Gold, silver and bronze: staying ahead of the game

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1 December 2010


Posted by Martin Gregory of Legal Futures Associate Lateral Law

I have read rather a lot recently about commoditisation and problem solving. As I understand it, the argument goes something like this:

  • Law firms can solve clients’ legal problems by embracing IT to help standardise and streamline their processes.
  • Furthermore, practices should implement such systems now before the initiative is lost to the more commercially minded, scaled-up competitors that alternative business structures will inevitably bring.

I certainly agree that the Internet is a “great leveller” for small and medium-sized firms, providing access to markets and opportunities previously enjoyed exclusively by larger organisations. A sole practitioner’s website can, in theory, reach out to the same audience and offer similar services (online at least) as a top City firm, especially in conjunction with case management and document production systems and outsourcing secretarial and other key processes.

However, for me, the success or otherwise of such an approach depends on a number of factors, including:

  1. Your client base, in terms of location and demographics, for example.
  2. The type/s of service/s your clients want, be it “off the shelf” legal documents or bespoke advice and assistance etc.

For those firms that have an eclectic mix of clients with different needs, how about adapting your services accordingly? For example, offer IT-savvy, cost-conscious, non-centric clients a basic, “packaged” product similar to that advocated above. Similarly, deliver a personal, bespoke service to those local clients demanding just that. Finally, for those clients somewhere in between, give them the best of both – a mainly automated service, but with some human interaction for peace of mind. The level of service will then dictate the price. I have touched on this idea before.

Clients are accustomed to making such choices. One example that immediately springs to mind is insurance. Coverage is commonly labelled “gold”, “silver” and bronze”.

So how do you apply this principle to legal services? Whilst it perhaps lends itself more to work of a transactional nature, I believe that, in most areas of law, the method of delivery and/or the extent of involvement, can be tailored to meet the client’s needs. Here are just a few examples:

Wills and other documents

There will no doubt be some people who simply want a basic template that can (depending on the firm’s capabilities) either be downloaded and completed in accordance with the accompanying notes or (even better) compiled online. In both cases, no help is required.

Others may want to go a little bit further and have the reassurance of a fee-earner check the completed document to ensure that it is valid (but not advise as to its suitability/fitness for purpose).

Some clients may be looking for a bespoke document to be prepared from scratch, based on their own individual circumstances, following a face-to-face meeting and specialist advice and assistance.

Conveyancing

Some will want the bare minimum, namely legal completion of their transaction. They desire a stripped-down service, only paying for what is absolutely essential. They expect to be charged less if there is no mortgage to redeem and/or register. Similarly, they will save money by completing and submitting the land transaction return themselves. Given e-mail and online case tracking, they also consider postage and telephone calls to be “added extras” and want to retain some control over the associated costs.

Other people will want the certainty of a fixed fee to cover everything, apart perhaps from the risk of the chain collapsing.

Finally, there will be those clients who prefer the comfort of a “no move, no fee” guarantee and are prepared to pay for the privilege.

Probate

Depending on how complex the circumstances, clients may just need a Grant of Probate/Letters of Administration. Possibly, a guide and links to the relevant forms is all that is required

Others may want you to obtain a Grant/Letters and also handle the sale of the deceased’s property.

Some people may, in addition, require advice and assistance in relation to the actual administration of the estate.

Divorce

Some clients act in person, possibly seeking ad hoc advice. Again, a guide/links may well suffice, otherwise fixed-fee web chats may be the answer.

Others may want you to deal with an undefended petition, but not to get involved with any children or ancillary relief matters.

Then there are those who require advice and assistance regarding all aspects of their marital breakdown.

Litigation

As with divorce, there may be those who just want some initial advice or a letter before action sent to the other party. In the latter case, the client may be able to adapt a precedent available through your website (a debt collection matter, for example).

Again, some unrepresented clients may need help as and when required.

At the other end of the spectrum, there will be those who instruct you to act from start to finish. Although all cases are different, there are those (small claims, for example), where the likely work can be assessed at the outset and thus justify a fixed fee.

The most important point is to understand exactly what it is your clients want and how they want it delivered. Once you have done this, you can develop and adapt your services to meet their differing needs.

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