Changes Are Way Whatever

According to Peter Baber, high-profile lawyer protests are unlikely to have much of an impact on the significant changes taking place in legal services.

At the start of this year, the sight of lawyers in wigs holding banners and marching around outside courthouses was enough to get them featured on many news channels come tea time.

The protest, which the Criminal Bar Association carefully described as a “non-attendance” rather than a strike, was part of ongoing protests against the government’s plans to cut the Legal Aid budget by up to £220 million.

The main concern about the cuts is how they will affect ordinary people who cannot afford their own lawyer’s chances of being fairly represented in 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.

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“The Co-operative launched into legal services in a big way a couple of years ago,” he says, “and despite the difficulties it has had with its banking division, it is still making headway.” These large organisations have the ability to effectively buy market share.”

Furthermore, he claims that the recent economic downturn has made the astute construction company director that much more astute, and more aware of where they can go to get free or very low-cost legal advice.

“Construction managers typically deal with legal issues in one of three ways,” he says. “They bury their heads in the sand and hope the problem goes away, or they have someone in-house with 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 legal advice for the National Federation of Builders’ legal advice helpline. Certainly, Sameena Thompson, the NFB’s external affairs director, says she doesn’t see legal aid changes affecting her members because so many of them call the helpline.

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The Federation of Master Builders (FMB), which provides a similar legal helpline service with other specialist lawyers, has a similar storey. Phil Parkinson, the FMB’s northern director, believes his members are perfectly content to use the helpline. “In general, the type of high street lawyer affected by these changes would probably not be offering the kind of specialist advice that our helpline offers,” he says.

They wouldn’t, Blake concludes, and such lawyers may already be hard to come by.

“New thinking in how businesses are bought and sold is now really dictating purchasing decisions for legal services,” he says. “I’m not saying everyone is going to Clifford Chance, but online services are becoming more prevalent.”

He cites the Quality Solicitors Group as an example, a 2008 online service that aims to become a “internet-based alliance of independent law firms,” according to its own website.

So, in the legal profession, personality no longer matters? “No, your personal profile is still important,” Blake says, “but unless you are truly exceptional, you can’t expect that to be enough on its own.” You must have the power behind you. The chances of Peter Blake establishing himself in a market town, as the character played by Stephen Fry did in the TV series ‘Kingdom’ a few years ago, are slim. That is no longer how the market operates.”

Last Updated on December 30, 2021


Author: Indra Gupta

Indra is an in-house writer with a love of Newcastle United and all things sustainable.

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