Friday, 8 March 2013

My unexpected Tesco Law experience

I’ve followed the Tesco Law concept since it was a glint in the OFT’s eye. And I also love Richard Susskind’s concept of the latent legal market – the idea that there is a wealth of untapped legal business out there, just waiting to be delivered to consumers at an affordable price by innovative service providers.
So, naturally, when my partner and I recently discussed moving in together, I immediately pondered getting a cohabitation agreement from an alternative legal service provider. I admit, that might not sound particularly romantic of me. However, having spent two years studying land and property law as an undergraduate student, I figured it was a no-brainer. We both own our own properties, and both want to clarify where each other stand by living together, both legally and financially.
I confess my “quick and dirty” price comparison yielded surprising results – and not in way I expected.
First up was good old Lawpack, a bargain-bucket PDF download for £10.20. It comes with some useful guidance about what a cohabitation agreement should contain. But, basically, I would be on my own, in terms of finalising the necessary documentation.
Next up was Halifax Legal Express. This provider offered a three tiered level of service. The most basic offering – an interactive, document assembled, solution - cost £99. That’s not cheap, compared with Lawpack alternative, but was certainly more high-tech than downloadable PDF. If I wanted the draft document reviewed by what Halifax ambiguously describes as “our legal team”, the price would be bumped up to £154. And, finally, having the draft document reviewed by a “lawyer” would cost £349 – with email and telephone support and advice thrown in.
In terms of more traditional providers, I was naturally drawn to Quality Solicitors – after all, there’s branch on a high street close to me. But here, I hit a snag. The website couldn’t offer me a fixed price up front. Instead, it wanted me to complete a three-stage contact form, so a firm representative could call me back to discuss my requirements. Personally, I’m not a fan of this approach. Ideally, I want to know roughly how much someone is going to charge before I speak to them to get a precise quote. I hate having to fob off potential service providers, when I discover their charge-out rate isn’t competitive. I find it all just too darned awkward.
Finally, I reviewed the Co-op’s offering. After all, they’ve recently made a thing about their new family law service, “providing customers with greater accessibility to legal advice and better value for money.”
Unfortunately, the gap between the Co-op’s publicity and its actual offering appears to be a yawning chasm. The price of this provider’s cohabitation agreement? A whopping £660, including VAT. That’s almost twice as much as the most expensive Halifax offering - and you can’t even choose a cheaper, self-service option. Basically, you can either phone for advice or, erm, go elsewhere. So that’s precisely what I did.
So, there we go. I’m not going to use Lawpack because I’m worried it seems too cheap, however irrational that sounds. I can’t be bothered with Quality Solicitors, because their form-based system for generating a quote is annoying (and potentially embarrassing). And the Co-op? Sorry guys, you’re way too expensive for my budget. Halifax, by contrast, appears to have nailed it, in terms of their service offering and pricing structure. Who’d have thought this particular provider would be a paragon of the new legal market?
And there’s the lesson, I believe, for anyone who is interested in the manner in which the UK legal market is evolving. There’s the high level concept - new market entrants should be able to provide innovative legal services at a highly competitive price - and the reality - some don’t.
Indeed, in some circumstances, it is quite possible that new market entrants might offer a service that is every bit as inaccessible to your average consumer as the traditional law firms they aim to replace. And, in relation to the Co-op’s cohabitation agreement, this certainly seems to be the case.
How disappointing.

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