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.

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