In this article, Andrew Thornton Q.C. looks at the emergence of digital platforms offering legal services to SMEs and individuals and considers how the Bar might exploit the opportunities they bring.
The Bar’s traditional types and sources of work
The types and sources of work available to the Bar remain largely undisrupted by the recent boom in legal tech.
Some work is now performed differently as a result of general technological developments and Covid-19 has certainly accelerated the use of digital hearings, but members of the Bar still tend to ply their trade offering the same services as always: advocacy, legal and strategic advice and drafting services through law firms and other providers of instructions at scale.
Similarly, most barristers still target their marketing efforts at intermediaries (such as law firms) rather than underlying clients. Direct access work has been introduced but has not yet taken off on a widespread basis. Indeed, the Bar’s task in educating the public of its overall existence is a challenging one (the Bar remaining a relatively small profession).
The growth in legal platforms
The last few years has seen the launch and growth of digital legal platforms seeking to disrupt the existing legal market. US businesses such as RocketLawyer and Legal Zoom have been around for a long time but now compete with a number of more recent entrants including, LawBite, Farillio, SeedLegals, Pocket Law, Farewill and Sparqa Legal.
Although none of the digital platforms yet claim to have attracted millions of users, what has become clear is that blue-chip companies are becoming increasingly prepared to expose these brands to their underlying customers.
Each of the new platforms have signed partnerships with businesses able to introduce their services to tens of thousands of potential clients, whether they be banks, credit card operators, mobile telephone providers or insurance companies. This sector has emerged gradually as blue chips slowly overcome concerns about the risks inherent in being associated with the provision of legal advice. However, the scale of progress made by the new business suggests that properly structured partnerships are now considered an attractive addition to business-to-business and business-to-consumer operators.
The platforms all have distinct models; some provide no more than a way of accessing existing legal providers, some are limited to specific markets, and others more expansive in their ambitions. Others add legal guidance and DIY documents to their offering. When one looks forward five years, it is quite possible to see a world in which every business and every consumer can access legal guidance and basic documents on their phone as part of an offering from one of their existing suppliers and use that platform to find and instruct a legal adviser when required.
Law firms are embracing these models
Law firms have started to recognise the potential of these platforms. Law firms spend significant amounts of resource each year seeking to identify new business; and the emergence of platforms with hundreds of thousands of prospective clients seeking legal assistance provides an obvious source of potential instructions. One only has to look to the real estate portals such as Rightmove and Zoopla to see how businesses and consumers might well access legal services from a centralised platform going forward.
Accordingly, law firms are increasingly offering their services through digital platforms and adapting their offerings to include specific, fixed price commoditised products. Platforms offer legal providers the opportunity to scale offerings in a manner not previously possible. Thus, a law firm offering a shareholders’ agreement or employee handbook at a fixed price can now access an enormous market in one fell swoop.
The opportunity for the Bar
The legal platforms offer an opportunity for the Bar to level-up. The reality is that barristers’ chambers cannot muster the marketing budgets necessary to establish their brands with underlying clients. However, partnering with digital platforms that can offer scaled introductions to potential clients and who require quality partners to whom they can refer users appears to be a win-win for both sides.
I have written before about the obvious benefits for clients accessing the Bar directly, given the higher level of expertise, for a price often lower than charged by a law firm. The challenges remain the same; can members of the Bar offer services directly to clients in a sustained and appropriate way (this may well require changes in attitude and structure) and are barristers willing to look far enough ahead to embrace the undoubted opportunities available to them?
One of the issues that the Bar faces is that it tends not to think on a corporate basis. A law firm, where the structure incentivises all to grow and act collectively, is on the face of it better suited to exploiting these opportunities. The question will be whether the Bar will take the commercial opportunities the digital platforms offer.
Andrew Thornton Q.C. is a barrister at Erskine Chambers and the founder of FromCounsel.com, a provider of corporate law knowledge to over 85% of the 100 leading UK corporate law firms. Andrew is also the founder of Sparqa Legal, one of the emerging SME legal platforms mentioned in this article.