High profile protests by lawyers are unlikely to make much difference to the big changes going on in legal services, says Peter Baber
The sight of lawyers in their wigs holding up banners and marching around outside court houses at the beginning of this year was enough to have them featured on many news channels come tea time.
The protest – described carefully by the Criminal Bar Association as a “non-attendance” rather than a strike – was all part of ongoing protests against the government’s plans to cut the Legal Aid budget by as much as £220m.
The main concern about the cuts is the effect they will have on the chances of ordinary people who cannot afford their own lawyer to be fairly represented should they ever be up before a criminal court.
But many lawyers also claim there is a wider issue about what the cuts may do to the legions of smaller law firms who have made their living partly on the back of Legal Aid. The argument goes that, if they lose that support, then their very existence may be in jeopardy, and that, in turn, could affect the ready availability of other legal services as well – such as construction and contract law services.
The Law Society itself makes this fairly explicit. A spokesman told B&E: “One of the intentions of the Ministry of Justice’s plans is to bring about a significant reduction in the number of firms doing criminal legal aid work. The consequences for mixed practices that have to close their criminal departments are difficult to gauge. There is a risk that local communities will lose other legal services if such firms find they are unable to remain in business.”
But is this really likely to happen? Will construction companies really find their access to cost-effective legal services hampered in the future?
Not everyone is so sure. The cuts to Legal Aid are coming against a wider backdrop of deregulation in the legal services industry anyway.
The process was initially crudely described as “Tesco Law”. That’s a crude description, perhaps, as at least for the moment you cannot pick up your completed contract documentation along with your loyalty points at the checkout.
But Peter Blake, a partner in the construction team at East Anglia-based law firm Prettys, says changes are definitely coming.
“The Co-operative launched into legal services in a big way a couple of years ago,” he says, “and although it has been having with its banking division, it is still making headway. These kinds of large organisation can really come in and effectively buy market share.”
On top of that, he says, the past few years of economic downturn have made the canny construction company director that bit more wily, and more aware of where they can go to get free, or very low-cost legal advice.
“Construction managers usually handle legal problems in one of three ways,” he says. “They bury their heads in the sand and hope the problem will go away, or they have someone in-house who may have some legal training and use them, or they go through a legal helpline and seek a specialist legal adviser through that method.”
He should know – his firm, along with Freeth Cartwright, provides the legal advice behind the National Federation of Builder’s legal advice helpline. Certainly Sameena Thompson, the NFB’s external affairs director, says she doesn’t see her members being affected by legal aid changes because so many of them use the helpline.
It’s a similar story at the Federation of Master Builders (FMB), which offers a similar legal helpline service with other specialist lawyers. Phil Parkinson, the FMB’s director for the north, says he also thinks his members are perfectly happy using the helpline. “Generally speaking, the kind of high street lawyer affected by these changes probably wouldn’t be offering the kind of specialist advice that our helpline offers,” he says.
They wouldn’t, says Blake summing up, and such lawyers might already be thin on the ground anyway.
“Purchasing decisions for legal services are nowadays really being dictated to by new thinking in how businesses are bought and sold,” he says. “I am not saying everyone is going to the likes of Clifford Chance, but online services are certainly becoming more pervasive.
As an example, he points to the Quality Solicitors Group, an online service launched in 2008 that aims to become an “internet-based alliance of independent law firms”, according to its own website.
So does that mean personality in law now counts for nothing? “No, personal profile is still important,” says Blake, “but unless you are someone truly exceptional you can’t expect that to be enough on its own. You need the power behind you. The chances of Peter Blake being able to set up in a market town – in the way that the character played by Stephen Fry did in the TV series ‘Kingdom’ a few years ago – are small. That is not the way the market works any more.”