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Walk into one of four Toronto-area Wal-Marts and in addition to the advertised “pre-Black Friday deals” that include discounted toys and flat-screen TVs, shoppers can also pick up a last will and testament drafted by a real, live lawyer.
Recently launched Axess Law has put itself among the most aggressive of a new breed of low-cost law firms by installing a bright-orange branded retail presence inside Toronto Wal-Marts over the past year, offering wills for just $99 and real-estate deals for $1,288, tax and other expenses included. The service is the first of its kind in Canada.
The law firm says the move has been so successful it is expanding the service to seven more Toronto-area Wal-Marts over the next six months, with a plan to move into Wal-Mart Canada Corp. outlets across the country. The next location, at Toronto’s west-end Dufferin Mall, is due to open in weeks.
“It’s only a matter of time before you see our bright orange in Alberta and B.C.,” Axess Law co-founder Mark Morris, 38, said in an interview.
The concept is not unlike accounting firms and travel agencies that have set up shop in various large retailers. But it is a still revolutionary step in this country’s conservative legal circles.
The legal profession has long wrung its hands about how middle and lower-income Canadians are priced out of using traditional law firms, which charge hundreds of dollars an hour, sparking calls for lower-cost, more accessible services.
Meanwhile, some of the country’s law societies are taking a serious look at rule changes, similar to those already in place in England and Australia, that would allow private investment from non-lawyers in law firms. Such a move, recently endorsed by the Canadian Bar Association, could see even more new entrants, such as Axess Law emerge and offer cheaper services, industry observers say.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc., fighting with Amazon and other online retailers, has suffered some disappointing quarters recently and just announced that it is laying off 210 employees mostly from its Canadian head office. But Morris says Axess Law has been exceeding expectations.
His firm offers Wal-Mart Canada shoppers a small range of simple high-volume “commodity” legal services that his eight lawyers and staff of 20 can find new ways to do more efficiently than traditional law firms. More complex matters, such as parking tickets or personal injury cases, are referred to outside lawyers.
Like Wal-Mart, the firm has a “low-price guarantee.” On a busy day, Morris says his sites – open till 8 p.m. on weekdays – do an average of 10 wills or other legal documents a day. More than half of the business comes from real-estate deals, he says, and the firm may soon expand its offerings into other areas such as low-complexity “no contest” divorces.
His co-founder, Lena Koke, 35, compares her law firm to coffee chain Tim Hortons: “The type of law that we do right now are things that we can commoditize, that we know we can do perfectly, again and again. Similar to a Tim Hortons: You go to a Tim Hortons, you know you are going to get the same cup of coffee no matter where you go.”
They pitched their retail law idea to Wal-Mart after getting to know the company through conducting legal work with mall developer Smart Centres Inc.
It may be a concept whose time has come. In the United States, Wal-Mart’s related bulk-goods retail Sam’s Club announced a deal to provide a limited range of legal services to customers in partnership with online legal service provider LegalZoom.com Inc.
Jordan Furlong, an Ottawa-based lawyer and legal industry consultant with Edge International, says Axess and others like it are shaking up a legal business that has operated with higher and higher costs, in contrast to cheap-as-possible Wal-Mart.
“Any law firm that operates inside Wal-Mart … has to offer extremely affordable services,” Furlong said. “But at the same time, it is going to be held to all the same professional standards as if they were on Bay Street. That’s not an easy combination to pull off.”