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 "...community-wide 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 in...at 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 "...it 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.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Do The Maths

One of my recent posts about Solicitors charges got me thinking. Why don't Solicitors offer legal services throughout the year for a fixed annual fee-a sort of legal expenses insurance policy? I know that Accountants do something similar. Here's how you could perhaps go about it:

1. Undertake market research to identify the most popular legal services for say individuals, families and businesses.
2. Also find out how often on average such services are used.
3. Then cost each package over say a 5 year period, calculate the average and then add a contingency.
4. Clearly define the services and their scope and anticipate conflicts of interests.

I appreciate that this exercise is rather actuarial and my basic formula is clearly not in the same league as Google's algorithm or the Capello Index, but you get the gist. Hopefully, the peaks and the troughs will smooth themselves out across the board, especially over time and as the uptake increases.

Alhough this will not be for everyone, some Clients will prefer the certainty that such a service provides. It also guarantees your firm both Clients and fee income, improves cashflow and builds brand loyalty.

Perhaps I am wide of the mark and looking at it too simplisticly; after all, I am not a mathematical genius, but maybe, just maybe, I am on to something. Let me know what you think.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

No Move, No Fee

Staying with Solicitors charges, I recently came across a potential Client rejecting a conveyancing quote simply because the firm in question did not offer a "no move, no fee" service. I must confess that at the time I thought the firm was right. Conveyancers are already doing more work for less, without having to underwrite the housing market, especially in the current downturn. Why should Solicitors take the hit (again)? However, having thought about it and done some research, now I am not too sure.

I think it is fair to say that most Clients these days expect their Estate Agent to offer "no sale, no fee", so why should Solicitors be any different? After all, Agents stand to lose their marketing spend, not to mention their time and resources. The difference, of course, is the potential return. To compensate them for taking such risks, Agents invariably charge a commission based on a percentage of the sale price. True, advertising can be expensive and both the volume and frequency of work may be less, but, nevertheless, I figure that the Agents' mark up is more than comparable with the Solicitors' fixed fee, especially for higher value properties, which no doubt make up for the cheaper ones. The flip side, of course, is that most law firms get paid regardless of the outcome. Furthermore, their disbursements are also paid by the Client. So, in summary, it seems to be all about a risk/reward analysis. Agents risk getting nothing and insure against this eventuality, whereas most Solicitors prefer a certain, lesser amount.

However, the tide seems to be turning. Plenty of volume Conveyancers are now offering "no completion, no fee", without seemingly impacting on price, although the small print of such schemes and, and in some instances, the associated insurance policy, may not be quite what they seem. More importantly, High Street firms are now getting in on the act, sometimes charging no more than usual and waiving their fees (but not disbursements) in full if the transaction falls through. Other schemes charge more, in a similar vein to the Agents, either in the form of an upfront additional payment, or higher overall charges. The point is that Solicitors realise the benefits to both parties. The Client secures piece of mind and the firm gets the potential business in an increasingly competitive marketplace flooded with IT savvy "legal tourists". Factor in the possibility of cross-selling other legal services and the business model seems to make sense if the apparent uptake is anything to go by. The exact terms will undoubtedly depend on the circumstances, but the scheme will, at least initially, be one of your unique selling points differentiating yourself from most, if not all, of your local competitors. Don't get left behind. Trailblaze and let the rest follow.

Monday, 26 July 2010

Solicitors Referrals

According to a recent global study, lawyer to lawyer referrals "...constitute a vitally important income stream for many law firms". However, for the vast majority of small to medium sized High Street practices, I suspect that this could not be further from the truth. In my experience, Solicitors are somewhat reluctant/wary to refer work to their fellow professionals, even though they have no expertise/capacity to do the work themselves! Perhaps it is an intrinsic fear that the other firm will "poach" their Client. Maybe they are worried that they will look "desperate" touting for business. Whatever the reasons, they certainly have no commercial basis. Who would not want to make money from unwanted enquiries, either via a referral fee or profit share or a reciprocal arrangement? Is the business case not overwhelming, especially as no third parties are involved and the Solicitors Code of Conduct actually helps for once?

So, if the concept is a "no brainer", how are you going to develop formal/informal referral relationships? One easy solution is to join Solicitors Referrals, the national referral network between Solicitors. Annual membership starts at just £100 plus VAT and the first 25 subscriptions to SearchLite are completely FREE. What are you waiting for?

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Solicitors Charges: Act or Actor?

For all those familiar with the BBC2 programme, "Mary Queen of Shops", the phrase "point of difference" will strike a chord. How can small, independent retailers differentiate themselves from, and compete with, the supermarkets and other so called "big boys" when price is a non starter? Descriptions such as "local", "experience", "quality" and "service" are often the key and I firmly believe that these "benefits" can be equally applied to the legal profession, especially with the imminent arrival of what has been dubbed "Tesco law". Previous posts have touched on this and will be expanded on in the future. For the time being though, I want to concentrate on one specific aspect: should Solicitors charge based on who does the work or the end result?

Take conveyancing as an example. I am buying a house and approach a local law firm. Barring any unforeseen complications, the process should be relatively standard involving a Contract, Searches, Enquiries and probably a Mortgage. However, a Partner will be handling my case from start to finish and the fees reflect their qualifications and experience. Another local practice charges less, but most aspects of the transaction are dealt with by a "Conveyancing Executive" under the supervision of a Solicitor (not necessarily a Partner). Does it really matter to me who actually performs the work? I suspect that for the vast majority of Clients, the answer is no. In my experience, Clients regard the Solicitors firm as acting for them, rather than the individual fee earner. In fact, most Clients would probably be blissfully unaware of the fee earner's status. True, such information must be given at the outset, but how many Clients absorb it in practice? So, the upshot is that, to coin a phrase from the realm of negligence, it is the act being done, rather than the actor performing it, that is key. Consequently, in this particular area of law at least, price is crucial at a local level and firms should consider charging the market rate regardless, as well as delegating routine tasks to Paralegals. This may mean additional staffing costs, but this should be offset by the increased capacity and workload.

To be honest, I think the same is true in almost all other instances where the case invariably involves a set pattern and fees can, therefore, be fixed. I am thinking of uncontested divorces, basic Wills, obtaining a Grant of Probate, Compromise Agreements and the like. The ability/capability to do the job properly is a given. If you have different levels of fee earners all practising say family law, why should one charge more than the other, unless the particular facts of the case call for their specific intellect or expertise? On the other hand, different charging rates can be justified where the amount of work involved and/or complexity are unknown and time based charging is utilised.

In summary, will the individuals qualifications and experience add real value? If yes, qualifications, experience and hourly rates are still relevant, otherwise constant fixed fees across the board, coupled with standardisation and delegation, are the answer.

Monday, 12 July 2010

How Can Solicitors Compete?

In a previous post, I suggested that most High Street conveyancing Solicitors simply cannot compete on price and should not even attempt to do so. So, how else can such firms survive in the ever changing legal marketplace? Here are just a few ideas:

1. Identify both your existing and "wish list" Clients and, in each case, determine the type/s of service they (not you) actually want and what they are willing to pay (not how much you want to charge). Unless and until you have performed this exercise, you are simply fumbling around in the dark, unable to reach your target audience with any degree of precision. It is impossible to "be all things to all people". Armed with such information, why not offer different levels of service to different Client types?

2. Differentiate your practice. What is your unique selling proposition? Why should potential Clients choose your firm over its competitors, especially if you are more expensive? How can you justify higher charges? What additional benefits do you provide and why are they important? You could, for example, emphasise that you are:

2.1 Partner led;

2.2 Qualified;

2.3 Experienced;

2.4 Regulated; and/or

2.5 Local.

Furthermore, you offer:

2.6 A personal service; and

2.7 The protection afforded by both professional indemnity insurance and the Solicitors Compensation Fund.

You may also have embraced IT.

Perhaps, you visit Clients at home or in hospital.

3. Now you know your target audience and distinguishing features, promote your own brand, rather than someone else's. Take advantage of the new opportunities created by social media and social networking.

4. Consider offering a truly fixed price, irrespective of whether it is a sale or purchase, freehold or leasehold, with or without a mortgage etc. First, research the types and values of properties in your target area. Next calculate your average fee. Practice/case management systems should help in both respects. Finally, ensure that the average fee remains competitive for the most common type/s of transactions and that the estimated loss of income related to low value transactions will at least be met by the potential increased number of higher value matters.

5. Arrange the Energy Performance Certificate and then refund its cost (about £50) if you deal with the conveyancing. A group of local firms could join together for advertising and marketing purposes and still offer Clients freedom of choice between local, quality firms. Such a proposition could also alert unsuspecting potential Clients to the alternative being advanced by third parties.

6. Offer a free Will or a discount against other legal services, especially those not provided by your competitors. Provided you meet/manage Clients' expectations, this should, over the medium to long term, produce dividends, cultivating brand loyalty. Clients will, in time, regard you as their "family Solicitor" and recommend you to others.

7. Offer Clients a referral fee or other financial incentive for all new instructions introduced by them.

Of course, with the exceptions of 4. and 5., all of these ideas are of general application.

Wednesday, 30 June 2010

"Conveyancing Factories": Can Solicitors Compete?

In short, the answer is, in my view, no, and law firms should not even try. Here's why.

With any type of service, quality and price are undoubtedly the main drivers influencing customers'/clients' choices. Most people believe the old adage that "you get what you pay for". Nevertheless, many buyers and sellers of property, not to mention those remortgaging their homes and/or transferring ownership, are perfectly happy to instruct the cheapest firm, wherever they may be located and regardless of the service offered. It is the end result that matters most, not how (and if!) they get there. Conveyancing is, despite the personal attachment, not to mention the financial importance of the transaction, viewed no differently to the weekly shop. Price is king.

At the other end of the spectrum, are those that desire a bespoke, personal, local service and are, if necessary, prepared to pay for the privilege. For them, the "experience" or "journey" is key.

Finally, there are those somewhere in the middle, who are simply after the best compromise that they can get. Their expectation is that both price and quality of service will be "average"; a sort of halfway house.

So, should Solicitors try to compete on price? I believe the answer, for the vast majority of High Street practices, is no, at least not entirely. Such firms are unlikely to ever reap the economies of scale enjoyed by the out of town, high volume/bulk conveyancers. For this reason, being the cheapest is simply unattainable. No matter what they do, their competitors, especially with the proposed introduction of alternative business structures (i.e. "Tesco law"), will undercut them, possibly even offering conveyancing as a loss leader to grow their brand. Even in the current market, a Google search for "cheap conveyancing solicitors" lists numerous firms offering fees "from £89" and this ignores the cost of advertising and marketing and referral fees. In any case, it is your bottom line and reputation that counts. More work does not necessarily mean higher profits at the best of times, and reducing fees is hardly going to help! The adverse consequences attaching to a loss of goodwill should not be underestimated either.

It does not follow, however, that you should not give Clients the service they actually want (not what you think they want) and adjust your pricing structure accordingly. I have commented elsewhere on how this might otherwise be achieved and will revisit this conundrum in future posts, but here are just a few ideas. You could, for example, offer different levels of service to different Client types. Another possibility, depending on the types and values of properties in your target area, could be to offer the same fixed fee, irrespective of whether it is a sale or a purchase, freehold or leasehold and with or without a mortgage etc. Simply calculate your average conveyancing fee, which case/practice management systems should readily support, and give the comfort of clear, straightforward and transparent pricing.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Energy Performance Certificates: An Opportunity For Solicitors

A recent posting on The Law Forum highlighted a new venture called Partner Property ("PP") being promoted by ipacks2go and eTech. In essence, the scheme aims to provide "'t]he ideal revenue stream replacement for HIPs". If the seller decides to use one of PP's "legal partners", the Energy Performance Certificate ("EPC") is free. The Domestic Energy Assessor then gets paid for the EPC and, on completion, receives a share of the conveyancing fees, which can be split with the Estate Agent.

As I commented at the time, this appears to be yet another attempt to "hijack" Solicitors' Clients. To try to combat such threats, why don't Solicitors offer similar incentives? They could, for example, arrange the EPC and then refund its cost (about £50) if they deal with the conveyancing. A group of local firms could join together for advertising and marketing purposes and still offer Clients freedom of choice between local, quality firms. Such a proposition could also alert unsuspecting potential Clients to the alternative being advanced by PP and others.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Is Your Law Firm's Website Compliant?

Viewing, as I do, many Solicitors websites, you would, perhaps, be surprised at how many are non compliant. Is your firm's site one of them? Here is a quick snapshot of what is required, pursuant to the Solicitors Code of Conduct 2007, Electronic Commerce (EC Directive) Regulations 2002 (with the exception of litigation and notarial work) and Provision of Services Regulations 2009:

  • Name
  • Geographic address
  • Email address
  • VAT number
  • If a company, the company's name, place of registration, registered number and registered office
  • That the service is provided by solicitors of England and Wales regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority
  • A link to the Solicitors Code of Conduct
  • SRA registration number

If either the contract is concluded, or the service is provided, online, the following additional obligations apply:

  • All technical steps required to conclude the contract
  • Whether the concluded contract will be filed by you and whether it will be accessible
  • The technical means for identifying and correcting input errors
  • Legal status and form
  • Any general terms and conditions
  • Any contractual terms concerning the competent Courts or the applicable law
  • The price (where it is pre-determined) and main features of the service, if not already apparent
  • Details of your compulsory Professional Indemnity Insurance
  • Details of your complaint resolution procedures

There are other information requirements contained in the The Consumer Protection (Distance Selling) Regulations 2000, which are outside the scope of this summary, as are the many other obligations relating to letterheads, emails and client care, for example.


Do Referral Fees Work for Solicitors?

According to a recent report commissioned by the Legal Services Board, referral fees do not harm consumers. Whilst one can question the efficacy of such findings (including the apparent bias of estate agent respondents and the small, and arguably non-representative, samples used), they have today been supported by a separate report. According to the Legal Services Consumer Panel, referral fees neither increase costs nor reduce the quality of advice. This is, perhaps, surprising given the Panel's concerns that price, not quality, dictates who gets the work, clients are subjected to high pressure sales techniques, non-disclosure is prevalent and panels are restricted, mainly consisting of larger firms. Consequently, the recommendations include greater transparency, written consent and enforcement action. Disclosure is already required pursuant to the Solicitors Code of Conduct, breaches of which can (and should) be enforced by the Solicitors Regulation Authority, so it is rather doubtful that the protection afforded to clients will be enhanced, unless, of course, the Panel feels that the Authority is either unable or unwilling to perform its duties. If it is the latter, is this an example of what Law Society President Robert Heslett warned on Tuesday is the looming threat to the profession's independence? Similarly, the Panel concede that written consent is impractical in personal injury cases where much of the initial work is transacted over the telephone. The same argument can surely be applied in many other fields, especially with improved IT and "legal tourists" removing the geographical constraints that have hitherto existed. It is certainly somewhat difficult to accept at face value Vanilla Research's claim that the suggestions are a "game changer".

Regardless of whether or not these two reports prove determinative in the Board's final analysis, I believe there is a broader, and possibly more pressing, issue: are referral fees actually good for the profession itself? Should solicitors not retreat and regroup now before they become over reliant on third parties for work? For what it is worth, my own view, as both a practising solicitor and law firm consultant, is that, irrespective of the ethical issues, paying referral fees to agencies can be self defeating. Here's why.

Yes, the volume of work may well increase, but what really matters is your bottom line and reputation/goodwill. Take A Firm & Co. They were a general High Street practice undertaking both contentious and non contentious work, largely for local clients, who had either used the firm before or had been recommended to do so. Advertising was fairly low key as a consequence. Most work was transacted face to face and "snail mail" was the norm. Work was handled by experienced solicitors with a good claims record. Support staff were experienced and had been with the firm for many years. Workload was, except for the usual peaks and troughs, more or less constant, as was turnover and profit. However, the partners began noticing that they were losing conveyancing work. They discovered that local estate agents, who they regularly dealt with and instructed to carry out probate valuations, were directing erstwhile clients to other firms, usually out of town, and receiving a referral fee in return. A similar thing was happening in respect of personal injury work. Claims management and insurance companies were capturing clients at an early stage and referring them to panel solicitors, again willing to pay for the privilege. Not wanting to get left behind, A Firm & Co. entered into an arrangement with both a local estate agent and a claims management company. They paid the Agent £200 per conveyancing file and £500 for each personal injury case (the reports highlighted that the fees can be as much as £400 and £800 respectively).

As a consequence, workload increased. New staff had to be taken on to cope and a new IT system (including a case management system) was installed, all at significant up front cost to the practice, placing considerable strain on the firm's cashflow. Indeed, borrowing was increased. Costs pressures dictated that the new employees were more junior/less experienced than those already at the firm, introducing a culture change and necessitating more training and supervision than before. Similarly, the solicitors increasingly delegated more work to the non qualified staff, personal contact was lost and other service standards slipped. Unfortunately, some mistakes were made, leading to a rise in the professional indemnity insurance premium, already swollen by the increased turnover and referral arrangements. Moreover, the arrangements had to be disclosed to clients, who questioned whether the firm was acting in their best interests. Dissatisfied clients made complaints, taking up yet more valuable time, and spread adverse publicity, damaging the reputation/goodwill that had taken years to build up. Eventually, the firm outgrew its town centre premises and relocated to an expensive open plan office complex on the outskirts of town, alienating former clients still further. Staff turnover was much higher. I could go on, but you get the picture.

Ah, I hear you say, but what about the increased fee income? This made it all worth it right? Well, yes, turnover was up, but the referral fees had to be deducted from this. Even discounting the additional overheads and other burdens, the firm was, in effect, standing still, doing twice as much work for the same fees (similar to some Legal Aid firms, but without the element of public service). Factor in the associated expenses and other negative effects and A Firm & Co. was, in fact, worse off. Nevertheless, they felt they had gone past the point of no return. They had invested so much in this new, "commoditised" business model, and were so reliant on the agents and claims companies, that they simply could not "pull the plug". They were stuck with the situation they themselves had created and could not help feeling that the tail was wagging the dog. You do not need me to tell you how much worse this situation will get if the agent and/or company squeeze the firm for even more money, the referrers go bust or close down, rules and regulations change or the markets slump. The same (or at least a very similar) scenario can be applied to third party referral networks, who take a share of any profit costs, as well as charging an annual membership fee.

So what is the alternative to the "if you can't beat them, join them" mentality? Well, I firmly believe that A Firm & Co. should have concentrated on building (not destroying) their own brand, rather than someone else's. They were reliant on the agent and claims company to attract the client and then automatically refer the client to the firm. A Firm & Co.'s own branding was, to a certain extent, irrelevant, as they were going to get the work anyway. Their referral fees were contributing to the third parties' own advertising and marketing budgets. A Firm & Co. both neglected its core clients and took no independent action to gain new ones.

I am in no way advocating that the firm should have continued with the same, staid "traditional" approach. As I have been at pains to stress elsewhere, law firms must adapt both their services and mode of delivery to compete with the new, more commercially minded entrants to the legal marketplace (so called "Tesco Law"). A Firm & Co. could, for example, have developed an interactive website to both serve existing clients and attract new business. IT could still have streamlined processes and helped improve communication, transparency and access to information. They could even have gone further and created a "virtual" office engaging self employed consultants and slashing operating costs in the process. Both old and new media could have been utilised to improve the firm's exposure. Standard tasks could still have been delegated to paralegals. The firm could have become more specialist, differentiating itself from rival firms and charging a premium based on its unique selling proposition. Perhaps a merger with a compatible firm to achieve economies of scale was the way forward.

Believe it or not, I also support referrals, but to and from fellow solicitors. A Firm & Co. could have referred work that it did not carry out to another firm, perhaps as part of a reciprocal arrangement or in return for a fee or share of any profit. It could also have sought work from another firm. Such arrangements, which do not necessarily have to be disclosed, re-seize the initiative, help solicitors retain control over their own destiny and keep referral fees within the profession. Over reliance should not be an issue either if the firm has also adopted some of the practices outlined in the preceding paragraph. The firm will always have its (enhanced) brand to fall back on.

Yes, similar growing pains and teething problems would have been encountered, but they could have been controlled, managed and smoothed over more easily. If necessary, more regard could have been had to the needs of those existing clients still craving a local, High Street Solicitor providing a bespoke, personal service, whilst at the same time reaching out to more IT savvy, less centric potential clients where speed, ease of use and price are king. Different levels and types of service could have been offered to accommodate both. Crucially, the firm's bottom line should have improved and its medium to long term future placed on a much firmer footing.

I do not want to scaremonger and I appreciate that all firms are different. A combination of solicitors referrals, other referrals and updated practices and procedures may well be the answer for some, but if, as seems to be the case, third party referral fees are here to stay, each individual practice must carefully consider all of the alternatives and decide what is best for them. Blindly following the crowd may not be all it is cracked up to be.


Much Ado About Nothing?

The coalition plans to introduce primary legislation requiring 55% of MPs to vote for a dissolution. This has caused much consternation and hoo-ha, leading to claims of an undemocratic/unconstitutional "fix", but is this really the case?

Firstly, let me say I do not claim to be a constitutional lawyer or expert. Neither am I approaching this issue from a political perspective; just as a "reasonable bystander"; "the man on the Clapham omnibus".

The actual text from the Agreement entered into between the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties is:

"...This legislation will also provide for dissolution if 55% or more of the house votes in favour."

The Tories have 47% of the Common's votes. My understanding is that the proposal aims to protect both parties during the currency of a five year fixed term Parliament. It prevents the Lib-Dems holding the Conservatives to ransom as the smaller party could only muster a maximum of 53%. It also ensures that the Tories cannot "go it alone" as a minority Government and decide if and when to call an election. In Scotland, another coalition Government, a two thirds majority is required. However, it is claimed by some commentators that this changes our (unwritten) constitution in that a simple majority (i.e., more than 50%) is sufficient at present. For what it is worth, I find it hard to sympathise with such criticism for three reasons.

Firstly, there is the sovereignty of Parliament. As a general rule, any law can be introduced, provided due process is followed. Whilst the 55% rule is consistent with this notion, so too is a repealing Act supported by a simple Commons majority. Provided the Liberal Democrats can, along with Labour and the other parties, secure more than 50% support, what is to prevent the Houses passing an Act repealing the 55% rule?

Secondly, it is the Prime Minister who currently has the power to call a general election, not Parliament.

Finally, if the Tories lost a no confidence motion, again by a bare majority, is it not inconceivable that they would continue to limp on is such circumstances, unable to pass any of its legislation?

The upshot is that the proposal is, in my view, both well intentioned and "constitutional". Perhaps my analysis is too simplistic and/or plain wrong, but I cannot help feel it is much ado about nothing.