As 2014 begins, signs of economic recovery abound. Apparently, we are buying more new cars, house builders are building more homes and banks (with the help of schemes such as Help to Buy) are making property more affordable once again. January 2014 heralded optimism amongst lawyers not seen since the heady days of 2006. Yet, increased demand for legal services will bring its own challenges to all lawyers, particularly those within niche practices, perhaps even more so for those with a property specialism.
Over recent years many law firms have downsized or consolidated their property offering. However, smaller firms are now looking to expand property teams. One of the biggest challenges is dealing with the comparative “brain drain” caused by fewer people qualifying into property over the last few years. To compound the problem, candidates who spent their formative years in larger firms can be overly specialist. Being a sound technical lawyer is not enough without strong client management skills and business development acumen.
The Need for Speed
Developments in technology have raised client expectations when it comes to turning matters around and communication. We have developed an online update system for our Leases for Landlords department and are considering investing in a client-facing portal for all property matters. However, these systems come at a cost often uneconomical for smaller firms.
Knowledge management and reacting to industry and legal developments is another challenge. Smaller firms are able to communicate changes easily; there is no better way of learning from your peers than a round-table discussion. Sharing information this way is easier within smaller firms but ensuring that precedents are up to date and practices are standardised is a challenge for firms unable to justify employing a practice support lawyer.
Building and Sustaining your Client Base
Niche firms with a genuine area of expertise should find it possible to obtain work regardless of location. In terms of the relative sizes of teams, whilst many clients understand the need for work to be undertaken by fee earners at different levels of expertise in order to obtain a cost-effective service, there is a perception that with larger firms actual responsibility for a client is blurred. Every one of our clients has a partner who has either undertaken the work or very closely supervised it. This is crucial to retaining clients and building the confidence in our services which leads to further referrals.
Social media is vital in maintaining a public profile and can be a very attractive alternative to preparing and distributing regular newsletters. Regular tweets and LinkedIn updates are key to keeping us and our services in the forefront of peoples’ minds. The real success with a social media strategy lies in ensuring that updates are not exercises in verbosity and marketing, but useful disseminations of client-focused information.
The requirement for self regulation is perhaps the biggest challenge for smaller firms. A significant amount of time is required to comply with SRA requirements. For larger firms, the solution is a compliance officer. In smaller firms, senior fee earners inevitably need to take on compliance work. External consultants such as Legal Eye enable smaller firms to bring in vital support in this area at reasonable cost, allowing the lawyers to spend as much time as possible providing legal services to clients
Whilst there will continue to be challenges for small firms we feel we are proving to our clients and the market that “bespoke and boutique” are no longer bywords for expensive but the markers of excellence.