There’s a debate raging on the Lawyer’s pages about whether QualitySolicitors will seize market share for its members through a national network of firms signing up to its franchise. Firms that join the network get clients through qualitysolicitors website, they get to call themselves QualitySolicitors [Richard Moorhead and Co] and they get the benefit of (one suspects considerable) marketing. On one level this kind of thing is probably the way of the future and we should all get used to it. I’ve got a lot of sympathy for firms that sign up and also some admiration for QS in seizing the initiative (as well as designing a very pretty site). There’s is one of a number of interesting approaches to protecting the interests of existing firms whilst seeking to seize the advantage of a collective national identity.
Whilst many of those on the lawyer pages want to comment on the perceived merits of the name, it is the underlying shift in influence on legal services that is more important. The most astute comment (for me) on the Lawyer site is this one from Richard Atkinson:
“The discussion about their choice of name totally misses the point in my view. They could be called pretty much anything (and I’m with the posters above – I don’t like ‘QualitySolicitors’ particularly) but if there’s enough branches to make them visible across the country they’ll undoubtedly have a huge impact. The market is so fragmented and the general public so lost when it comes to choosing a law firm that a single, national, recognisable brand (whatever it is) with branches in most towns and cities will be hugely attractive to consumers in my view. I think it will take them longer than they think to achieve the kind of recognition they desire, but this will be a major player in years to come in the legal market.”
There has to be a lot in this comment. Branding may well work either nationally or regionally as a commercial strategy. The public interest question, though, is rather different from the branding question. The public interest question is whether such networks promote price competition and promote quality. On that there has to be more doubt and that doubt may yet be relevant to the success of the brand. At the moment, the quality claims made by the franchise’s site are both modest (in their specifics) and yet hyperbolic in their atmospherics. For instance in their ‘promise to you’ section they claim
“QualitySolicitors do things differently to typical law firms. We don’t just say that we look after you, we do it. We don’t just promise to be “client focused”, we make real promises about the things that really matter to you. So relax, safe in the knowledge that with QualitySolicitors you’ll be getting a 5-star service throughout your legal matter.”
What, for instance, does a five star service mean? The specific promises are rather more mundane:
- no hidden costs is something which the SRAs rules should guarantee anyway.
- Direct lawyer contact. Well this is something which is likely to be provided by most firms, particularly if one begins to wonder what that means: does it mean solicitor? I’ll venture to suggest not or at least not that the client will wholly or mainly be dealing through a solicitor (say in meetings or on the telephone). It may simply mean there will be direct contact with a fee earner responsible for (all or part) of the client’s case and that the fee-earner might be a paralegal or a solicitor. I have no problem with that position, if that is indeed the position, but I wonder if
- Free consultations (not exactly an innovation but something it is useful to remind the client of)
- Same day response (this may be a distinguishing feature compared to most, or at least some firms, but one is tempted to ask – always, will there always be a same day response? and what is meant by a response? Well let’s hope so).
None of these specifics suggest to me five-star service. They specify the basic characteristics of a decent service but they do not represent a comprehensive definition of excellence. What would be more interesting is to know how QS selects it firms and tests the quality of their firms. Does service simply mean customer care or does it mean technical ability? Is it simply the ability and willingness to meet the service standards implied in the four bullet points above or something more?
Time will tell (or perhaps QS will get in touch and tell me). I suspect that if there are competitor networks they will be pushed towards fixed costs rather than simply transparent costs. An interesting issue will be whether such networks act as price cartels or whether there is competition between members (and/or other networks) on price. I also suspect that simple transparency will not be enough. Any large provider (or network) of legal services that can deliver the bulk of its services via fixed costs stands to gain significant first mover advantage.
The most interesting issue for me is what will happen on quality. There is no indication (that I can see) of how QS ensures that clients help them choose the firms that join their network. Research on client views tends to suggest that clients pretty uniformly rate their firms as high. Put another way, a consumer satisfaction test is not a very discriminating test of a firm’s quality. Firms have to satisfy their clients of course but most manage it pretty well and so would be likely to pass any client satisfaction test. Technical quality is rather different. It is perfectly possible for a client to receive poor quality legal work and yet finish their case satisfied with their lawyer.
It might be argued that a concern for technical quality is a concern that should be expressed to the SRA. That’s not an argument that holds much water. QS say this, “We don’t just say that we look after you, we do it.” For me that means they guarantee technical quality. Well the key issue is: how? How do they know? A brand that sells itself as providing five star quality is likely to invite scrutiny and, fairly or unfairly, a share of bad news. This is a weakness of the franchise model: are firms committed enough to each other to deliver genuinely higher quality, is the network strong enough in its vetting and policing requirements to guarantee it, and will anyone be checking them out on quality and service? We’ll see.