The Co-operative Legal Services ABS

Introduction from Delia Venables:

The Co-operative Legal Services is already a major player in the legal services market, operating out of Bristol and employing around 450 staff.

In March 2012 it was the first major consumer brand to be granted ABS status under the new Legal Services Act, allowing it to offer a range of consumer legal services previously only available from private solicitors. Now it has announced that it will open five additional regional hubs across England and Wales over the next 5 years and set up a new family law operation in London later this year. The expansion will create 3,000 jobs in the legal sector.

As well as family law, it will offer a comprehensive range of consumer services including will writing, probate and estates, conveyancing, personal injury, family and employment law services, provided either via telephone service, the web or face-to face.

I asked Christina Blacklaws, Director of Family Law, to tell us what the Co-op is doing and how the plans are developing. She writes:

The Co-operative’s promise is to be “good for everyone” and this is a theme which is at the heart of what we aim to do in legal services. It informs our thinking about every aspect of our business and how we deliver it.

These are still early days in developing our proposition post-ABS. However, we have been exceptionally busy in the last year putting together a plan to bring a very different type of service to consumers.

We aim to serve a very wide range of client groups, providing a transparent, value for money offering and transparent pricing. Our family law service will begin full operation in summer 2012 and will offer legal aid in addition to the full range of fixed price services which we are developing.

The arrival of the new ABS businesses will undoubtedly have an effect on the consumer legal market over the next few years. However, it is unlikely to be an overnight change, as large scale businesses take time to build and require both considerable investment and detailed planning.

Developing the new services

Technology, of course, will underpin everything which we do. In starting a new division from scratch, we can purpose-build a system which enables our lawyers to have available all the research resources they need as well as taking advantage of automation for routine administration. All this translates into lower operating costs and more time to devote to client service. We want to offer our services in a way which people find more approachable and flexible. In our Family Law section, for example, our whole approach underlines the fact that we want to work with couples to find their own solutions, in a co-operative and collaborative manner. This entails giving people the right advice and assisting them, so that when our role is over, they find they still retain a working relationship with the other party, which is so essential when children are concerned.

Giving that advice requires skill and experience. The majority of our staff are qualified lawyers, and our recruitment includes people of considerable professional standing who feel that what we are proposing sits well not only with their own ethics but also their personal and professional ambitions.

We have carried out extensive research on every aspect of our marketing and service planning, and we will continue to learn as we begin our delivery. We have made the decision to base our first family law operating unit in London but this is likely to be followed by additional hubs in the south and north of the country. Our aim, from the outset, is to provide a national delivery, across England and Wales.

Changes in delivery

We know from our research that the way people buy services is changing, and that the market share of online purchases is rising rapidly. What consumers want is fairly priced, dependable services which they can trust. We know that we can’t just rely on a name which consumers may be familiar with: instead, we have to provide services which deliver what they promise. We have to understand what their needs are, how we can address these and how we can deliver them in a way which is affordable and convenient. That means using technology in a way which consumers feel comfortable with and our development will be incremental in this regard, learning from what works for our clients and what they find themselves most at ease with.

Whilst we are fortunate to be backed by a major consumer brand, we also have to have a convincing case for our investment. To that extent, we have the same drivers as any other legal practice and our expansion will be phased, to enable us to assess what we are doing and ensure we keep delivering the highest quality. We know that everything we do will be under a very public spotlight, and also we have to support and enhance the reputation of the brand.

We also know that the market itself will change over the next few years: some of these changes will arise from consumer choices but others may be legislative. Our business model needs to be adaptive to any such changes. We hope that our public profile will enable us to contribute to the development of consumer laws so that we can protect the right to access to justice and help avoid unintended consequences from new legislation. Our social role, as an organisation, places us in an almost unique position to do this and we hope to work with other members of the legal profession and other bodies to help achieve this.

Learning from consumers

“Working together” is a concept which is very important to us. It means not only building relationships with other lawyers so that we can help achieve better outcomes for clients but also engaging with the wider community. Our research indicates that many people simply do not access the legal help they need for fear of cost or because they simply find the whole legal system too complex. One of our guiding principles as an organisation is to empower people, and the work we are undertaking in bringing a better understanding of the law will, we hope, extend the opportunity for clients to obtain legal assistance from any provider. There is a strong case for saying that advice early on can help prevent the breakdown of interpersonal relationships when people stop communicating with each other.

In developing our services our aim is to be seen as being different. That difference arises not only from who we are as an organisation but also how we want to learn from consumers about what they want from a service provider. It involves listening to them, analysing their needs and then designing services which provide what they want. There has been a good deal of comment about how we will deliver our services. Much of it is speculation with no basis whatsoever.

However, what appears from some quarters is a focus on protecting a profession, not what is good for the consumer. It is only by understanding and serving the consumer’s needs that a business deserves to grow. We recognise that a service, undertaking complex areas of law needs to be delivered by skilled practitioners. In that sense, it is no different to any other legal practice. What will be different is our scale and the support we have from advanced, bespoke technology.

We know that this has wide appeal to not only consumers but also to the profession. We received over 500 applications for our first recruitment campaign and we have recently announced our intention to recruit a further 3,000 posts over the next five years. That is an ambitious target but we know that the demand is there from the public and also from staff who wish to join us.

An alternative career path

The traditional solicitor model is changing. Pressures arising from the change of scope to legal aid, fee reductions, increasing high-street rent and operating costs have all taken their toll. Conveyancing has been hit by a sharp downturn and PI is beset with its own issues. Young people do not necessarily see themselves as wishing to take on the risks which are inherent in entering partnership or starting their own businesses. There are, of course, exceptionally well run firms who find themselves in different market segments and are not confronted by the same issues as high-street practices. But for the majority, times are challenging. What we will offer is an alternative career path for them: one which offers the ability to fee-earn or manage others. We also hope to extend the availability of training contracts for new entrants to the profession and in many support roles such as IT development, project management and business analysts.

The winds of change are blowing from every direction for the legal profession. By embracing those changes and making our services appropriate for consumers we can all adapt to the future. Ignoring those changes will be at lawyers’ own peril.

Christina Blacklaws is Director of Family Law at The Co-operative Legal Services.