One of the early pioneers in online legal services has relinquished her practising certificate (PC) in favour of working full-time for the web-based business she has built up over the past 12 years.
At a time when the number of practising solicitors climbs inexorably and touches 130,000, Tessa Shepperson has moved in the opposite direction.
Ms Shepperson began practising as a sole practitioner in 1994 but has declined to renew her PC this year because her membership website, Landlord Law, has grown to a scale that made continuing in practice undesirable and unnecessary.
Also an active blogger and with little time to see clients, Ms Shepperson decided the cost of being a solicitor outweighed the benefit, since the amount of ‘reserved activity’ law she undertook – having largely given up taking on housing repossession cases – was negligible.
“I thought ‘why should I have to do all of this when the legal work I do for clients is small, and actually the income I get in from the reserved activity work is probably about the same as I had to pay out for the cost of regulation?’.”
She was scathing about the regulatory burden on sole practitioners, particularly after attending as a solicitor a half-day seminar on the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s outcomes-focused regulation and emerging little the wiser. “You’ve got all these checklists, you’ve got to do this, you’ve got to do that. I thought it was ridiculous – we felt we were drowning in regulation.”
Landlord Law was first launched in 2001 to provide landlord and tenant law information to both parties and has since then become a valuable consumer resource. She has also written three self-help books on aspects of residential lettings. A recent venture was setting up a company offering law training to property professionals – Easy Law Training.
The Landlord Law website model of providing a large volume of free information and premium services to members for a fee is now an industry standard, but when Ms Shepperson went down this path it was in its infancy. A basic membership subscription for Landlord Law is £20 a month (£15 for tenants only), which gives access to agreements, articles and guides. A ‘membership plus’ option, costing £180 a year, offers various extra benefits, such as a ‘DIY eviction kit’ and one free telephone advice call.
Although Ms Shepperson has closed her solicitors’ practice, the website has an association with a south London law firm Anthony Gold, to whom she refers people needing traditional legal help. “In turn they will help me out if I need something – if there is a question on the forum that I can’t answer they will help me with that – so it’s a two-way thing”, she explained.
The website offers ‘unbundled’ legal advice – at £95 for half an hour to non-members or £80 to members. But the take-up is not large, said Ms Shepperson, because so much information is available through the site and members have an alternative – in that they can ask questions in the site’s forum. “For a lot of people, a one-to-one service is not necessary; they just need to know the answer. So I think if I can spend a lot of time developing really good-quality guidance that they can pay to access on a one-to-many basis. That is a far more efficient use of my time and it means I can help a lot more people.”
A key reason behind her decision to hand in her PC was what she describes as the “hampering” effect of the solicitors’ rules on sharing income, which she believes have obstructed her use of affiliate marketing – a way of building online traffic by paying a commission to people who promote a website on their own sites. Her experience of the detailed declarations required when profit sharing with another solicitor had put her off, she said. “I thought if I have an affiliate system the record-keeping and administration is going to be ridiculous.”
There are advantages to having registered your domain in the 1990s and launched your site when the worldwide web was still immature, she said. “On a practical side my website is very well dug in to the search engines so I’m very findable.” Her Landlord Law blog, which she started in 2006 before it was fashionable, also generates a lot of traffic to the membership site.
Ms Shepperson qualified in 1990 after spending a period first as a legal secretary and then a litigation assistant, while studying for the London external law degree. She is married and has a 17-year-old son. As a sole practitioner she did general litigation, much of it legal aid work, and discovered the internet when she bought a computer for the practice.
“I thought the internet was extremely exciting and [that it would] change everything. I think lawyers have got to get to grips with this otherwise they’re going to be left behind. I’ve done it and I’ve changed my life. So many solicitors are stressed out because they can’t fit everything into their day. Yes, I have stresses but I have complete control over my time and I like what I do.”
The income she received from Landlord Law exceeded that from legal practice some five or six years ago, but for a time it was a useful supplement and could be for others, she said. “It’s another income stream which will help stabilise your finances. In the early days of Landlord Law it was wonderful to have this extra money coming in, it just made such a difference.”
An advantage of having a membership site is that it allows a valuable exchange of views with people who operate in the real world, Ms Shepperson said. For instance, “a big part of the service” provided by Landlord Law to members is tenancy agreements. “Every few years I put them out to consultation and I ask if they have got any ideas. They always come back with some brilliant idea for a clause that I would not have thought of, through their practical experience – and I put them into the agreement.”
Other solicitors should consider following suit, she advised, adding that she has considered offering her services as a consultant. “What I’ve done other people could do too – though preferably not in the realm of residential landlord and tenant law – but there are other areas of law which could be dealt with in the same way.”
Ms Shepperson, who thinks of herself as “a businessperson and an entrepreneur more than a former solicitor”, concluded: “I think the problem is solicitors do not tend to have a very entrepreneurial mind-set, which is a shame because I think they are the best people to provide online services because they’ve got the knowledge and [are known for their] professional integrity.
“I think solicitors should consider a membership site and information service as a very good way to make money out of your knowledge.”