Despite having worked in London for years, I had never until this week stepped inside the Chancery Lane headquarters of the Law Society – a magnificent example of a building whose architecture reflects the confidence of the Victorian age and indeed of the profession itself in that era.
But the building seems to be coping with the passing of the years rather better than some parts of the profession. The public perception – or certainly my perception – of solicitors is that they are more of less guaranteed a fairly comfortable life in return for spending a lot of time being rather bored. But half an hour spent listening to Law Society chief executive Des Hudson painted a different picture – of a profession that, if not yet overwhelmed by financial pressures, seems to face tough times ahead. He told his audience that “survival is not compulsory”.
The challenges come from several directions. The bread-and-butter business of household conveyancing is draining away as more estate agents, building societies and banks offer to do the legal side of housebuying for far less money. Changes in the law are making it easier for accounting practices and others to offer legal services on the side. Ambulance chasers and claims handlers are generating a lot of business but little of it goes through traditional channels. The potential of technology eating the lawyers’ lunch is shown by the dispute resolution site on eBay, which resolves 60m complaints a year. On the criminal side, the cuts to legal aid budgets have hit hard.
The core challenge is that the Government believes more competition would be better for consumers, and is determined to deliver it. Mr Hudson fears the pain this will inflict on his profession is equivalent to that faced by opticians following the liberalisation of that market in 1985. When that happened, independent opticians controlled 65 per cent of the market; today 70 per cent of what a significantly larger market is controlled by national chains. The income of the independents is now just 40 per cent of the levels before deregulation.
The customer is getting a better deal but the opticians have paid a high price, and their business has changed out of recognition. The warning from Mr Hudson is that solicitors face similar pressures and will need to work hard to avoid a similar fate.