Innovative Retailers – Legal365

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The Name: Legal365

The Place: Currently online only but soon to come to a high street near you

The Story: Back in the olden days it used to be that only a lawyer could own or invest in a law firm. No longer. Since January 2012  the government has changed all that and now anyone can apply to run an ABS (Alternative Business Structure) and set up a legal service. Prepare for an unholy battle between the start up upstarts like Legal365 and the big boys who charge you £100 for opening the door. Now who was it who said ‘first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.’

Ajaz Ahmed: Embarking on another revolution.

Ooh. A quiz. Is it Shakespeare? Whatever. I’m just giving you a flavour of what people think of our learned friends. They are right up there in the popularity stakes with MPs and parking wardens. But Mr Ajaz Ahmed who has already had one brilliant idea in his life (founding Freeserve) has gone and had another one, making legal services more accessible and affordable to the general public and small businesses. He would like, in fact, to be the ‘Specsavers of the legal world’.

Run that past me again? Ahmed is adamant that people have already forgotten what opticians used to be like. Ten years ago before the government changed the rules on that sector it too was a restricted industry, not offering fair value for money and forcing people to buy glasses where they had their eye test done. SpecSavers changed the industry for ever and Ahmed wants to do the same for the legal world. As he likes to say ‘people hate lawyers’.

And why do we hate them so much? Simple. The biggest problem is that they charge by the hour giving them a great incentive to make the job last as long as possible, and secondly they have a lack of transparency. Legal365 is trying to turn both those rationales on their heads.

Gimme the lowdown. There are two phases. Phase one is up and running already and is the purely online presence – There are 340 different consumer and small business legal services on it ranging from wills, probate, applications for maternity leave, neighbour disputes, work grievances, hiring and firing, organising terms and conditions, and contracts of employment. Ahmed thinks that most business is done on a handshake because people cannot afford to organise legal contracts. It costs £20 to do it on Legal365. A lot of people separate and never divorce because the lawyers take all the money. It costs £75 here to fill in the divorce forms and have it reviewed by a lawyer.

£75!!!!???Don’t sound so interested please. Yes, you can virtually do it in your lunchbreak. You choose the relevant document. The software has been developed to ask you questions and according to the answers you give builds your document. You can pay an extra fee to have any document reviewed by a lawyer and the software will tell you, based on your answers, whether your case is too complex or not suitable for this approach.

I love it already. In addition as you would expect from the founder of Freeserve, he has made it easy to understand. Its jargon free and ease of navigation has been a priority. But online retailing is all very well,  it is actually phase two wherein lies the revolution. Who was it who said ‘Lawyers enjoy a little mystery, you know.’

Ooh. Give me a second. Too late. Anyway, taking the mystery out is step two and Ahmed hopes that there will soon be an awful lot of his Legal365 shops on the high street. He is expecting the most popular service to be his ‘legal bar service’ whereby you go in and just buy a fixed amount of time with a lawyer. The first shop is opening in Leeds (the legal firm which partially owns Legal365 is based in Yorkshire) towards the end of 2012 but it will work on a franchise model which could roll out very quickly. The idea is that you walk in and immediately all the services are displayed, with a fixed price next to them. Lawyers all trained to speak plain English and transactions completed in a fraction of the time. More of a coffee shop feel to it than a frightening legal environment.

And still as subsidised as the online arm? Well not quite. You are sitting face to face with a trained lawyer after all but still far less than a traditional law firm.

And talking of them – what do they think? In Ahmed’s words ‘ they’ll hate us, which is great’. He claims they are in ‘absolute denial’ about the possibilities and full of reasons why it won’t work which is ‘exactly the right response’ because while they do that, Legal365 will steal a march on the whole pack of them.

But surely other people are going to replicate his model, no? Other people will definitely go down the online route and the Americans – who have been at this for a while now – will launch here too but Ahmed is a confident man on this. He says the market is big enough to take a number of players – its valued at £23 billion per annum in the UK – and his idea will open up the market to be even bigger, bringing in people who don’t currently use legal services. There have been 200 applications to run an ABS including big names like the Co-Op but despite lots of activity he has seen no innovation at all. It’s the same old same old.

And who will these lawyers in his shops be exactly? The thrusting young turks in their 20s and 30s who cannot be waiting for 20 years to become a partner before they start earning serious money. They buy a franchise to run one of these and bingo.

I see, the sky is the limit then? I think it’s safe to say Mr Ahmed sees no limit to what might be achieved especially when you factor in the ‘white label element’. One of the reasons for Freeserve’s success was its great route to market – through the many Dixons shops on the UK high street. His shops could end up as concessions within other shops providing another great route to market.

So, let’s have it. Where could it be in five years? In hundreds of locations, serving millions of people and worth hundreds of millions of pounds.

Jargon free. Just how we like it.

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