Sunday, 16 January 2011

Commoditisation -v- the old-fashioned "family solicitor"

In The Private Patient, the author - P D James - several times includes an assumption that "people of means" will have a permanent solicitor - a family solicitor - who knows their background and previous dealings, and can give a broad range of advice and information.

While this used to be the case - and is a useful means for fictional detectives to find out all about the victim's business - it is becoming less and less true these days. More likely, people choose their lawyer on a task-by-task basis, selecting him or her for particularly relevant skills or specialisation. This is understandable: "horses for courses", as the saying goes

In these times, how is one to choose a good lawyer, accountant, surveyor, etc? I suggest, by personal recommendation - from a family member, friend or other professional adviser (eg: ask your conveyancer to recommend a surveyor; ask your accountant to recommend a commercial lawyer)

Indeed, if you have used one lawyer who specialises in a particular field, they are likely to be ideally placed to recommend you to a lawyer for another type of work. Instead of the lawyer in a large firm feeling obliged to recommend you to colleagues in the same firm, a sole practitioner who specialises in one field, will have no reason to do other than recommend you to the best lawyer available for another type of work, whether they are part of a larger firm or another sole practitioner - as long as the referrer is confident of his or her own value to you in their specialist field

A word of warning: one area where this does not work well is where the referrer is paid by the referree: then they do have a vested interest and their recommendation, while it may still be good, is inevitably slightly tainted. Indeed, some estate agents require their staff to refer buyers and sellers to conveyancers that pay referral fees, whether or not that referral is in the best interests of the buyer or the seller or the transaction as a whole

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Unfair to pigeons!

There was an item on TV over the weekend (a comedy quiz, I believe) that mocked pigeons for being "superstitious" - for doing again the things they had been doing before when they were rewarded with food, etc

Though they were compared to superstitious sportsmen, and the like, who insisted on wearing their "lucky jockstrap" for a match, or similar, in fact all the pigeons were doing was learning from experience, and doing again what they had previously done and been rewarded for.

Bearing in mind how many humans keep doing what they have always done but expect a different result, or the number who are religious or superstitious or believe in astrology, it ill behoves us to mock mere pigeons who have - they believe - learnt the path to true happiness and plenty of seeds

Lawyers are rubbish ...

... well, too many of them are, anyway.

We  often wonder why we get so many irrelevant or unnecessary additional enquiries from buyers' conveyancers (including solicitors).

In the last couple of weeks, the answer has dawned on us: not only have they not read the paperwork we already sent them - they don't care. They want us to answer their own standard questions; they then copy them and our replies to the buyer and say, "Sign here". They have no interest at all in investigating or advising; they are (sorry) crap: charging for acting as lawyers, but in fact only acting as a copier and mail forwarder with no input or added value - some new clients who instructed us last week confirmed this to us: the conveyancers who "acted" when they bought the property simply sent the search result, replies to enquiries, etc, to the clients, telling them to read it all through and sign the contract if they were happy. They did not even bother to check the replies to enquiries to ensure they were (a) complete and (b) not self-contradictory

This week, I received 14 pages of "additional enquiries": all except 3 were answered by the papers we had already sent. The three extras were:
• "Does the the seller own the telephone?" (WHAT?!)
• "Is the building structurally sound?" (Ask a surveyor)
• "When was the house built?" (1920s we think, based on what the agents' particulars said, but we cannot see why it is significant in this case).

OK, it is a relatively minor irritation, but it puts us and our clients to unnecessary work. The really galling thing is that I bet the buyer's solicitor will hardly look at the replies: he will either simply copy them to his own client to wade through (at lest then the buyer will see his solicitor is rubbish) or quietly file and forget them

Bah! Humbug!

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Adding value

I am told by those who know more about this sort of thing than I do - marketing people, mainly - that the "value dimensions" of a business depend on it displaying one or more of the following -
  • product leadership
  • operational excellence
  • customer intimacy
True or not, it provides food for thought

Product leadership

Hmm ... that's a difficult one for lawyers, dependent as they are on implementing, rather than making, law. However, we do our best - for instance, our advice regarding preventing property theft (ask for a copy in the comments section, if interested) and our guarantee of satisfaction

Operational excellence

Within the constraints of the current conveyancing process, we think we are as efficient and speedy as possible, without doing "make work" to appear busy. In addition, we constantly fine-tune our procedures to improve them - and welcome constructive suggestions for further improvements

Customer intimacy

This, I think, is where we are very different from other firms. Unlike "normal" solicitors, who try to minimise contact with clients, estate agents, etc, we actively encourage visits - without insisting on prior appointments - and telephone calls.

To be fair, without an appointment, a visitor is unlikely to see me (or my assistant solicitor), but they will be seen by Samantha Hayes (my conveyancing manager) or Anne Browne (office/conveyancing manager). In all likelihood, Sam or Anne will be able to deal with any procedural or incidental points; any legal issues would be relayed to a lawyer for attention. Similarly with telephone calls: Sam and Anne will know the up-to-date position on any of the residential conveyancing transactions and can update clients and agents as appropriate

We thinks this gives us an almost-unique approachability - until other firms adopt a similar idea, of course

Suggestions welcome

If you can suggest any other "value dimensions" or ways of improving them, please add as comments below

Sunday, 2 January 2011

9 ways to choose a lawyer

Some thoughts on how to choose who should handle your legal work for you - mainly focused on residential conveyancing, but of  relevance to other fields as well:

1. Listen to personal recommendations: If you are moving home, speak to friends and family who have moved home recently. If you have a commercial transaction or need other business-related legal help, speak to your accountant. If you are seeking a divorce lawyer, speak to someone who has been though the ordeal.  Who would they recommend you use - or recommend you avoid?

2. Don’t be bullied into a particular choice.
In residential transactions, many corporate estate agents are incentivised to refer to particular firms in order to be paid referral fees - sometimes, their staff are disciplined if they do not make successful referrals. However, this is benefiting only the agent, not the buyer or the seller. Indeed, where a buyer is referred to an inefficient firm for a referral fee, the agent is not acting in his client's (the seller's) interests at all - the agent has allowed his own interests to prevent him fulfilling his duty to his own client.  If an agent suggests using a particular firm, ask, "Why?" then "Do you get a referral fee if we use them?"  Similarly, in other legal work, you have the right to choose your own lawyer on the basis of what suits you best.

3.  Buy local, where you can
. For a house move, it is probably sensible to use someone local to your destination: a genuinely local conveyancer will know so much more about your area than a so called “national” firm, simply as a result of being involved in their local community. For other legal work, choose a firm local to you - either at home or at work - so that it is convenient to meet when necessary - this is particularly important for family work, where face-to-face discussions minimise the stress and complexity of what is an already over-stressful time

4. Let's talk!   Linked to this is the question of communication: how and how often do you want to be contacted with progress or non-progress reports? Inevitably, some legal work takes longer than other work, and a daily report of "No response yet" in a court action or negotiation would be over the top, but you might well want a weekly email report.  Or you might want instead to be copied in on correspondence, so that you can see what is happening. In a matter with clearly defined milestones - exchange of contracts and completion in a house move, for instance - you might want a phone call to confirm the position, or you may prefer a text, with more detailed information to follow, if needed. Make sure that the lawyer you plan to choose will (within reason) fit in with the way you want to communicate

5. Do online research. Searching for “Conveyancing Tenterden”, for instance, will throw up various conveyancers who are - or pretend to be - in the relevant area. Visit their websites; check that they are, indeed, where they claim to be, and get a feel for how they work and what they offer. The same applies to other fields of law. It is usually the case that lawyers who are genuinely good in their chosen field(s) will make a lot of relevant information available for free on their websites. Be wary of those who claim expertise but fail to demonstrate it

6. Back up that research by phoning - better still, visiting - the firm(s) you have in mind. You can find out a lot about how approachable and client-focussed a firm is by asking a few relevant questions over the phone - still more by how you are treated on an unannounced visit to their office. If they treat you as a nuisance (or worse), you have been warned!

7. Don't choose minimum cost, but maximum value. If you are not sure you can tell the difference, rely on item 1 above: those who have experienced the process can tell you whether they found the service they received good or bad value for money. As a poorer alternative, check to see if the firm you are considering publishes testimonials from satisfied clients - and, ideally, offers a guarantee of satisfaction

8. Talking of cost ...   The work you want done may be suitable for an agreed fixed fee, instead of being charged on the basis of the time spent by the lawyer - there is always the suspicion that this rewards inefficiency. In effect, most residential conveyancers charge a fixed fee, in that they should not exceed their original estimate without clearing it with you - but watch out for hidden extras: get confirmation that the estimated fee covers all the expected work, and that you will not be charged extra for (say) completing a transaction less than two weeks after exchange of contracts, as some conveyancers do

9 Choose a small firm. I am biased, but I feel that most larger firms treat individual clients as of relatively low value, on the basis that there are plenty of other fish in the sea: the loss of one or two clients will not seriously impact on them. A small firm - or sole practitioner - knows he or she must cherish every client; not only are those clients of relatively higher individual value, but they will talk about their experience: see item 1 above. Further, the staff in a small firm will be more of a family or group of friends than in a large firm, where they are "personnel" or "human resources"; a small firm is therefore likely to be friendlier - amongst themselves and towords outsiders (We keep a supply of biscuits for our postmen ...)   Finally, it is such a struggle for a small firm to fight its way through the regulatory and other processes designed by large organisations with large organisations in mind and no experience of being part of a small organisation, that the small guys must have a very good reason for not joining a big firm and letting it take the strain - that reason is enthusiasm: they tend to love what they do and constanty strive to excel at it.

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Never sign without reading

Everyone knows, I hope, how important it is to read - and understand - documents before signing them: once signed, they are legally binding on you, and consumer protection legislation will only come to the rescue of the foolhardy in very limited situations.

This applies to all sorts of documents: contracts, terms of business, even letters and, of course, Wills

It therefore surprises me to find clients turning up to sign their Wills (or other documents) without bringing their reading glasses with them. OK, they have normally seen Wills, etc, in draft form already and - presumably - have read them then; also, they can ask us to read the document over to them, which we will happily do.

Even so, I feel a little queasy at the thought of someone signing a Will without having read it through there and then, just before signing. We prefer to lend them a pair of glasses from a member of staff, if we have a suitable pair - mine won't do for reading as they are to correct my short-sightedness - and on one occasion I had to send a client home to get his reading glasses, as none was available for loan; he was not very happy!

To avoid this problem in future, we have bought a selection of cheap reading glasses to lend to forgetful clients, so the days of someone trying to insist on signing a document they cannot read ("It's all right: I trust you"!) should be over

Thursday, 30 December 2010

Who are our competitors - and which worry us?

As "High Street" solicitors, who tend to handle local work for local people, it might be thought that our main competitors are other, similar "High Street" solicitors - I think not

Although there is competition between us and other local firms, we do not see them as an existential threat (oooh! Big words!) On the whole, they tend to have the same philosophy of business as us: do a good job, at a reasonable price, resulting in a satisfied client and a good reputation and more referral business.

To date, a bigger threat has come from those firms, big and small, that indulge in cut-price conveyancing: always ready to undercut the competition - after all, it must be better to discount by (another) £50 and get the work than not, right? Wrong! Cut price conveyancing is bad for everyone involved - even those paying full price further up or down the chain of transactions - as it leads to a "stack it high and sell it cheap" approach, which quickly becomes de-personalised (commoditised) and inefficient. A similar problem results from conveyancers who pay referral fees to buy in work - but that's for another blogpost.

However, a bigger threat still is nearly upon us: "Alternative Business Structures" in the jargoin of the regulators and, especially, non-lawyers being allowed to do conveyancing work for profit. The real threat - to existing practices - is that some big organisations - insurers, "service commoditisers", mortgage lenders, etc, will offer conveyancing services. Not only will they be the ultimate in "pile it high and sell it cheap" but they will have the resources to put in place systems that will far outstrip even the "warehouse conveyancers" of today.

Worst of all, many of them - mortgage lenders are the obvious example - will be able in effect to offer the conveyancing for free: either bundling the cost in with the overall mortgage loan or treating it as a loss leader to get and retain the lending business - and the associated financial services, where lots of money can be made.

How to compete? Well, trying to beat them at their own game will not work, as I simply do not have the financial resources. In order to compete, I need to sell my services to clients on the basis of value for money - not cheapness; genuine efficiency - not artificial busy-ness; local, useful knowledge - not a tick-box approach; and genuine approachability - not slick advertising.

That is why I -
  • offer a money-back guarantee
  • constantly update my office procedures and support IT
  • am closely involved in my local community
  • encourage clients to drop in to my office, without appointments, to speak to my conveyancing managers about anything that concerns them: if it is a legal issue, it will be referred to a lawyer, but for procedural or incidental queries, my managers are well able to cope