Small businesses flock to low-cost legal hub for employment and debt advice

Bates: Awareness issue

Thousands of small businesses are flocking to a purpose-built legal hub, operated by alternative business structure LHS Solicitors, to access online documents.

Beverley Bates, advice services director at LHS, said 35,000 documents had been downloaded from the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) Legal Hub since its launch last month. LHS operates the hub on a white-label basis as part of its elXtr service.

Ms Bates said the most popular documents were employment contracts, letters before action reclaiming debts, and contracts for business-to-business services.

“Our ethos is to make the law easy and accessible for small businesses. They don’t need to go down the high street, see a solicitor for two hours and pay £500.

“If they join something like elXtr, they can book a half-hour appointment with our advice line for £45. If they joined a membership association, they could get it for free. They want to spend time running their businesses, not seeing a solicitor.”

Ms Bates said the 24/7 telephone advice line operated by LHS, and based in Croydon, employed 42 solicitors, one barrister and 10 reception staff. The line handles around 250,000 calls a year.

She said LHS, which is owned by insurer Markel through the Abbey Protection group, provided services for around 50 membership associations, and the FSB was the biggest.

The FSB has become a significant lobbying force in the legal market in recent times. It told the Competition and Markets Authority that there was a “considerable failure” of the legal services market to meet the needs of small businesses, and was cited by Lord Justice Jackson in his report in July on the need for fixed costs in commercial disputes.

Last year it also set out a wider manifesto to improve dispute resolution for small businesses.

Ms Bates said the best way for small businesses to get access to legal advice was through a membership association, or “something like elXtr”, which since January this year has allowed small businesses to join for the introductory price of £45, rising to £180 next year.

She said that if small businesses needed help beyond the advice line, LHS offered conventional legal advice, on a fixed fee basis where possible.

“The obvious exception is litigation, where we offer a range of fees. We try and keep them updated, letting them know of any changes in good time.”

Ms Bates said an alternative option was for a small business to get legal expenses insurance from the FSB or directly from insurers, such as Abbey.

Ms Bates added that although “things were moving in the right direction” in terms of small businesses getting legal advice, there was still “definitely an awareness issue”.

Dave Stallon, the FSB’s commercial and operations director, said: “Our aim is to help small businesses and the self-employed achieve their ambitions, and one of the ways we do this is to provide the best legal services to our members, at no cost, in the best ways.”

The FSB legal hub was highly commended in the technology section of the Law Society Excellence Awards earlier this month.

Graham Neyt, managing director of LHS Solicitors will be speaking at the Legal Futures Innovation Conference on 21 November in London. Click here for all the details.

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