The legal industry rarely resembles a hotbed of revolution. It is more often seen as a bastion of tradition. But there are changes ahead that promise to transform the way lawyers and barristers communicate with their audiences.
Leading this revolution is the Legal Services Act (LSA) 2007, which has attracted the label 'Tesco law' to reflect the dramatic manner in which ownership and investment will be liberalised by 2012.
The Act allows for the formation of alternative business structures to provide legal services, rather than the current partnership model, where ownership is shared among senior lawyers. It means Tesco could start selling wills and personal injury lawsuits alongside the fruit and veg.
It also means traditional law firms can elevate non-lawyers, such as accountants and marketing and PR professionals, to the highest levels of seniority. The Act will allow law firms to seek external investment including, for example, private equity and stock market offerings.
These twin juggernauts of competition and opportunity have legal PR specialists licking their lips. 'In general this should lead to quite an increase in the overall requirements of good professional comms support,' says Weber Shandwick corporate comms and public affairs chairman Jon McLeod.
'There will be more investment in comms, and there needs to be a transformation in the way consumer and client comms are undertaken,' he adds.
Despite the fact Tesco has yet to make its intentions clear, the label has stuck. Supermarkets, banks and insurers are expected to begin selling legal services - bringing consumer marketing insight to the process.
'There are people outside of the legal profession circling and waiting for these doors to open, and they know exactly what they want to do,' explains Kysen PR MD Claire Rodway.
For law firms, this makes communicating their point of difference critical. 'Brands we do not currently associate with legal services will steadily become associated with them,' says McLeod.
'It is pretty clear organisations with a much more sophisticated brand architecture are going to be selling those services. That is a big change when you consider how law firm services are presented - dry and professional compared with consumer brands,' adds McLeod.
Spada MD Gavin Ingham Brooke adds: 'HBOS, for example, is a much more powerful brand than most law firm brands. For a lot of legal services, people will be perfectly happy with that.'
The Act will also, for the first time, enable external investors to own shares in law firms. The UK legal services market is worth a staggering £20bn and offers mouthwatering margins.
Already, private equity players have begun scouting opportunities in the legal sector. Stock market flotations cannot be too far off, either. The implications for financial and investor relations specialists are obvious.
All of this change will come as a shock to large sections of the legal community. While top-tier international firms - known as the magic circle and silver circle - long ago adopted strategic comms as part of their marketing arsenal, it is not necessarily a mindset with which every lawyer is comfortable.
'There is a cultural gap between lawyers and communicators generally,' says McLeod.
Byfield Consultancy MD Gus Selitto believes law firms are still largely unaware of how the Act must shape a clearer PR strategy: 'Firms do not yet fully appreciate how much the Act will impact their comms strategy. The big firms will tell you it is not something they are thinking about at the moment. But all it will take is one innovative law firm to shake up the market.'
CLIENT FIRMS EYE A BRAVE NEW PR WORLD
Understanding the specific comms challenges that now face law firms is very much a matter of perspective.
The biggest challenge is for the high street and regional firms that will start to face competition from supermarkets and banks.
'The challenge we are seeing is new entrants,' says Julie Gingell, director of marketing and business development at regional law firm SA Law. 'Generally, law firms need to shout louder about what they do.'
Big firms - including members of the elite magic and silver circles - have been investing in comms expertise for years, but it is likely they too will need to up their game.
'For them it will be about how they compete for investment,' says Kysen PR MD Claire Rodway.
PR budgets are likely to grow, even if firms remain hampered by a culture that frowns upon commenting on their own affairs. 'Law firms do not tend to produce a huge amount of their own news,' admits Spada MD Gavin Ingham Brooke. 'What they do have is an immense reservoir of know-how. They can become very prolific commentators.'
The Legal Services Act (LSA) also enables non-lawyers to become partners, raising the tantalising prospect that in-house comms professionals could rise to the top.
'What it will mean for PR professionals is their voice is heard at a higher table,' says Gingell. 'Marketers will start to set the agenda rather than respond to the agenda set by partners.'
THE CLIENT VIEW ... Julie Gingell, Director of marketing business development, SA Law
Predominantly the market will become more competitive, and with that clients will become more savvy when they purchase legal services. Typically we use PR and comms to eradicate some of the fears of purchase. We also do it to position our expertise.
One of the opportunities is for people such as me to rise through law firms and become partners.
Law firms in general will be spending more on PR - part of the LSA is we can get more outside investment. Tesco will have a much bigger purse than smaller law firms.
AGENCY - Challenging times ahead
Despite being a £20bn industry, there are not many specialist professionals who service the communications needs of the legal industry.
Weber Shandwick's corporate comms and public affairs chairman Jon McLeod believes this is largely down to the challenges posed by a complicated subject and some tough clients.
'It is quite difficult to get the right sort of experience that enables you to have a conversation on a par with a partner in a law firm,' he says. 'They expect practitioners to have a decade's experience or they won't talk to them.'
McLeod believes the CIPR could become involved in improving public relations firms' ability to handle legal business: 'It takes a lot to secure the confidence of partners and senior lawyers to give them advice. Our industry should be able to tool itself up to meet that challenge.'
McLeod says there are barely half a dozen people in London who handle top-end legal PR. Rodway expects this to change because the LSA will enable law firms to attract outside investment for the first time.
'I can see the potential for a return to the 1980s - when there was an explosion of firms calling in consultants, who were quickly packed out again because there was a big culture clash,' says Rodway. 'The difference now is we have some very experienced marketers working on the inside of law firms.'
Gingell warns there are 'not enough' specialist agencies to meet the anticipated spending boom. The onus is on agencies to up investment if they hope to reap the rewards of this windfall.
THE AGENCY VIEW ... Claire Rodway, MD, Kysen PR
One of the big issues in legal PR is working with people who own the business and manage the business. You are talking to people about spending their money on a daily basis. It certainly hones your skills to make a convincing case.
The single most important thing is for them to understand their positioning now and how that is going to be impacted by the LSA in terms of where it will place them in the new world order. Without that, any communication is going to be misguided.
They have worked extremely hard at differentiation because it is very hard for users to see how law firms are different. That challenge is going to increase for them.