Adapting to survive

wendy-hewstoneWendy Hewstone explains how her Southampton-based firm has moved with the times

We are a three-partner firm in Southampton, set up in 2005. The Legal Aid Agency specifically asked that we set up in an area to the west of Southampton called Shirley, to cover the lack of family legal aid firms locally. Fortunately, we were able to find premises which were suitable, despite looking like a cross between a warehouse and a prison (the latter, because of the steel fire escape door).

We had a caseload of approximately 65 per cent by income of legally-aided cases in our categories of family and mental health. We would open on average 21 family legal help cases a month in 2008, of which around five would be care cases, with the rest being private family, assisting on divorces, especially finances and children cases.

LASPO in 2013, of course, completely changed the legal aid world. Not only have so many family cases been removed from scope but the introduction of the capital assessment for passported benefits and the difficulty of obtaining the financial proof and gateway evidence, means we struggle to obtain legal aid even for those who would theoretically qualify.

For the year ending April 2015, we opened 28 family legal help cases for the whole year, of which two-thirds were care cases. We have injunction cases and child abduction which are straight to certificate, but the number of legal aid cases is greatly reduced.

Consequently, we decided we need to improve our image and have better offices that could be used to attract more private paying family clients, but also conveyancing and probate work. We looked around the central area and Shirley where we are based. Originally, we looked at premises by the train station, as this could then mean we could attract clients who could reach us by train. However, the terms of the lease said we could not work after 7pm or at weekends, which as most legal aid lawyers know is an impossibility.

We wanted to remain near our Shirley roots. We have acted for three generations and know clients will google for Shirley solicitors when searching for law firms on the internet.

We found an office in an area of Shirley called Foyes Corner, which is a major crossroads for routes from the west and particularly well known for having an old-fashioned hardware store there, called Clarence Hardware, which had been there for many years.

The premises were large and double fronted, with offices upstairs and two large areas at the back. They were owned by a family firm who dealt with office equipment and which found that the road was getting too busy for their large delivery vans, so they moved to out of town premises.

We had plans drawn up to create three smaller interview rooms, a conference room, and a client toilet suitable for people with disabilities in their old sales areas. The existing offices also needed renovation. We signed the lease in mid-August and it took three months for the work to be done, including new gas central heating, rewiring and cabling for data and fire alarms.

My son, who has graduated with a masters degree in neuroscience but had not yet found a job, came in using his scientific brain to write to all the wills and deeds clients to advise we were moving and to tidy up the database. It was a very useful exercise.

The flyers we circulated advising of our change of address were too successful: clients kept turning up at the new office only to be met by the builders to advise they were too early. The landlord at our current place decided to turn off the phones and internet a month early, which meant we had to run our new internet-based phones from a tiny inadequate hub which was very frustrating.

We then had to pack. We threw away 11 years of unused documents, including ancient course notes which are way out of date. It made me realise how much more we use the internet now and how little we need book-based precedents and information. Even the Legal Aid Manual is no more.

Pickfords supplied 85 crates for us to use and were amazing on the day, moving the furniture, crates and archive boxes and reassembling. We basically hit the ground running from the day of the move and our premises are much more visible as they are on a busy road.

We had a successful social media campaign charting the move on our Facebook page and Twitter, Facebook being the most successful (here), with many clients and legal professionals responding favourably.

The Facebook posting about our new sign reached over 1,000 people which is our highest ever. The good thing about the publicity was that although we have had to change our phone number, most people were aware we were moving and it was easy to find on the website or Facebook.

We have also had a new logo and redesigned the headed notepaper and will be launching a new website soon. Hopefully the increased clients will make it worthwhile, it has been stressful!



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