This is an edited version of a contribution to a Resolution conference entitled ‘Changing Practices: unbundling family legal services – getting the service right’ held in London on 28 November. It incorporates some of the insights from discussion.
In June 2014, the Legal Education Foundation published a series of papers on law, technology and access to justice. One considered ‘evolving delivery models – the example of family law’. This conference provides a timely opportunity to look again at the impact of technology on family legal practice in the context of a fast-moving legal services market. In some ways, family practitioners have rather surprisingly dodged a number of bullets – from the loss of legal aid to the advent of unbundling – which might have challenged them more than they have. Complacency would, however, be misguided.
Three years ago, the fortunes of once ambitious Co-operative Legal Services (CLS) had already begun to wane. Set up as an alternative business structure with third party ownership by the Co-operative group, CLS offered an attractive website; a trusted brand (subsequently a little tarnished by corporate failures); a battery of fixed fee packages; and relentless marketing. It very much led on family law with a variety of self-help or assisted packages. For a time, its heavy promotion kept it going but CLS was already making significant losses in 2012. The legal business soon had to be refashioned more as an adjunct to the Co-op’s funeral parlours than a market leader in family law. Around the same time, the star began to wane of the Dutch Rechtwijzer programme which in its second version deployed automated interactive assistance within an ODR package. This had excited a number of governments and organisations around the world. In England and Wales, Relate explored the programme but eventually put it on indefinite postponement. Another failure occurred with the demise, at least temporarily, of the promising Siaro package. This had allowed clients to answer pre-interview questionnaires and prompted lawyers to pick up issues through a visual display. And, in addition to all this, cuts to legal aid led to the withdrawal of legal aid from large areas of private family work. It is all a bit of a wonder but, actually, family practice has continued to survive in much the same form as ever.
Nevertheless, family practitioners have to be prepared for change. At the Legal Futures conference last week, John Llewelyn Lloyd of stockbrokers and investment bankers, Arden Partners, was clear that: ‘Fixed fees and transparent prices will be the norm for all volume/mid market work.’ This is one of the lessons from many of the contributors this afternoon: you have to be ready for fixed fees or, at the very least, transparent prices. I am rather surprised that there is still debate about this.
An increasing proportion of your clients will come to you through the internet. That gives more and more prominence to your website. You need to integrate yourselves as well as you can with the internet communities that are relevant to your concerns. You can also make use of the improved sites that are around which may help your users. For example, the government’s child maintenance site used to be execrable. It has now improved considerably. And, if you want to criticise its tools like the child maintenance calculator why not give some indication of your approach on your site. It shows that you are on the ball.
You may also see advantages in giving initial information and assistance. Artificial Lawyer recently covered a chat bot named Larissa and its site gives a short video on ‘the divorce bot that you can talk to’. Have a look at it. This is a bot, like Alexa or Siri, that answers questions on divorce – in the example for California but it could be anywhere. Have a look also at MyLawBC.com. Its guided pathways give you initial assistance in family cases.
You would probably not want to go to the expense of developing this kind of material yourself. But, you might find that there are sites to which you can link or which – like the first iteration of the Rechtwijzer – you can actually post on your website. Larissa and MyLawBC are both harbingers of a change about to hit the advice world – they deploy information in bit size, interactive pieces in response to prompts. And, like it or not, the bot is going to become more and more prevalent – potentially replacing the app as a favoured way to information. At the moment, bots are barely above the gimmick level but this will change and they will represent a way in which people obtain considerable amounts of information. Watch developments and see what you might be able to apply.
You need technology running through your practice like the words through a stick of rock. Keep an eye out for programmes like Siaro – or Siaro itself if it resurrects – which put the onus on the client to provide information in a structured form. This can significantly bring down cost. It may be that this is taken up as part of your case/client management system. At the very least, operate standard processes and forms throughout the firm even if you do not think you can afford a fully automated case management system (and ask if you can afford not to do so). And, even if you do not use full blown artificial intelligence, get all the data that you can that correlates type of case and client with fees so that you can – at the very least – minimise risk on fixed fees and transparent prices.
There are four elements to a family case and you should excel in all of them – two depend on technology and two on people. First, you have to hook the client and increasingly you need an imaginative website to do that. Look at the competition and beat it. Second, you need a fantastic triage or entry system – which means a fantastic person – who converts queries into clients. Third, you need to give your clients the kind of personal attention that they need at a difficult time of their lives. And, finally, you need procedures for handling their case that are as smooth a silk and which prompt you into deploying the expertise for which you are known. Get all four of these right and then have a look around at who is not so doing well. It could be time to expand.