Published in The Brief of The Times

The Legal Services Act 2007 – which took effect in 2011 – opened the floodgates to allow banks, supermarkets, insurers, accountancy firms, conveyancers and just about any other type of organisation that has the appetite to dabble in the provision of legal services.

The latest organisation to jump on board the legal services bandwagon is the well-known insurance company LV (previously known as Liverpool Victoria) which has teamed up with a national law firm to provide advice on wills, probate, conveyancing, employment law, personal injury and powers of attorney.

LV claims to offer “transparent, fixed prices”. While the advocates of the legislative reforms trumpet benefits for consumers in terms of greater choice and lower legal fees. But is there a price to pay in terms of quality and client experience?

Some non-traditional legal service providers such as Mentor, a subsidiary of the Royal Bank of Scotland, claim to give clients access to expert advice and guidance at any time of day or night, 365 days a year, no matter whether it relates to a complex disciplinary issue or an update on a point of law. Mentor asserts that its services are provided by “qualified, experienced consultants”, a description which in itself is worryingly vague.

Is it really possible to provide competent expert advice of the type promised 24/7 on tap? Will employers facing a sleepless night because of an impending claim be able to contact an adviser at 4 o’clock on a Saturday morning and receive accurate, substantive legal advice?

Clients discuss the most important issues in their lives with their lawyers. For example, in partnership, employment and discrimination law, a close relationship develops between client and solicitor based on trust and experience.

Are non-traditional legal service providers structured to create that relationship and deliver competent, timely advice taking proper account of clients’ needs and circumstances? The key attribute of professionalism is that clients’ interests come first; professional services firms focus on client care and strive to deliver advice with a personal touch.

Banks and insurance companies, on the other hand, tend to have pyramid structures and numerous layers between the person with the relevant expertise and the consumer of their services. Will that corporate structure be applied to their legal services arms to ensure the high levels of client care, personal service and professionalism to which the vast majority of traditional law firm partnerships aspire?

Or will profit margins, return on investment, cash flow and results against key performance indicators take priority for non-traditional suppliers of legal services? And will solicitors be happy to continue banking with RBS and buying insurance from LV – organisations that they now have good reason to perceive as direct competitors in the crowded market for legal services

Ronnie Fox is the founder of Fox, a City of London law firm specialising in employment, partnership and discrimination law; his colleague, Neena Patel, a senior associate, contributed to this article

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