Thursday, 10 February 2011

SDLT Update: Avoidance Schemes And New Rate

Apologies for the delay since my last post, but things have been pretty hectic to say the least.

Following on from one of my previous posts, Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs (HMRC) are to challenge Stamp Duty Land Tax (SDLT) avoidance schemes.

HMRC are comparing transactions reported to the Land Registry with Land Transaction Returns made to HMRC and following up any discrepancies.

Read HMRC's Statement

Do you have any experience of such schemes?

Whilst on the subject of SDLT, there is a new rate for expensive properties. From 6 April 2011, a new higher rate of 5% will apply to residential purchases for more than £1 million.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Gold, Silver And Bronze: Staying Ahead Of The Game

I have read rather a lot recently about commoditisation and problem solving. As I understand it, the argument goes something like this:
  • Law firms can solve Clients' legal problems by embracing IT to help standardise and streamline their processes.
  • Furthermore, practices should implement such systems now before the initiative is lost to the more commercially minded, scaled up competitors that alternative business structures will inevitably bring.
I certainly agree that the Internet is a "great leveller" for small and medium sized firms, providing access to markets and opportunities previously enjoyed exclusively by larger organisations. A Sole Practitioner's website can, in theory, reach out to the same audience and offer similar services (online at least) to a top City firm, especially in conjunction with Case Management and Document Production Systems and the outsourcing of secretarial and other key processes.

However, for me, the success or otherwise of such an approach depends on a number of factors, including:
  1. Your Client base, in terms of location and demographics, for example.
  2. The type/s of service/s your Clients want, be it "off the shelf" legal documents or bespoke advice and assistance etc.
For those firms that have an eclectic mix of Clients with different needs, how about adapting your services accordingly? For example, for IT savvy, cost conscious, non-centric Clients offer them a basic, "packaged" product similar to that advocated above? Similarly, deliver a personal, bespoke service to those local Clients demanding just that. Finally, for those Clients somewhere in between, give them the best of both-a mainly automated service, but with some human interaction for peace of mind. The level of service will then dictate the price. I have touched on this idea in previous posts (see "Conveyancing Factories": Can Solicitors Compete?).

Clients are accustomed to making such choices. One example that immediately springs to mind is insurance. Coverage is commonly labelled "gold", "silver" and bronze".

So how do you apply this principle to legal services? Whilst it perhaps lends itself more to work of a transactional nature, I believe that, in most areas of law, the method of delivery and/or the extent of involvement, can be tailored to meet the Client's needs. Here are just a few examples:

Wills and other documents

There will no doubt be some people who simply want a basic template that can (depending on the firm's capabilities) either be downloaded and completed in accordance with the accompanying notes or (even better) compiled online. In both cases, no help is required.
Others may want to go a little bit further and have the reassurance of a fee earner check the completed document to ensure that it is valid (but not advise as to its suitability/fitness for purpose).
Some Clients may be looking for a bespoke document to be prepared from scratch, based on their own individual circumstances, following a face to face meeting and specialist advice and assistance.


Some will want the bare minimum, namely legal completion of their transaction. They desire a stripped down service, only paying for what is absolutely essential. They expect to be charged less if there is no Mortgage to redeem and/or register. Similarly, they will save money by completing and submitting the Land Transaction Return themselves. Given email and online case tracking, they also consider postage and telephone calls to be "added extras" and want to retain some control over the associated costs.
Other people will want the certainty of a fixed fee to cover everything, apart perhaps from the risk of the chain collapsing.
Finally, there will be those Clients who prefer the comfort of a "no move, no fee" guarantee and are prepared to pay for the privilege.


Depending on how complex the circumstances, Clients may just need a Grant of Probate/Letters of Administration. Possibly, a guide and links to the relevant forms is all that is required
Others may want you to obtain a Grant/Letters and also handle the sale of the deceased's property.
Some people may, in addition, require advice and assistance in relation to the actual administration of the estate.


Some Clients act in person, possibly seeking ad-hoc advice. Again, a guide/links may well suffice, otherwise fixed fee web chats may be the answer.
Others may want you to deal with an undefended Petition, but not to get involved with any children or ancillary relief matters.
Then there are those who require advice and assistance regarding all aspects of their marital breakdown.


As with divorce, there may be those who just want some initial advice or a Letter Before Action sent to the other party. In the latter case, the Client may be able to adapt a precedent available through your website (a debt collection matter, for example).
Again, some unrepresented Clients may need help as and when required.
At the other end of the spectrum, there will be those who instruct you to act from start to finish. Although all cases are different, there are those (Small Claims, for example) where the likely work can be assessed at the outset and thus justify a fixed fee.

The most important point is to understand exactly what it is your Clients want and how they want it delivered. Once you have done this, you can develop and adapt your services to meet their differing needs.

What do you think?

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Law Firms' SEO: Can Squidoo And HubPages Help?

Following on from my previous post about Foursquare, this time I am concentrating on Squidoo and HubPages.

Squidoo is an online publishing platform and community that lets you create "lenses" (pages) about a particular topic. It is free to join and you can even earn 50% of the company's advertising revenue for charity or yourself.

You can make a lens about your law firm, its website or blog, or your speciality. Either way, there are, as I see it, 3 main benefits from a search engine optimisation (SEO) perspective:
  1. The obvious one is that users searching Squidoo itself will hopefully find your lens.
  2. Your lens may also appear in the organic results for Google and other search engines.
  3. Linking the lens to your site/blog will help increase its own visibility.
Consequently, the choice and use of keywords and associated SEO techniques is crucial in creating your lense and there are some useful resources on the site and elsewhere on the web to help. However, from my own experience, I found the Dashboard not as user friendly as say Blogger or WordPress, especially as, in the absence of an Editor, a basic knowledge/understanding of HTML code is required. The proliferation of Google Ads, the majority originating from your competitors, is a real pain to say the least and impacts badly on the aesthetics/overall impression. You can turn off other types of adverts, but I have not yet found a way to do so completely. Any tips in this regard would be appreciated.

Squidoo has also introduced a "fun"/"game" element in the form of Rockstar Mode and trophies and badges, perhaps in homage to Foursquare.

HubPages appears remarkably similar. Simply substitute "hubs" for "lenses" and "Accolades" for "badges". Your share of the advertising spoils is 100% of Google AdSense clickthrough revenue and 60% of total hub impressions (although the Affiliate and Referral Programs complicate matters). However, one distinguishing feature is the " HubScore ranking system". Apparently, a low HubScore (40 or 50 have been mentioned in Forums) results in "nofollows" for outbound links. The Dashboard is more professional and there is an Editor (including HTML). Spam is prohibited. Overall, HubPages seems more involved and complicated.

Free means of improving your web presence and traffic are surely a good thing and should not be sniffed at. I have to say that their biggest advantage for me is the "link juice" passed back to your own website/blog, although, as usual, quality content is king.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Do Solicitors Get A Raw Deal?

A fortnight ago, my family and I visited our new Dental Surgery for the first time. On arrival, we all had to complete a Registration Form and then took it in turns to see the Dentist, who introduced himself. My wife and I needed some follow up treatment, so we arranged another appointment and my wife was asked to pay a deposit towards its cost (which had already been explained to us). Apart from a Receipt, no further paperwork was forthcoming. We returned last week, had the work done (which wasn't too bad thanks) and paid the balance. Again, only a Receipt was given.

Now don't get me wrong. I'm sure you're all more or less familiar with this scenario. After all, it seems, certainly from my own experience of other Surgeries and Chiropractors etc. at least, that this is the norm: let the Patient provide the required information, take immediate credit/debit card payments, handover a Receipt and that's it. However, being a Solicitor, I couldn't help but compare this experience with that of my own Clients. Here's what I would have had to do in similar circumstances:
  1. If possible, I would have provided some basic costs and other information before the first meeting to ensure that there were no misunderstandings, especially concerning the scope, time limit and cost of the interview.
  2. In any case, I would have supplied a detailed Client Care Letter compliant not just with the Solicitors Code of Conduct, but the myriad of other rules and regulations to which we are subject, and asked the Clients to sign, date and return a copy. Again, this would, ideally, have take place prior to the initial meeting (to the extent that I could have satisfied the rules and regulations at that stage with any outstanding information etc. following as soon as possible). As part and parcel of this, I would have had to agree a level of service and spell out our respective responsibilities, not only my name and status, but that of any supervisor, the basis and terms of my charges, my complaints procedure and possibly my Professional Indemnity Insurance coverage.
  3. Prior to accepting any payment, I would have had to consider the operation of the Money Laundering Regulations and, where appropriate, obtain and copy satisfactory evidence of the Clients' names and address and perform an electronic check to ensure that they were not politically exposed persons etc.
  4. Following the meeting, as well as confirming any outstanding costs and other information, I would (amongst other things) have had to write to identify the Clients' objectives, explain the issues involved and the options available and agree the next steps to be taken. This would have been repeated, arguably after each and every attendance.
I'm sure I've missed some items off this list, but, even as it stands, it looks much more cumbersome and onerous than the Dentist's.

Do the vast swathes of paper and information sent to my Clients make for a more fulfilling experience? Are such Clients better protected and more informed than other members of the public? If the answer to these and other similar questions is "yes", why should this be so when healthcare professionals are, after all, dealing with people's physical wellbeing, where the risks and potential consequences are, in some cases, arguably much more serious/grave? Furthermore, why are unregulated "Legal Consultants" and "Will Writers", sometimes providing identical services, not scrutinised in the same way? Should the "act" not override the "actor"? What about Accountants, Estate Agents and Surveyors? Why are they treated any differently? If, on the other hand, the answers are "no", why do Solicitors find themselves in such an unenviable and, on its face, unfair position? Have their regulatory bodies not been as robust as others?

I suppose the upshot is this: does the (over) regulation of Solicitors help or hinder the profession and its Clients? I think I know the answer, but what do you think?

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Is Foursquare The New Twitter?

Today, I begin a series looking at three of the less well known/utilised on-line applications. In the coming weeks, I will concentrate on Squidoo and HubPages - tools that can help promote your law firm's visibility on the World Wide Web, but I start with Foursquare - possibly the most intriguing and scaleable social media network to emerge in recent years.

Foursquare is a location based service with a competitive edge that ultimately rewards its users, who "...earn points, win Mayorships and unlock badges for trying new places and revisiting old favourites". Businesses can "...engage [their] increasingly mobile customers with..."Specials", which are discounts and prizes you can offer your loyal customers when they check your venue". Specials come in a variety of forms, including those exclusive to the Mayor (your single most loyal customer), those based on the number of check-ins and wildcards, and are actively promoted by Foursquare. I suppose the service is somewhat similar to Google Places, but the recommendations depend on the user's actual physical location, as opposed to their virtual search area. Furthermore, Foursquare is, of course, interactive as a social network and "game".

So, what has all of this got to do with Solicitors? Well, it is certainly true that most venues appear to be retail based. Domino's Pizza, for example, has a number of listings for each of its franchises, all promoting Specials such as: "Free dessert when you buy a meal deal on your 3rd check-in!". However, a search for "solicitors" found 27 venues. Some even have Mayors and/or positive feedback in the form of "tips", which in one case (Fridays Property Lawyers) alerted users to a free HIP.

Solicitors should get in on the act now before Foursquare really takes off. Solicitors, along with other businesses, were sceptical about the potential of Twitter, but many law firms now regularly use this platform to promote their services, network and win new business. Who would have thought several years ago that Clients would turn to Twitter when seeking legal advice, as opposed to first flicking through Yellow Pages and then, more recently, relying on Google and other search engines, as well as on-line directories and resources? Similarly, as more and more people join Foursquare and become accustomed (and perhaps in some cases seemingly addicted) to its friendly competition, surely it will not be too long before it becomes second nature to use the network to find like minded professionals? Foursquare may just be the next big thing.

Visitors can already leave tips, regardless of whether or not you have claimed your venue, so signing up gives you an element of control and the chance to portray a positive image to potential clients.

Specials could take the form of discounts against certain services, a free Will if you handle the conveyancing, a free review of an existing Will, free storage of Title Deeds etc. etc. The possibilities are endless. Let me know what you think.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

If You Build It They Will Come

I have just read Lawyer Locator's white paper entitled "The Future of Small Law Firms".

Some of its findings are, perhaps, rather surprising and somewhat out of kilter with other research and empirical evidence. For example, according to the associated consumer (their word not mine) poll, only 1% of people use search engines to choose a lawyer (75% less than those apparently using a telephone directory!). Compare this to the 26% revealed by a Solicitors Regulation Authority survey in 2008. My own experience suggests that this latter figure is much more accurate and, as the paper readily accepts, is a trend which can only be expected to grow. The other main sources of work are recommendations from family and friends (28% and 24% respectively) and having local offices (22%).

As part of the poll, respondents were also asked to identify the three qualities that are most important when choosing a lawyer. The results are:

60% Specialist knowledge of the legal issues involved
60% Approachable and able to explain the issues involved
49% Cost
29% Ease of getting in touch
28% Proximity to where they live or work
23% Knows my personal history
11% Good local knowledge

I argued in a previous post that legal knowledge is more or less a given. If say you advertise family law services, the vast majority of clients will, rightly or wrongly, assume that both the firm and the individual fee earner are specialists in that particular field. If they were aware of negative comments made by former/existing clients, they probably would not have approached the firm/fee earner in the first place.

Proximity and local knowledge are also matters of fact. The offices are either near the potential client or they are not and it should follow that the firm knows about its surroundings.

Looking at the remaining factors, coupled with where the work actually comes from, the lessons small firms can learn from the paper are (in no particular order, especially given the results):

1. Friends and family will only recommend your services if you at least meet, and hopefully exceed, their expectations. This involves clearly defining at the outset of each case the exact extent of the retainer. In other words, what work you will do and not do. Likewise with your service standards or clients charter. For example, will you return telephone calls the same day, emails the following day and letters within two days? You must then do the job you promised and comply with any self imposed deadlines. Finally, at the end of the matter, you should gather honest feedback on the client's experience. Positive comments can form the basis of testimonials to garner the trust of potential new clients. Negative responses can be used to improve your services and hopefully avoid a repetition.
2. Satisfied clients should be retained. It is obviously much easier and cheaper to generate new business from such clients than prospects. Before, during and/or after the retainer, offer them another, possibly associated, service, at a special discounted price. Would they be interested in an annual "legal policy" (see my previous article on this subject). Tell them in a newsletter about changes in the law, what this means for them, what they need to do and how you can help. Similarly, you may have taken on a new fee earner or opened a new department. A former client may be moving house, but if they do not think you deal with conveyancing, they may not contact you.
3. Service standards/a clients' charter also reassure clients that you will be accessible. Make it as easy as possible by utilising email, text messages, tweets etc. Invest in your website, allowing interaction. Consider an online case tracking system, available 24/7. Stagger staff so that calls are answered outside normal opening hours and do not close for lunch. Visit clients at home or at work. What about working Saturday morning or diverting calls to mobiles when the office is closed?
4. Communicate in plain English and provide a friendly, yet professional, service. Ensure that your reception area is welcoming. For some, visiting a lawyer is feared as much as going to the dentist!
5. Be transparent regarding costs. Fix/cap fees wherever possible or be imaginative, relating costs to the value of a commercial transaction, for example.
6. Use search engine optimisation/search engine marketing to ensure that your website appears on the first page of local internet searches. Google Places is also a free tool to promote your firm, as are social media and blogs and advertorials and articles in local newspapers.
7. Differentiate yourself from other local firms. Why should clients choose your firm over the competition (I have written about this before)? If self serve document sites are an issue, does the client know that they may have no comeback if the standard document lets them down? Such unregulated sites are littered with disclaimers and cannot offer clients the protection afforded by professional indemnity insurance and the Compensation Fund, or even legal professional privilege. Isn't it worth paying that little bit extra to get the job done properly?

Above all, give the client the service that THEY want at a price THEY are willing to pay. If this is achieved, you will be well on the way to becoming that person's "local lawyer", something that 70% of respondents in the poll feel they do not have.

Friday, 13 August 2010

SDLT Schemes To Be Avoided?

This week's edition of my local free newspaper contained an advertisement for a service claiming to "save thousands of pounds on Stamp Duty" and "...halve your Stamp Duty" targeted at those buying a property priced in excess of £250,000.

Stamp Duty Land Tax ("SDLT") is charged at the rate of 3% on such properties up to a value of £500,000 and 4% beyond that, so the potential savings are significant.

Having investigated the website in question, the savings take the form of a "rebate" received within 30 days of completion. The scheme applies to residential and commercial property, whether freehold or leasehold, and individuals, companies and pension funds. it is "...structured around the in depth advice of leading Tax Counsel" and reference is also made to a conveyancing panel. There is even a money back guarantee. Sound too good to be true? Well apparently " isn't 'that easy'" to develop these plans.

Unsurprisingly, no details are given as to how the savings are actually achieved, although the examples suggest that no SDLT is payable at all. Rather, the Client pays the advisers' fees.

As I am not a tax expert, I cannot begin to guess how the schemes are structured or comment on their effectiveness. However, if the number of firms listed on Google following a search for "SDLT avoidance" is anything to go by, there must be something in it. This leads me on to my main question: should Lawyers be alerting Clients to the existence of such schemes and, if they should, is a failure to do so a breach of duty, giving rise to a claim in negligence?

Law firms will naturally be very wary of participating in any scheme which they do not understand and/or raises suspicions. Perhaps, that is why the company I looked at had their own conveyancing panel, prepared to facilitate the arrangement. In any event, where does this leave the High Street practise unfamiliar with the process? Do they take a punt and become involved, say nothing and risk a negligence action or mention the possible savings to Clients and hope that they are not "poached" by a panel firm? Of course, these scenarios assume that the Client has not already been "hijacked" like Estate Agents.

I would welcome comments from anyone with experience of these schemes or any further information.