Today’s dispatch from England & Wales, the world’s legal laboratory, informs us of a new company called Evident Legal that is setting up the latest in a series of law firm franchises. Simplify the Law (STL) aims to create a national network of law firms with between 2 and 20 partners that serve both individual and commercial clients and produce annual revenue of between £2 and £10 million. STL figures there are about 440 firms throughout the UK that fit that definition and that could use the franchise’s help to “stand up against the brand-heavy big hitters,” as the company’s home page puts it. Quality of service and client communication will be STL’s primary selling points to the buying public, while solicitors are offered exclusive territory and marketing and branding support to draw them in.
Simplify The Law joins several other British companies that are setting up chains or franchises of sole practices and small law firms. Quality Solicitors (QS) was one of the first out of the gate — it describes itself as a collection of “the UK’s best law firms who have come together to create a national legal brand with locations nationwide.” Not precisely a franchise, QS already boasts well over 100 firms in its orbit and made a significant breakthrough earlier this year when it signed a deal to open kiosks in 150 WH Smith bookstores throughout Britain (with an eye on an eventual total of 500). These “Legal Access Points” represent a key approach of consumer-oriented franchises: go where the customer is and meet him or her on familiar ground.
Then there’s face2face solicitors (f2f), which specifically self-identifies as a franchise and, like other franchisors, offers small law firms the benefits to match, including IT infrastructure, case management, billing and collections support, time recording, IT backup and disaster recovery, and perhaps most importantly, centralized marketing and branding. f2f essentially promises to relieve franchisees of the burden of running their business so that they can focus on practising law. f2f focuses on smaller firms than STL or QS, targeting those with annual turnover of £1.5 million or less. As an example of the financial arrangements between law firm franchisors and franchisees, firms pay f2f a one-time fee of £25,000 and 8% of their annual income thereafter.
Other franchises like Lawyers2You and High Street Lawyer have already come out, and more will establish themselves in future. They are driven in part by the very difficult economy in the UK, but even more by the advent of Alternative Business Structures and the specter of massive chains like The Co-Operative getting into the consumer legal business through its banks and potentially its supermarkets. (Disclosure note here: STL has received business plan and start-up advice from Chris Bull, a partner of mine in Edge International).
There are at least two likely conclusions we can draw at this stage of the emergence of law firm franchises. The first is that this looks very much like the future of the small and solo law practice. The challenges facing small law firms these days — including downward price pressure, non-lawyer online competition, and the same range of business, technical and regulatory requirements that large firms can tackle with far more resources — will only be exacerbated by the difficult economic decade ahead. More ominously, solos in particular are older than average, are disproportionately based in smaller, stagnating or declining populations, and have few younger practitioners to whom their practices can be passed. New lawyers who might otherwise welcome the chance to hang out a shingle are discouraged by heavy debt loads, a lack of business experience, and the well-known risks of running a small enterprise.
Franchises are in a position to counter many of those concerns. They promise to take away the hassles of billing and marketing and file management. They provide the security of a branded name and logo and the advertising budgets to go with them. In some cases, they even provide training and a degree of knowledge management that all franchisees can take advantage of. Those are the kinds of lifelines that existing practices need and the kind of safety nets that could attract new practitioners by reducing their startup risks. Franchisors figure, probably correctly, that the same lure of reliable, secure, well-known brands can draw not just clients but also lawyers into their orbits.
There are potential downsides, to be sure. One of the reasons that marketing is so important to a law firm is that it forces the lawyer to give some real thought to identifying his or her personal and professional attributes and scanning the marketplace to determine the clients he or she should be targeting; it’s not something to be outsourced lightly. Taking the financial side of a law practice out of a lawyer’s sight can lead to taking it out of the lawyer’s mind; there are great risks to a small business whose owner is too distant and disconnected from cash flow and other daily financial realities. And any lawyer who practises franchise law will tell you that relationships historically between franchisors and franchisees have been, shall we say, a little fraught. But the pros of this sort of arrangement appear to give the cons a good run for their money.
The second observation is that this trend is by no means limited to the UK. The challenges facing solos and small firms in Britain are scarcely different from those bearing down on similar practices in the US, Canada and elsewhere. Solos value their independence, but they also recognize that the flip side of independence is isolation, and they know the harsh reality that if you start to sink, no one’s going to extend a hand to catch you. The benefits of franchising look intriguing no matter which side of the pond you’re standing on. (I recall, back in the mid-1990s, an attempted national law firm franchise called First American Law that wasn’t able to gain traction outside its native Florida; but it might simply have been ahead of its time in both market and, more importantly, technology and connectivity terms.)
Significantly, to my way of thinking, franchises also represent a way to bring in outside non-lawyer support to small firms in North America without running afoul of the rules on non-lawyer ownership of law firms. ABSs are now legal in the UK (although thanks to hangups with certification at the Solicitors Regulation Authority, only one conveyancing firm has so far received ABS approval). ABSs might eventually expand globally enough that US authorities will need to respond; alternatively, the Jacoby & Meyers lawsuit could be the powder keg that blows it all apart. But assuming that non-lawyer ownership restrictions remain in place in the US for the foreseeable future, franchises could be an alternative to outright non-lawyer control that still manages to give small firms an infusion of well-financed professional business support.
I still believe that solos and small firms have a bright future — brighter, in many ways, than most of the national and international giants whose business models are too archaic to survive a new century and too rigid to allow adaptation to new market demands. Small law firms, far more than big ones, can be financially and systematically structured with the kind of client focus that will be required for survival in the years to come. When I speak to law students — as I did again just last week — I advise them to plan their future legal careers as if they’ll be solos, because the skills they’ll acquire in that process will serve them regardess of their eventual work lives, and because it really is pretty great being your own boss.
But increasingly, the future for solos and small firms need not exclusively be the free-wheeling, fully independent entrepreneur of yesterday and today. In the long run, large consumer chains will be allowed to sell at least basic legal services in all major jurisdictions, and the challenges facing solos and small firms at that point will be similar to what your local variety store faced when Wal-Mart moved into town.
A number of small firms — not all, by any means, but more than a mere handful — will become part of a branded chain or franchise with centralized marketing, management and administration. These solos will find themselves in a franchised suburban or shopping center law office, or operating a purely virtual firm from home under a centralized brand. In the new legal marketplace, there will be worse places to wind up.
Jordan Furlong delivers dynamic and thought-provoking presentations to law firms and legal organizations throughout North America on how to survive and profit from the extraordinary changes underway in the legal services marketplace. He is a partner with Edge International and a senior consultant with Stem Legal Web Enterprises.