The Grand Delusion revisited

In 2012, I published a post about the ‘grand delusion’ that all is well in the land of law.  Earlier this week, an experience was shared with me that provided a vivid reminder of it.

Let me relay a story of a lady who wished to engage a firm of lawyers in December 2015.  She was enquiring on behalf of a group of people who wished to invest in freehold property, as well as set up a management company.  The value of the real estate involved would be about £3 million.  For most small and medium-sized law firms, the legal fees involved (and the prospect of continuing work) are probably not to be sniffed at.

The lady concerned decided to approach a law firm in her local high street – partly for the convenience of proximity and partly to support a local business.  Here’s what happened:

  • Although the firm fronts on to the high street, the entrance for clients is not on the high street, but at the back of the building.
  • The ground-floor entrance door is always locked and must be opened by someone inside.
  • Entry is not possible at all during lunchtimes (or, for that matter, at any time over a weekend), so a second visit was necessary.
  • The potential client could not see a lawyer for a brief initial consultation (perhaps not unreasonable without a prior appointment), so had to leave a reasonably detailed message with the receptionist.
  • She was promised a call …
  • … and, two weeks later, is still waiting for that call.

When recounting her story to her fellow investors, their reactions included assertions that, “they would probably charge £500 an hour”, and “they will no doubt be closed for two weeks over Christmas and the New Year while they go sunning themselves”.  These views (also known as reputation) were not of course founded on anything the firm had actually said to anyone.

I wish this tale were the product of my over-active imagination.  But it isn’t.

So the impression given to an initially favourably disposed potential client was a mixture of:

  • we are too busy to be bothered with you
  • you are not important enough to us to merit further contact
  • our receptionist is incompetent and didn’t pass your enquiry on
  • our receptionist is efficient, did pass the message on, but our lawyers are hopeless and no good at returning calls
  • while we are located on a high street, we are not really interested in local work
  • in fact, we’re not really a service business at all
  • so, if we’re this good at trying to impress you in order to get your business, just imagine what we’ll be like when you’ve instructed us.

Not surprisingly, the lady’s reaction has been that “If they can’t be bothered with me, I’m certainly not going to chase them”.  In any event, the only conclusion can be that here is a firm that doesn’t care enough about potential new work or its local reputation to organise itself in such a way as to capitalise on opportunities that, literally, knock on the door.

Really?  In 2015?

In the past ten years, we have experienced a long and deep recession, and regulatory liberalisation designed to increase competition.  We have seen law firms (large and small) go to the wall.  We have heard the solicitors’ profession and its representative body bewailing the state of the economy, changes to personal injury litigation and legal aid cuts, and their dire effects on legal practice and access to legal services.  At the same time, they have been extolling the virtues of qualified and high-quality legal advice and representation of the type (in their view) best – or only – delivered by solicitors.

If the market for legal services is still capable of sustaining law firms that behave in the way described here, where this is the manifestation of ‘qualified and high-quality legal advice and representation’, where competition is still too weak to drive a better quality of service, and where law firms obviously do not believe that they are in business, then the Clementi reforms and the regulatory settlement of the Legal Services Act 2007 clearly do need the review that the Lord Chancellor has promised.

How bitterly disappointing that some firms are still too grand or too deluded to align themselves with the economic and market realities of the 21st century.  What a crying shame that barriers to entry and exit in the legal services market sustain such poor consumer experiences, and that so few consumers agitate for something better.

4 thoughts on “The Grand Delusion revisited

  1. Pingback: It’s the 2016 predictions mashup special | thelegalbratblawg

  2. It’s a sad story Stephen, and the firm’s behaviour is inexcusable, but in a profession of many thousands of law firms, it would be remarkable if this kind of thing didn’t happen, in just the same way that there are terrible doctors, accountants and so on ad infinitum. Including consultants!

    Whether it tells a general truth about the profession is a different matter. There’s plenty of room still for improvement, and zero grounds for complacency, but I think most observers would say that for every example of poor service, there are many other firms doing their level best to deliver excellence, and the general level is significantly better than it was in the good old, bad old days. As for consumers not agitating, I think a day or two spent at the coalface might change your view! The lady you mention and her colleagues seem untypically tolerant.

    Even great firms screw up. One has no idea whether this experience is typical of the firm, or a bad lapse, or of its financial performance.

    Can I just say that I thought your 2012 article was a terrific piece of work.

    Best wishes for the festive season.

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