Some reflections on what the legal profession might learn from the experience of the airline industry over the past decade

I don’t know about you, but I sometimes find an aeroplane is the only place I can get enough peace to think clearly. Once the phones are switched off and the announcements over, there’s something surreal about travelling at 30,000 feet that allows the mind to wander. It’s precious time, and seeing a familiar orange livery on a recent journey focused my thoughts on the sector itself and what a remarkable transformation it’s gone through in a very short period.

It’s less than a decade since Easyjet sold its first online ticket, and other than Stelios himself, I don’t think many of us would have believed what was coming. First there was anger from travel agencies, furious at the prospect of disintermediation. This was followed by scepticism by much of the public at an offer to fly more cheaply by plane than to travel by train. Finally, as the “tipping point” approached, many of the big carriers decided “If we can’t beat them, we’d better join them”.

It’s worth pausing to consider why it took a shipping entrepreneur to change the face of an industry and provide what some customers were looking for. In days gone by, flying was a mysterious process. The only organisations allowed to provide the service were regulated and protected. Customers were in awe of their ability to get them from A to B and prepared to pay whatever was asked, even though it never quite felt right. There was no competition and therefore no way to measure service quality. And if you were a business customer in particular, well by default you’d be willing to pay a premium – wouldn’t you?

Very quickly though, Stelios and his Celtic rival demystified the process, provided transparency in pricing, and used technology to let people gather their own information and act on it. Customers of all stripes took up their new offer, finding the access and difference in price just too compelling. The loyalty of business customers didn’t last long either; in fact, for a while, it almost became a badge of honour to fly low-cost – at least for certain trips.

The point was that suddenly real choice existed. The new commodity-driven model took off around the world, and surely it isn’t bad – just different. How many of us would pass on the chance to buy shares if we could turn the clock back? Ever since, people have been deciding for themselves what it’s worth paying extra for – punctuality, an assigned seat, better food? And a range of offerings has begun opening up to meet the full spectrum of client needs that always existed.

Interestingly, and perhaps betraying cultural differences, the big carriers reacted at different speeds. Some used their infrastructure to follow the client and create a new offering, then got nervous and cashed in early. Others have been in denial almost to the present day. There are many examples of other sectors affected by a similar blend of market conditions – financial and insurance services perhaps being closest to home. Would you as a consumer change back to the old ways now?

Clearly, a special mix of ingredients affected the airline sector, but it would be a waste to ignore the learnings. The degree of change made possible by a couple of entrepreneurs without huge pressure from customers has been remarkable. Legal clients, on the other hand, have been asking for change for some time now – some even taking it upon themselves to develop new distribution models to improve access to the information they want. Add to that the freedom for all to innovate, and the choices are clear: retreat to higher ground, take on new entrants or form alliances. There is another of course, but it’s clear that may not be the best choice. There are opportunities for all. Client needs will continue to cover the whole range from basic legal information through commoditised services to the high value legal work, but lawyers will have to decide which part of that continuum they intend to occupy and act on that decision.

The next decade promises to be a very bumpy ride for lawyers, with hopefully at least some smooth flying after the initial turbulence. However, to complete the journey successfully, best to have a flight plan! 

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