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.