The law office of the future

Rows of computer terminals dominate the vast room. Calls come in every few minutes and one of the large teams of "claims handlers" takes down details of the latest accident. The victim's claim is under way. This is the law office of the future - at least in the field of personal injuries.

Kingsford Stacey Blackwell is a solicitors' firm in London. A few months ago it had a small personal injuries department of some half a dozen staff who worked from the firm's traditional offices in Lincoln's Inn.

Now the department has 55 staff members, including six solicitors. It has moved to Fetter Lane, to an open-plan modern office equipped with the latest technology - costing between £1 million and £2 million.This is one of the new breed of law "factories" that are spearheading a fresh, production-line way of working on personal injury cases.

Simon Pinner, head of the department, says: "We were a firm in Lincoln's Inn with old corridors and fine stairways doing traditional work. Then we saw this incredible growth being spawned by claims management companies such as Claims Direct or Accident Advice Bureau in response to solicitors' non-approachability, high costs and failure to inform clients.

"With personal injuries, you are dealing with Joe Public - and you can't be like that. So these companies moved in."

In turn, firms like his saw an opportunity. They aim to process claims quickly and efficiently, but at a much lower cost. They train their own claims handlers who, although they are not qualified lawyers, are under strict supervision.

The new chain of referrals goes like this: people who suffer an accident will see an advertisement (the new claims managers run high-profile campaigns on trains, buses and television) offering to recover damages. Claims Direct, for instance, takes more than 1,000 calls a day on its 24-hour line. People are referred to one of its 262 personal injury firms (another 60 are joining the panel) all of which are accredited specialists.

If the lawyer rates it at less likely to succeed, a second reviews the file and then a third, before it is rejected. A barrister in every case accepted then evaluates the claim - independently of Claims Direct. But 90 per cent of accepted cases have been won; there are 30,000 claims in the system.

The client pays nothing. Once their case is accepted, they are covered by an insurance policy, in this case Claims Direct Protect. The claims handlers are not to be confused with the claims assessors being investigated by the Lord Chancellor's Department. These are non-law firms who have been accused of "ambulance chasing" and pursuing accident victims to "negotiate" settlements direct with insurers.

A case may next go to a firm such as Kingsford Stacey Blackwell, which tries to answer calls in three rings, to call back in four hours and to turn around a case in weeks.

"It is much more like an insurance company," Pinner says. They work extended hours (8.30 to 6.30) and limit letter-writing: most work is done by telephone. The staff work in teams and the idea is that any member can take any query on a case.

"We try to handle everything as quickly and as efficiently as possible. People are not impressed if you settle a claim in four and a half months, although that is probably a record. Nor are they impressed to have a lawyer dealing with a matter that doesn't need a lawyer. The market is driving forward new ways of working."