This is a copy of my article for The Lawyer (21st Feb 2012) :-
Yet another new entrant to the legal services market emerges. Again, a new and unique approach is announced, this time to bold claims of a “market disrupting” service delivery model. Riverview Law is an ambitious new market entrant comprising a mix of solicitors and barristers backed by highly successful and established legal and business service providers. It is immediately clear from its undoubtedly impressive website that it is promoting a strong brand and has gone to a lot of trouble to understand the needs of its target market.
Re-inventing the wheel ?
The Riverview business model is claimed to have been designed “starting from a blank piece of paper” and “from the customer up, not the law firm partner down”. I don’t doubt for a moment that this approach has been faithfully and rigorously applied. It is interesting then that the product of this design bears many similarities in operational terms to the setup of a barristers’ chambers, which I suspect has evolved rather differently.
Both models boast low overheads and flexible legal and support teams. Enquiries from clients come in to a central customer services unit or clerks’ room. In Riverview’s case, they are dealt with by “sales advisors” who I suspect perform a role similar to clerks, but with added legal knowledge so as to be able to understand the legal requirements of lay clients, before recommending a solution from their team of solicitors and barristers and identifying the appropriate costing option.
Bar Direct Access
One advantage is already clear. The Bar has for some time talked a good game about direct access, however it is inherently unable to offer an unqualified service because of the restrictions on the type of work barristers can undertake. This means that time and effort is required at the outset for investigation as to suitability of each case. It also involves providing something of a selective service to the client who runs the risk of being told at any time that the barrister can no longer help and that a solicitor is needed.
This does not seem an attractive proposition for a client when compared to the Riverview model which not only enables the completely objective selection at the outset, but also has the flexibility to allow seamless and cost-free transition from one to another as required. This offers the cost and expertise benefits of direct access, but without the risk. Barristers are to operate on what seems to be the highest profile deployment yet of the “procureco” model, involving them in the business but at arm’s length thus enabling them to remain in independent practice at their existing chambers while avoiding additional potential for conflict.
Restricted choice ?
A possibly less advantageous aspect is the relatively limited choice of barristers. I say ‘relatively’ because it has to be compared to the competition which takes the form of the wide choice available at the independent Bar, where it is increasingly common for practitioners to work to fixed budgets often under a not-dissimilar panel arrangement. Furthermore, Riverview Chambers comprises 43 barristers of which around a third seem to be family law practitioners and only a very small proportion specialise in commercial work. This constitution is something of an eye-opener in an organisation whose clear focus is on providing services to businesses.
This may be prove to be a shrewd way to barristers (and their chambers) to gain exposure a in this much-coveted area of the marketplace, in return for which Riverview gain their commitment to work at low fixed fees. There is no reason to suggest that they will not be able do so effectively, but it remains to be seen whether this finds favour with a commercial market populated with clients of ever-increasing sophistication.
The key differentiator ?
Perhaps the feature of Riverview that it sees as its key brand differentiator is its ability to offer bespoke, fixed-price solutions including a fixed monthly spend option. Working for fixed fees is nothing new to solicitors or barristers, but with this comes the freedom to decline to act on this basis in cases where the amount of work involved is unpredictable. Riverview is unlikely to have the luxury of this choice. Having put fixed fees unequivocally at the forefront of its brand, its differentiator will be lost if this approach is not applied consistently. This means regularly running the risk of operating unprofitably unless this risk can be robustly mitigated. If it can achieve this then it will certainly give it an edge in the market and it seems confident that it can do so with the application of sophisticated technology.
So is Riverview going to cause the claimed market disruption ? Nobody can doubt that it is an interesting arrival on the legal services scene. Although it offers no individual facet that is completely ground-breaking, it has raised the profile of the shortcomings customers encounter with existing providers and represents a commendable attempt to harness and apply consistently the best of current good practice.
If it delivers as it promises it will surely prompt many in the business to up their game, bringing about further increases in the quality, value and accessibility of legal services. This can only be good news for the consumer and the health of the legal industry.