Mark Morris and Lena Koke, Founders, Axess Law

Commoditized services means a higher level of legal quality. We realized that commoditization means that best practices can be applied to each transaction and that we develop a system — a method — that can assure quality service each and every time.

Axess Law provides legal services in retail spaces across Ontario including within the Walmart network of stores. Operating on a walk-in basis, Axess offers services with respect to real estate sales and financings, wills and estate planning probate, family, simple business and notary services.

We saw an imbalance that perplexed us. On the one hand, we saw so many people who both needed and wanted affordable legal services but were unable to access them, and, on the other hand, we saw so many lawyers who couldn’t find work.

So we did some thinking, and decided to combine our respective skills and experiences to create a legal services business that operated in an efficient manner. Instead of focusing on high paying clients, we had to figure out a way to provide legal services in a manner that everyday people could afford them. We were confident that if we thought it through carefully, if we were careful with the numbers, if we used best business practices and maintained a high level of professionalism, that we’d actually be able to do it.

In some ways it was a shot in the dark, but, lo and behold the model has worked.

When you are first starting a new business, you cannot be totally sure what the best business practices will be, but through trial and error you quickly learn what works and what doesn’t.

But we were guided by something else — by our 10-year experience in retail, both in a legal and a business context. We felt that there are basic retail concepts which would lend themselves well to areas of the law that were being increasing commoditized.

Here’s an example: In retail, there is the notion that customer service is king. This means that you have to meet people where they live, not where you operate — you have to be in their communities. You have to operate at hours that work for customers rather than at hours that work for you. So, retail best practice says you should not shy away from opening on Saturdays and Sundays, or from opening on weekdays from 5pm to 9 pm.

Retail best practice also says that you should use “what you see is what you get” pricing. You have to have predicable pricing models because this is what people want and expect.

These concepts are new to law, but they are tried, tested and true in retail. And it is the retail mindset that has guided us.

Axess Law is a unique entity in Canada, if not all of North America.

We are set up to accommodate areas of the law that are increasingly commoditized. Commoditized is a word that can have negative or positive connotations — we see it as having positive ones.

There are many legal operations that are not completely unique. That is to say many times a lawyer, including a lawyer in a large firm, will pull up documents from that last time a similar operation was done, and make only minor tweaks to the document to reflect different names, etc. It is these cases — cases where the process is effectively the same each time, that are becoming commoditized and where we see a business opportunity. We presently operate in the areas of real estate, wills, probate, family and notarization services. It is in these areas that we see functional repetitiveness — commoditization — having the most efficacy.

For us, commoditized services means a higher level of legal quality. We realized that commoditization means that best practices can be applied to each transaction and that we develop a system — a method — that can assure quality service each and every time. We can do this through such things as check-box lists that assure every element of a transaction is addressed. Thanks to this realization, we now have a structured workflow process that we follow religiously.

In a nutshell, Axess says to most people “your needs are similar to your neighbors and given that functional similarity we can save you time and money by utilizing a routinized process designed around those common components.”

To our knowledge, we are the only lawyers in the world that are based in “big-box stores,” like Walmart or Target. More specifically, we are based in Walmarts and certainly we are the only lawyers located in Walmarts in Canada and probably North America.

Walmart’s goal is to become a one-stop-shop for the average consumer. That is, a place where consumers can get their haircut, book their travel, do their taxes, and handle their real estate and mortgages transactions, all in one convenient place.

Walmart has identified that its customer base has legal needs — legal needs that are similar to each other. As a result, Walmart has decided that in order to achieve its goal to become a one-stop-shop, it needs to have a law firm offer legal services that meet the basic legal needs of ordinary people. That’s what we do. We currently operate in ten Walmart locations, with plans for additional expansion. It’s our plan to be national in two to three years.

It’s not necessary to have an appointment to see one of our lawyers. All you have to do is stop by. This addresses a major access to justice issue — Axess has destroyed the traditional gates that keep people from accessing lawyers and legal knowledge. We have fully accredited lawyers on-site — not paralegals and not law clerks, but lawyers who are fully qualified to provide advice and discuss legal situations knowledgeably. They undergo extensive training and are instructed as to which situations we can handle and which ones we cannot. In this way, both we and the lawyers are confident that every piece of advice we offer is within our capacities and competencies.

You would think that we would have had trouble finding lawyers to work at our Walmart — our front office — locations. But in fact the opposite has been true. For every opening we have for a Walmart location, we get about 100 applicants. The type of work and the hours that we offer are appealing to many lawyers. Many lawyers want to work 40 and not the traditional 80 hours per week, and they want to be in jobs where they see that the work they do actually helps people. Our lawyers see how what they do provides access to justice — that is rare among traditional legal positions.

Something that we had to learn was how to staff each site — how to make sure we had the right people on hand to handle what comes in the door. We did this by both of us, at the very beginning, being there seven days a week for many months, just to see who came, when they came in, what types of questions they asked and what kind of needs they had.

In doing this, we learned that there was very little variety — many more similarities than differences. For example, the majority of Canadian adults do not have wills. And the questions they ask are almost always the same — how can I create will, what do I need to do, is it really this easy? So, it’s not necessary that our lawyers have expertise in every field, and it’s not necessary that they know how to handle complex matters. Just as H&R Block will refer you to someone else for a complex tax structure, we will also refer to others those who need specialized or complex advice.

We train our lawyers extensively in order to be sure that they only take in what they are competent to handle, and that they take the correct path.

At a traditional law firm, when you have a problem, the typical approach is to throw heads together to try to figure out a way around it. In contrast, at Axess, if you don’t fit neatly into the parameters of our boxes, we will refer you to someone who can handle non-commoditized work. That being said, 95 to 97% of the people who walk in our doors do fit within our boxes. Our boxes are very broad — we almost never turn away real estate work and we turn away wills and estates work perhaps only once or twice per week, across all our locations.

We currently specialize in five areas: real estate, wills, probate, family and notarization.

Notarization in Canada is quite different from the US. In the US, anyone can be a notary — you just need to apply for a stamp. In Ontario, only lawyers can notarize documents. We undercut our competition by charging $25 per stamp, whereas in the US anything over $5 per stamp would be considered a rip-off. So, the economics of notarization are much different in Canada than they are in the US.

With respect to real estate, Ontario is at the forefront of electronic transmission. Beginning in 1995, a whole series of massive innovations have taken place — firstly in Ontario but later in other provinces, such that today it is no longer necessary to central registry — everything can be done online and with low risk for error.

Ontario also offers certain advantages with respect to wills — most notably there is no requirement to file our wills with any court or other official body. Because the process is so simple, we can do it very quickly and at a low cost.

Our practice areas are those that we see are the best in Ontario for commoditization. As regards other provinces, we see that perhaps other areas might work better — each jurisdiction offers its own possibilities. As a general matter, we see that each jurisdiction is moving towards commoditization of certain areas, and it is our plan to bring best retail practice to bear in those areas as we expand nationally — to see where we can add value at an affordable price and in an accessible manner.

We have a long-term, formal agreement with Walmart. At each of our sites, we have invested $80,000 to $100,000 to create permanent structures, with the intention that we remain at that site for the long-term.

In our opinion, the current regulatory system for legal services in Canada today does not allow for the provision of legal services to the average Canadian. A recent study concluded that 85% of Canadians think that legal services are not affordable. This is shocking and totally unacceptable. And affordability is not the only issue — there are also issues of working hours and locations. As a country, as a province, we are not there — we are not even close to being there.

With respect to the adoption in Canada of an ABS structure comparable to that in the UK — as a general manner, we support it. We think that has the potential to shake things up, to create greater competition and inspire alternative forms for legal services.

That being said, we do not think that the adoption of a UK-like ABS structure is crucial for Axess. That is because it is possible for us to create organizational structures that separate into different structures the legal and the business elements of our services. In that manner, nonlawyers can own and invest in the business elements while only lawyers own and control the legal elements. In this way, we are able organize ourselves in a manner that works for us, in the absence of an ABS structure.

We see other ways that legal services can be made more affordable and more accessible to the average Canadian. For example, notarization services could be much cheaper if it were not only lawyers that could provide them. And we think that certain real estate matters could be handled just as well by a paralegal as by a lawyer.

We have financed ourselves through self-capitalization and loans. Those have been the only avenues that have been available to us.

We thrive in a competitive environment. As regards the future of Axess Law, we think that the sky’s the limit. We plan to be national in the next two to three years, and we’ve not ruled out expanding south of the border. We see a lot of commonalities between what we do here in Canada and what we think is needed in the US market. In a sense we already have a foot in the US market, because by operating in Walmarts, we are operating in America’s backyard.

In a macro sense, we think that the recession of 2008 forced the legal profession to change. In that financial crisis law became a line item, and a cost center to be controlled and with that realization, law became susceptible to same markets pressure in a way that it had previously not experienced. Axess is a product of this environment. We have structured a business that is able to meet people’s needs by unveiling the mystique of law and by refusing to be conduct ourselves in the normal legal manner. We are able to meet the needs of many people via retail business model that is easy for most people to understand implicitly.

We are often asked if we think that what we do devalues the profession. We’ve now had a few years to reflect on that question, we strongly believe the opposite — that we are enhancing the profession significantly. We’re bringing high quality legal practice to retail settings. We are adopting best practices across the board and we are introducing people to what a lawyer should be — not someone who’s there to rob you and take everything you’ve got which is really the way professionals in our industry are perceived, but rather friendly lawyers who are open and embracing of the communities of which they are part. In places where we operate, we’ve actually managed to change the reputation of our profession by bringing proper legal services to people who otherwise could not get it. This is something of which we are very proud.

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