HIGH street law firms are facing a battle for survival, with everything from succession issues and the rise of claims handlers to a recruitment crisis and the growth of online services proving a threat to their existence.

For Graeme McKinstry, senior partner of Ayr firm The McKinstry Company, there is one obvious solution: firms need to pool their resources in much the same way as advocates chambers do.

“The business model for a lot of small firms could be to become a bit more like dentists or chambers,” Mr McKinstry said.

“They share costs – they have one receptionist and one photocopier - but you could have maybe four firms in the building.

“Instead of four firms paying four sets of rent they would have an economy of scale – they would have one building and one receptionist and all the firms would pay the central overheads.

“You could even have a rota system where cold callers are allocated to whichever firm is next on the rota.

“That would be great for criminal lawyers.”

Although he believes the economic argument for the idea is a “no-brainer” for the hundreds of high street firms scattered right across Scotland, Mr McKinstry conceded that the “hearts and minds of lawyers” would have to be won over before many signed up for such a move.

“People don’t like change and they most certainly don’t like change when it’s foisted on them,” he said.

“But I have no doubt that if you took three or four practices, each with their own sets of overheads, and relocated them into a central place their efficiency, profile and quality of life would all improve.”

Mr McKinstry feels all these areas have deteriorated in the 33 years since he spun his firm out of the now-collapsed Ross Harper & Murphy, with high street lawyers going from having “a very good income, lifestyle and status” to, in some cases, struggling to make ends meet.

This is in part to do with changes to the way in which legal services are delivered, with technology revolutionising practices at all levels of the sector.

“The market for legal services and the delivery of those legal services is very dynamic and is changing as we speak,” Mr McKinstry said.

For big commercial firms with deep pockets and legions of employees that has created an opportunity to come up with more efficient ways of doing business. For high street firms, however, it has allowed non-legal entities to encroach on their beats.

“We now have will writers who will directly mail people and they will target areas where there have been a lot of local authority purchases,” Mr McKinstry said.

“They target people who have assets that require a will who didn’t have assets before – in Ayrshire that’s the former mining communities.

“Then there are claims handlers. Fifteen years ago, if you had an accident you went to a lawyer. That’s now hoovered up by claims handlers who sell them to the highest bidders.”

All of this has served to commoditise the kind of law high street firms offer, with clients shopping around to find the best deal for their needs at a particular time rather than having one person handle all their legal matters.

“We’re now seen as someone who will provide a commodity – in the eyes of the public law has been commoditised,” Mr McKinstry said. “That’s a huge change, when I started there was no such thing as people phoning around lawyers for quotes.”

While some firms have sought refuge by merging with other entities, Mr McKinstry feels something more radical is required to ensure the survival of the high street, with pooling resources just one different approach firms may have to consider.

“It’s an older profession [on the high street] and they’re burnt out and can’t work any harder. That means they need to find better ways of delivering the services in that changing market; they have to find a way of working smarter,” Mr McKinstry said.

“There will always be a need for the high street lawyer; there will always be someone who needs help with a will or divorce or family crisis.

“The challenge is how in this very dynamic, changing market we are able to deliver the service in an efficient, effective way.”