A Law Firm in Every Stop & Shop? (I Mean, Walmart)

WalmartUPDATE : 4/23/14:  It’s finally happening.  $99 wills in Walmart.

(This post was originally published almost five years ago. While the thrust of the referenced articles is high end retailers being permitted to sell legal services in their big box outlets, I’m attempting to remove non-lawyers/shareholders from the equation and just wondering about the value of setting up shop in big boxes.)

Some of those in the legal profession will see the ability to set up kiosks selling legal services in a venue as ‘pedestrian’ as a supermarket the beginning of the end of law as we know it.

Well, England’s legal system is on the road to Armageddon if one were to take the professional outrage, as indicated in this article, seriously.

Now you know I’m ready to fuel the debate with this question. “Why is offering any type of service within a supermarket “demonstrate(s) utter contempt for the consumer of legal services”?  Is it utter contempt for the consumer of legal services to work with a lawyer who has a home office?  Or three lawyers who work out of their Abogadomovil bringing their services to their clients.

Isn’t it the work that matters?  What about the convenience to the consumer of legal services?  Why must someone who delivers legal services anywhere outside of a traditional office somehow be second-rate?  Marble hallways, expensive leather couches, $5,000 suits and a bevvy of paralegals don’t immediately make the services better or the skills of the lawyer more finely honed, do they?  Of course not.

The fear is that on a large scale across an entire country, legal services can be purchased next to shepherd’s pie and purple-wrapped Cadbury bars.

Let’s think about this.  Before there were supermarkets, lawyers operated out of offices in the center of their villages next to the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker.  They were part of the community as they gathered in the town’s square.  Today’s town square is the big box supermarket or Costco.

The bigger issue here is who owns the law firms permitted to sell legal services and its impact on the profession as a whole.

The LSB said in future providers, including large retail brands, could seek a licence to offer legal services.

The solicitor profession faces being all but wiped out
Barrister Craig Holt

It said there would be more choice and better value for the public.

LSB chairman David Edmonds said: “It offers benefits to consumers of legal services, be they private individuals, small businesses or large companies.

“More competition will be good for the legal services sector as it has been in other sectors.”

Under the proposals, joint accountancy and legal companies could also be set up and law firms will be able to list on the stock exchange.

And on this point, I agree.  When non-lawyers and shareholders are invested in the delivery of professional services it is very possible the consumer of legal services will be hurt.  Can you say, ‘HMO’? A patient’s quality of care is taken away from the professional (doctor) and determined by the bean counters who answer to the shareholders.  This is not a good thing.

But a lawyer in every Stop & Shop?

I learned of market research that reported 60 per cent of citizens would prefer to obtain legal services from common high street brands (supermarkets and banks, for example) than from solicitors in private practice. It was concluded that at least £6 billion worth of consumer-based legal services were up for grabs.(excerpted from part four of Richard Susskind’s series on the Law Firm of the Future)

I’m sure this sentiment is not unique to England.  Therefore, what size market for legal services remains untapped because of  our current system for delivering those services?

But anyway, to get back to my point about delivering your services next to the milk and deli counter, more than a year ago I had a client whose family actually owned 5 or 6 supermarkets catering to an urban community.  They were well located, ‘community’ stores, highly trafficked and catered to my client’s desired target market.  It seemed perfectly natural to me he should set up shop within the supermarkets.  But he got a little stuck on image as well as some cultural issues.  And that was a damn shame in my mind because it was a golden opportunity.  Instead he rented pricey real estate in a different town for his own reasons.

Okay.  This post has been about two separate points – don’t let non-lawyers take control of the delivery of legal services AND start delivering your legal services where the clients are and would prefer you to be.

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5 comments on “A Law Firm in Every Stop & Shop? (I Mean, Walmart)

  • This is an interesting concept. I can see how some people might be skeptical about using a legal service inside of Walmart. However, I also see the logic in setting up shop where the people are and having hours that extend outside of normal business hours for lawyers is definitely an advantage.

  • I don’t think the critics cited in the BBC article really take issue with from where legal services are provided. I think the only matter really at issue here is the non-lawyer corporate ownership of law firms. On this point I wholeheartedly agree with you. It would be a mistake to allow Walmart into the lawyering business. Law is not just a business. It’s also a profession. Lawyers have obligations to clients beyond delivering profit to their own shareholders. Corporate ownership of legal practices would initiate a race to the bottom in the worst possible way.

  • I had this exact idea when I was considering investing in a Jackson Hewitt franchise a few years ago. Twenty years ago, if someone said that an pharmacist, an optometrist, a bank a tax preparer and an insurance agency, much less a McDonalds, would be located in a grocery store, that person would have been committed into a psych ward. But here we are; these are common place today.

    I took a huge gamble and radically lowered my rates, implemented flat fees wherever possible and attempted to develop a business model that would appeal to the Walmart crowd, thinking what I lost in billable hours, I would make up for in volume. The unfortunate reality is that there are limited opportunities to flat fee something given the unpredictability of litigation.

    For a while it worked, worked really well, but when the initial retainer was exhausted and I went back for additional funds, which the clients didn’t have, I was forced to withdraw, at which point, the client filed a bar complaint, and although none of the bar complaints stuck, the number of complaints became an issue and the Washington State Bar Association could care less about the approach I was taking or why there suddenly was multiple grievances being filed.

    I think that a will or finite document preparation for a flat fee is fine, but anything more involved than that, something that requires ongoing litigation where it is impossible to offer a flat fee, will likely result in a higher level of bar complaints. It is really unfortunate that a vocal minority will ruin the opportunity for the masses to receive advice and representation from an attorney but the costs of responding and dealing with bar complaints makes the approach infinitely more risky than I had originally envisioned.

  • But wait! I also discussed this almost three years ago. http://money.cnn.com/2011/07/01/news/companies/walmart_healthcare_medicaid/ Walmart will be doing much more in the next few years. It’s just a matter of time. As to medicaid? They are looking for ‘partners’ to do this work throughout the country. If they start with legal work such as this in such a selfless way, is it really a big stretch they will be looking for lawyers to do other types of legal work for a profit after they’ve (from a PR perspective) already paved the way through generosity? And then they will have lawyers throughout the country hired through their legal department and will find some way to bypass ‘non-lawyer’ ownership.

  • I began my practice 4-1/2 years ago with the intent of serving people who can’t afford most lawyers & don’t qualify for pro bono or assigned counsel (though I sometimes do both of those gigs, too). I am an old guy & my wife has mobility issues, so I really don’t want my clients, some of whom are charged with serious felonies, coming to my home office.
    So I mostly meet clients in McDonalds. Occasionally I use a mall food court. The clients feel at home, Mickey D is glad to get more business, & I keep my overhead low so I can serve my chosen clientele affordably.

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