I was working for a small firm of solicitors eleven years ago. They had three offices in three different locations. Yet while I had the internet at home, I did not have it at work. In fact the computers were not even networked, and emails were used sparingly. In those days, clients still came to solicitors to find out what went on in a divorce. They needed legal information, and it was that need for information that brought them through our doors. Something as simple as wanting to know how much the court fee was enough to do it. It did not take much. And once they were in our lairs we were usually able to persuade them that they needed us to deal with the whole lot. A nice earner you could say.
Then the internet really took off, particularly when broadband went big in the early 2000s. Broadband Internet users, which now means over 50 % of the population, have access to information like never before. Such has been the revolution that printed encyclopedias have almost been consigned to history. In fact, when was the last time you went to your local reference library? And no longer do we need to trudge round the shops to find the lowest price when we can do it at the click of a button.
Family law services have not been unaffected by all of this. No longer to clients come to see us because they want to know how much the divorce court fee is: they look at the court service website. No longer do they need to come to us to get a divorce – online services can deal with most unopposed divorces as well as solicitors can, but at a fraction of the price. And online forums like Wikivorce provide a wealth of information and even free advice.
So why should lawyers embrace the competition? Quite simply because we are not competing for the same clients. The largest online divorce provider – unsurprisingly called Divorce-Online – offers a perfectly good service to those couples who are able to co-operate over the divorce process. They do not need lawyers to dissolve their marriage. Many of them are scared that using lawyers might mean they either end up spending money they cannot readily afford, or fighting over the divorce in a way they do not want.
There will still be work for divorce lawyers, but little of it will be the routine stuff which used to be our bread and butter, and more of it will be using our skills, or skills we need to acquire. I embrace online divorce services because they are part of a changing family law system which is going to enable clients to choose where they spend their money: routine information or specialised advice. If I was looking for a family lawyer’s services, that’s the sort of choice I’d want.