Tuesday, January 03, 2012

The ABS Race is On!...Almost...


(thanks to Rocking Horse Works)

Today's the day the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) belatedly began accepting applications from those who want to become Alternative Business Structures. It was meant to be last October 6, but the SRA hadn't quite got to the cantering stage then. Now it's trotting along.

According to Legal Week there have been 15 licence applications including Irwin Mitchell, which wants to take external investment, and Cooperative Legal Services which wants to integrate its legal practice under the Coop umbrella.

About 10 applicants are serious and although the process can take 6 months some applications will be processed earlier. The SRA says it will be rigorous
"For example, we'll be asking for the employment history of everyone going back five years - we need to have detailed information relating to those who want to be regulated by us."
Others for ABS conversion may be Claims Direct, a claims management firm on a no win-no fee basis, which is owned by Russell Jones & Walker.  And Solicitors Journal says
Other likely contenders include LEGAL365, the legal business set up by Freeserve founder Ajaz Ahmed with law firm Last Cawthra Feather, and In-Deed, the conveyancing service set up by Rightmove founder Harry Hill, who revealed last month that he would be buying up law firms.
Both LEGAL365 and In-Deed are online legal services providers and this form makes perfect sense. It will be interesting to see if other online providers, eg, Legal Zoom or Epoq Legal, move this way.

Well, it has been a slow start. Unlike the Big Bang of 1980s financial services, no equivalent explosion has occurred in legal services. In fact it has been rather a damp squib which has the potential to become a sparkler that might graduate to a firework bang in the future. 2012 should give us the picture.

What won't be clear is the effect on the delivery of legal services. Most analysis, for example that by Susskind, focuses on what lawyers will do or won't do. It doesn't say much about access to justice and whether we can look for an increase in legal services. One of the questions here is the carving out of the market with the potential that many might not get access to legal services, for example, those on benefits or unemployed.

I have not yet seen anything about say the pro bono commitments of ABS. Now there is a difference between corporate social responsibility and pro bono, although many lawyers confuse the two. But there is no reason why good CSR policies can't include commitments to pro bono. I hope so.

This is terrifically hard to do as the Kutak Commission on legal ethics in the US in the 1980s found when it proposed a mandatory 40 hour per year pro bono commitment. Outrage and uproar. It never happened.

Perhaps what we need is a pro bono index like a stock market index so we can track pro bono and share prices. Who knows, there could even be a healthy correlation, dare I even say causal link... OK, that's pushing it too far.


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