotel and were even writing about one the other day.  Times have changed and the methods of delivering legal services have moved with them… The Legal Services Report Part 1 clearly showed a drop in the numbers of people using traditional law firms for conveyancing, divorce and will-writing but Part 2 talked about the specific role of the high street firm and areas of possible growth.  Although times are tight the high street practices seem to be hanging on… and perhaps we need to ask ourselves why?

The recent demise of Blakemores (Lawyers2You), however, and the first drop in the number of high street practices, is really a clarion call to the rest of the high street not to sit by and miss a trick.  ABSs have been warned about as a threat, rather than being viewed as a huge, differentiating, juggernaut of an opportunity.

Last month, The Times, picked up the ‘voice-of-doom-mantle’ with a calmly measured article stating ‘traditional solicitors may be consigned to history as customers increasingly seek legal advice via the internet’ .  You see, according to them, all high street lawyers are tweed-wearing, bespectacled crusties… Not so, we cry!  But they were right on one point… traditional lawyers, will be consigned to history.

With flexibility, comes an opportunity.  With the larger law firms focused on international growth, and so many others concentrating on ‘going online’ who is representing the needs of the people who actually want to interact with a ‘real live human being’?  Who is providing a legal service to the people that don’t want Legal Zoom, Rocket Lawyer, or the terrifying Ten Minute Will?  If you want to move house, or write a Will or Lasting Power of Attorney… if you are facing divorce and don’t know where to turn… is Google really the best place for everyone?

The fundamental drivers that cause clients to pick one firm over another have not really changed.  Clients want to feel that they are in the hands of an expert, yes, but really they take it for granted that their lawyer knows their stuff.  What they really want is to know they can trust someone, work with them and afford them.  The recent FT/MPF/Meridian West 2012 survey went into some depth on the client relationship and, as Susan Saltonstall Duncan clearly set out in her review of it, law firms must move from an old model (of fee-earner led, hourly billing) to a client-centric, collaborative, value-based model, if they want to succeed.

This is where the opportunity for the high street firm really lies.  It doesn’t have to be an either/or situation.  Firms shouldn’t be thinking about offering either face-to-face or online.  They should be asking themselves how their clients want to ‘buy’ (yes, that’s right… we actually ‘buy’ and ‘sell’… honestly, we do…) and where.

Having an office that is open, warm and friendly… where you can meet a person to discuss your situation and look at all the options… somewhere that is local to you, that fits in with your hours… that presents common-sense, simple services, at a flexible price you value… that’s the real opportunity.  No matter how many people want to ‘do it online’, there will always be others that don’t.  So don’t throw the baby out with the bath water and forget them.

Our top tips for high street firms:

  1. Consider how you charge – It should be focused on what people think you’re worth, not how many six-minute increments you’ve racked up.
  2. Your shop front is your best asset – How easy do you make it for people to drop in and speak to your experts?  Is it welcoming?  Are people available?  Being blunt… are you the impulse buys by the till or the dusty old box of Christmas decorations at the back of the store?
  3. Are you actually open – Believe it or not we still come across firms that shut for lunch, that don’t offer before and after hours, or Saturday opening times… that close their accounts over lunch and after 4pm.  Think about when people want to buy and make yourself as convenient as the Internet.
  4. How are you communicating – If you’re selling to real people, there is no excuse for not speaking like one.  Think about your language and what you’re talking about… how about calling it Probate Disputes, rather than Contentious Probate?
  5. What do people want – Don’t hide behind a misguided belief that you’re a commercial firm if you’re doing 75% of your work in Divorce.  Work out what people want and shout it from the rooftop.
  6. Sell your best asset – That’s your people.  Don’t stress about selling legal services, communicate your locality, personality and people.
  7. Back to basics – It’s all well and good racking up the pounds on advertising in the local rag but if you’re promoting a local, friendly, personality-practice you have to get all your fee-earners off their bottoms and out there talking to people… that means walking round the area, meeting the shop-owners and talking to the public.
  8. Go to them – Don’t always rely on people to come to you.  Surgeries for Will-writing and other legal matters work well in partnership with local employers.  Consider businesses you can approach to run lunchtime sessions from their offices.
  9. It isn’t either/or – Just because you’re doing all of the above, don’t forget that online can be a great source of traffic.  You don’t have to sell Wills online and compromise your personal approach, though.  Provide the tools to help make things easier (forms to fill in and upload documents, which you digest and then call the client back).
  10. Get your head out of the stand – We’ve seen enough firms fail to know that plugging away at the same old, same old isn’t going to work for longer.  Be bold, be imaginative and be aware that for the first time in a long while, offering a personal, high-street service is actually a new and unique way of doing things.