With the swift emergence of ‘virtual law’ and ‘Tesco law’, the legal sector has never been more challenging. But Coodes is fighting back and is set to become the first solicitors firm in Cornwall, if not the south west, to offer an online, fixed price legal service of its own
The traditional legal sector in the UK is going through a period of significant change and upheaval. Never before has it been so competitive.
Much of this is down to deregulation of the marketplace. Previously it was a closed shop, but now the Legal Services Act 2007 permits non-solicitor firms to provide legal services as well, with high street names such as Tesco, Halifax, AXA and the Co-op already marketing their services to the public.
But it is not just from the High Street where fresh competition is emerging. The rise of the internet has also seen a proliferation of ‘virtual firms’ – web-based solicitors who have little or no overheads, employing staff to work from home, offering fixed rate or cut-rate services.
It also now possible to do certain things yourself. You can buy a Wills Pack or Divorce Pack, for instance, from the likes of WH Smith, and fill them in yourself without any contact with a lawyer whatsoever.
While Tesco Law, Virtual Law and Do it Yourself Law will not be for everyone, it is inevitable that they will take marketshare from the traditional market.
For not only are regulations changing, consumer tastes are evolving as well.
An internet generation has grown up, which feels more comfortable buying such services as holidays and insurance online, outside the rigid 9-5 office hours and from the comfort of their own homes. So it is perhaps only natural that this should now progress to legal services.
And to its credit, Cornish law firm Coodes has been quick to identify these threats and react to them, with the launch this month of its own internetbased service – Coodes Direct, which will operate through the recently revamped Coodes.co.uk website.
It will offer two options – fixed price packages and DIY online law. Initially, fixed price law will feature basic, compartmentalised services such as wills, uncontested divorce, debt collection, commercial law, employment etc.
Coodes partner Ian Taylor explains: “While much of the work will be done online, clients will still get to see their lawyer face to face, but all for a fixed price. Part of what puts people off is a fear of the unknown, and lawyers are perceived to hit the meter the moment they walk in. This is all about being transparent with the pricing.”
The second strand to Coodes Direct, DIY Law Online, will involve online document creation which is paid for up front, for such services as wills, powers of attorney, name change etc. As the name suggests, it will not involve any face-toface contact with Coodes but will feature a step-by-step guide and final checking by a Coodes legal expert.
“You can buy a wills pack from WH Smith,” explains Taylor, “write it out, sign it, and just hope you have got it right. With us, you’ll pay up front – a reduced fee on us doing it ourselves – but we’ll review it. Customers will have the assurance of knowing we’ve checked it. If there’s something filled out wrongly, we’ll point that out and suggest how to correct it.”
While Coodes is the first law firm in Cornwall to offer direct legal services via its website, possibly even the first this side of Bristol, it has not always had a reputation for such innovation. It is another example of the many changes that the old law firm – founded in 1747 – has undergone in recent times.
“Until about ten years ago we had no formal management structure at all,” explains Taylor. “But we went through a period of rapid expansion, almost doubling in size, taking on three new offices in Penzance, Launceston and Holsworthy in Devon.
“At that point the partners decided they really needed to run it more like a business. Before that, we didn’t need to try too hard to get the business in, relying almost wholly on repeat business and referrals. So we set up a five-man management board to run the company, freeing up many of the other partners to do what they do best – law.
“It also enabled us to look strategically at the market to see what customers really wanted. For example, much of the idea behind Coodes Direct comes from our marketing manager Suzanne Skerry, a non lawyer who was able to look at the business from a holistic point of view.
“We did a lot of research and one of the things that struck us was that people wanted a better service,” adds Taylor, “a service they could access more easily. We are the longest serving law firm in the county, but it means nothing if we’re not serving our customers’ needs.
“Previously we have had a reputation for being safe, traditional and maybe even pedestrian. We did this exercise a few years ago, and decided we were a five-year old Volvo estate! Does the job, chugs through everything, but not very exciting. And we’re aiming to be to a Range Rover sport, still secure, but a bit more exciting.
“We have to realise that there is a next generation coming along, and we would shrink if we just relied on traditional services.
“In five years time, I believe a lot of commoditised law will be done like this,” Taylor adds. “It’s just that we’ve decided to bite the bullet early. I expect we’ll get a lot of copycats, and that’s fine.”
The advent of Coodes Direct does not, of course, mean it is abandoning its old traditions and values, just embracing modern tastes and innovation as well. “Our strapline is ‘Taking Care of Past, Present and Future’,” says Taylor.
“We very much still do that, we have generations of families still with us, and there are many who wouldn’t touch online law.”
The company has a long proud tradition. With a staff of 130, Coodes operates from six offices in Cornwall – Liskeard, St Austell, Truro, Penzance, Newquay and Launceston, and one in Devon – Holsworthy.
While there is a trend of consolidation in the legal sector at present, there are no plans at Coodes to do the same.
“It is something we have obviously reviewed,” says Taylor, “particularly in the current economic climate, but we believe having seven offices stands us in good stead. All the offices are in the town centre, right in the middle of things. You walk out the door, and you’re immediately networking with the community.
“If there has been any consolidation, it has been of the separate departments. We have built centres of excellence at some of the offices. For example, for criminal law it would be Newquay and Liskeard, for tax and trust work Liskeard, and for commercial law and employment it would be the Truro office, because Truro is the commercial capital of Cornwall.”
Neither does the company have any plans to push further up country either, not in a bricks and mortar sense anyhow.
“Coodes Direct will expand the company nationally and globally,” says Taylor. “We will pitch the prices online competitively with the internet providers, so we could get clients from anywhere. People living abroad but still in need of British legal services, or people looking to buy a house in Cornwall, but benefiting from dealing with a company with local knowledge.”
Another significant change at the company coming into imminent effect sees Taylor assume the managing partner reins from Jeremy Harvey, who is retiring in April after eight years at the helm.
Taylor has been a partner at Coodes since joining the firm from Nalders in 1999. He has been a practising divorce lawyer for the past 18 years.
“This has been on the cards for a couple of years,” explains Taylor. “We knew Jeremy was looking to retire. So yes, there will be a new broom. It’s a fresh challenge, and I’m really looking forward to it.”
It will be something of a culture shock, however, for a man whose background is pure law. For once managing partner, 100% of his time will be devoted to running the company.
“That’s the odd bit for me,” he says. “But I will continue to work as a district judge. So I will still have my lawyer hat, which will help to keep me grounded!