Return of the high street
Radical changes to niche areas have left high street firms in need of all-rounders, says Kerry Underwood
Specialisation is not good. It is positively dangerous for most law firms. The old proverb about not putting all of your eggs in one basket is as true as ever. It is the legal equivalent of a single-crop economy, a monoculture, a banana republic, as solicitors dealing with only road traffic accident work are now finding out.
It is not a new problem. No given area of law is destined to last forever. Apparently around one-third of solicitors retired after the 1925 Law of Property revolution. I gave up doing conveyancing at about the same time, but that was because I did not like doing it.
In 1968 the divorce process changed overnight from involving a High Court hearing in every case to being a county court, on-the-papers exercise. Swathes of divorce lawyers, especially at the Bar, disappeared.
More recently, employment cases have slumped by 79 per cent following the introduction of high tribunal fees. Employment was an area of work that seemed destined to grow forever. Now it is largely gone.
So road traffic accident lawyers – particularly those doing whiplash claims – are in no different position from property, divorce, and family lawyers before them.
A traditional high-street firm tries to keep a balance of work. Most of us have developed private client work to reflect increasing property ownership and longevity. Powers of attorney now generate significant income for many firms, something unheard of 20 years ago.
For any monoculture firm, any radical change to its niche area threatens its very existence.
The second problem is that a basic knowledge of various areas of law is essential even if a firm specialises.
Much of the work I do involves advising solicitors in relation to funding arrangements. Now, these can be complex, especially in relation to conditional fee agreements, assignment, and capacity, but many lawyers, particularly younger ones who have not done the traditional mix as trainees, have little knowledge of basic contract law.
How can you run a personal injury firm without having a working knowledge of wills and probate, the powers of executors, who has authority on death, trusts, tax, or benefits?
It is easy for my generation to blame it on the millennials – those born from 1984 onwards: no imagination, no willingness to take risks, get things wrong, move out of their comfort zone, etc.
There is some truth in all of that. However, the failed and failing business model of over-specialisation is the creation of the non-millennials.I can only hope there are some bright and ambitious young millennials out there who will re-invent and re-invigorate the high-street practice.
Kerry Underwood is senior partner at Underwoods Solicitors