Face2face, QualitySolicitors, Lawyers2u, highstreetlawyer… the list of law firm networks, franchising operations and collective marketing ventures is growing as the profession steers a tricky course through recession-hit Britain, liberalisation of legal services and the fallout from LASPO, writes Elizabeth Davidson
Part one of this article looked at the options available for legal aid firms who seek comfort in numbers. Part two asks the firms themselves for their view. What do legal aid firms think of networks and franchises, and what do they want?
About one quarter of QualitySolicitors’ firms do some legal aid work. QS offers its members a range of assistance, including its distinctive fuscia-pink branding, slick advertising and TV ads. However, many firms prefer to keep hold of their individuality.
Henry Telewa, senior partner at the rapidly-expanding Birmingham and London law firm Aston Carter, said he was approached by QS but ‘wasn’t convinced’.
‘I want to be Aston Carter – I don’t want to be QS,’ he said.
So what is the appeal for most solicitors? Telewa has a theory.
‘Lawyers traditionally tend not to have business acumen. They have been pre-programmed to practise black letter law. Therefore when QS comes around with its massive marketing capability, and offers a hand-held service, lawyers jump on it and think it’s a miracle.
‘But it’s not rocket science. Firms can do it themselves. They need to become involved in business development and do things like improving their website and maximising their web presence.’
‘I don’t believe in TV ads for law firms. Lawyers don’t get work through ads on billboards and buses but through word of mouth and reputation,’ continues Henry Telewa. ‘A businessman is not going to be driving along Oxford Street and see a billboard advertising Aston Carter and decide to hire us, they would be referred to us by word of mouth and recommendation.’
However, he agrees with law firms joining together to pool resources. ‘There is power in numbers.’
Work isn’t the issue
Beverley Watkins, of Watkins Solicitors, a Bristol-based two-partner family and education law firm, questions the extent to which legal aid firms can benefit from marketing and advertising.
‘If you are a legal aid firm then you have more work than you can deal with,’ she says. ‘I don’t know of any legal aid firm that struggles to get work. It’s not an issue.’
One advantage of joining a group, franchise or marketing venture is to reduce business spend by pooling resources.
However, Watkins points out that firms based outside the Capital have lower administrative and back-office costs, therefore outsourcing those costs ‘is less relevant outside London’.
‘Most legal aid firms are careful about their expenses – they have to be in order to survive,’ she says.
‘We have developed our own billing system, and we have typists who work from home. Bigger firms outsource their typing to companies in India or Africa. We outsource our typing to three people who work from home on the outskirts of Bristol. It works out cheaper for us, and they send it back quickly and are very good.’
Watkins has, however, joined a referral network, connect2law, which is run by Veale Wasbrough Vizards (VWV). It is free of charge and has 2,600 members nationwide. Members introduce work that they choose not to do to VWV, which does the work or refers it on. A ‘non-poaching agreement’ operates so that members can offer a broader range of services without fear of losing their clients. The network offers other benefits such as reduced price property searches and a bespoke professional indemnity insurance scheme.
Watkins says: ‘We do straightforward wills therefore if a wills dispute comes up then we can refer it on. It works because we get the family and education cases and they get the private side that we don’t deal with.’
Franklin Sinclair, managing partner of 24-hour criminal law firm Tuckers Solicitors, is not keen on franchising. ‘For a firm of our size I can’t see any advantages,’ he says. ‘You have to pay them quite a bit of your turnover. It doesn’t fit in to our business model. In fact, we are thinking about it in reverse. I do see advantages in sharing resources while keeping your identity, for firms to franchise out their back-office services.’
Sinclair says Tuckers is thinking of providing services such as handling overnight telephone calls, accounts, billing and monthly file reviews to other criminal legal aid firms, and has held preliminary discussions with a couple of firms.
Tuckers employs three people in its London office and three people in its Manchester office to man the phones overnight.
‘Small firms can’t do that,’ says Sinclair. ‘We could take that burden off them, which could improve their quality of life and reassure them that they’re not missing those calls.’
Every firm is unique. However, firms spoken to by LV express a healthy degree of scepticism towards the concept of franchising, are keen to retain their identity, and question the point of marketing for extra legal aid work when they already have too much. They may join up with others if that helps them achieve savings in their back-office costs.
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