Back in mid-August, the UK’s Legal Futures website took note that Edward Hands & Lewis, a Leicester-based law firm with 15 branches, was planning to launch a national network of franchised offices next year. I wish EHL every success with this undertaking, as I’ve wished good fortune to similar efforts over the past several years (and I continue to think that Canada’s Axess Law is closer than anyone to that goal).
But the fact that I first wrote about the franchised future of small law firms almost six years ago suggests that we need a lot more than good fortune to make this idea work. In the intervening years, thanks to that blog post, I’ve received a number of inquiries from entrepreneurial individuals (many, but not all, of them lawyers) looking to pick my brain about how to build a consumer-law franchise (I basically told them that all my wisdom on the subject was there in the post for free, so I suppose it was worth what they paid for it.)
Yet we still don’t have a robust, nationwide, storefront consumer law franchise, in any nation. I think that part of the reason for this, maybe a big part, is that we keep thinking we should replicate the traditional law firm in a franchise context. That’s not going to work.
To be successful, a consumer franchise has to do a lot of different things really well simultaneously. It must provide an outstanding product or service within a tightly controlled customer experience and with very little variation in delivered outcomes, through a just-in-time supply network, profitably, at scale. Consistency of experience and result is key. Think about your own encounters with franchises that sell, say, submarine sandwiches or electronics or tax returns. The physical environment of the store is identical across locations, the manner in which you are served is identical across salespeople, the look and feel of what you take away is identical to the last five times you went there.
This is a lot harder to pull off than it looks from the other side the counter. It requires precisely tuned systems for getting high-quality product in front of customers, extreme discipline of procedure to ensure commonality of outcome, and extensive customer service training. But a consumer law franchise also needs powerful networked back-office systems to manage the intake and organization of client data, as well as extraordinarily detailed templates that can generate flawless legal documents instantly. If it’s multi-jurisdictional — and a legal franchise would have to be, to operate at scale — regional variations in law and practice have to be coded in too.
None of these concepts and practices is normally associated with the legal profession, and certainly not with law firms. The traditional law firm is a collection of sole practices and small firms that hang out together under the same letterhead and share a library and kitchen, delivering legal services through the ongoing application of lawyers’ efforts. You just can’t export that model into a marketplace that expects to walk in the door, ask for something, and walk out with what they asked for in much less than one hour.
If anything, a successful law franchise would flip the normal law office. Law firms’ salespeople and service delivery personnel are almost entirely lawyers, and most lawyers are good at neither sales nor service — ideally, they’d prefer to just sit at a desk and work out an answer to a legal question. Putting your average lawyer in a cubicle to deal with people walking in off the street is a less than optimal solution.
A consumer law franchise would keep its introvert lawyers out of the way of the customer — stick them in a back office, coding systems and programming software to generate airtight legal documents and then reviewing those documents with a keen lawyer’s eye. The customer doesn’t meet the lawyer because she doesn’t need to — she deals with friendly, smiling extroverts out front, few of them lawyers but all of them capable of guiding the customer through the process of answering pre-programmed questions and putting them at ease. If a truly tough question is posed, a lawyer can be summoned to come out and provide a specialized answer, or can be scheduled to meet with the customer at the very end of the process chain to discuss the document she’s just purchased. But the lawyer plays a specialized role — the expert, the authority, the wizard with all the answers — not the full-time customer-serving host.
Law franchising, if it ever succeeds anywhere, won’t be just a cool brand and tons of marketing, or a personal-injury client farm dressed up as an A2J solution. It will be a seamless, secure, convenient, personal legal service delivery system. We don’t have many of those anywhere in the legal supply world, most especially in law firms. But if someone ever actually builds one in the consumer space, watch out — because the need is real and the demand would be overwhelming.