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Grasping the nettle

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  • Michael Penny

Michael Penny offers his top tips on how solicitor advocates can survive and thrive in the aftermath of the civil court fee rises.

To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.” 

These hallowed words from the Magna Carta have probably been overused recently, given the radical changes being made to the operation of the judicial system by the Lord Chancellor.

Nonetheless, it is still relevant here, when one considers the massive increase in court fees for civil cases, despite opposition from the Law Society, the judiciary and other parties. How exactly will enhanced fees affect the day-to-day work of a solicitor advocate?

Clearly, part of the reasoning behind the increase is to prevent claims from being issued in the first instance. This, by logical deduction, will lead to a reduction in the amount of hearings and trials, and thus the amount of advocacy that the solicitor advocate may be required to carry out.

It is, in my view, also going to push people towards alternative forms of dispute resolution, such as mediation, arbitration and simple negotiation between legal representatives.

In this modern marketplace, how can a solicitor advocate stay in business and provide the essential services that their clients require? Here are my five top tips.

Offer a free initial interview

I am sure many others already offer this service. It is a very effective and viable way of marketing a practice, and encouraging more people to come through your doors. It is fair to say that, even in the legal marketplace, customers tend to ‘buy’ people, rather than products, and you are much more likely to retain the client that you can meet face-to-face.

If it helps, simply regard initial, free interviews as a form of advertising.

My personal experience is that spending some time with a potential client at no cost can often reap fairly large dividends in the future. Even if you are not retained straight away, it is very likely that the client will come to you again with other issues.

Offer an opinion

Much is being said at the moment about unbundled legal services. Offering formal legal opinions at a fixed cost is an excellent opportunity for a solicitor advocate to exercise their skills.

Be briefed

Market your skills on the basis that you can be briefed for advocacy, and ensure people know what you would charge for a specific brief on a matter. Not every solicitor is keen on attending court or doing their own advocacy, and the specialist skills of a solicitor advocate can offer them an alternate means of instructing counsel.

Market your specialist skills

If there is one area of law in which you specialise, make that a unique selling point and ensure people know about it.

Negotiate

Consider some training in alternative dispute resolution, and polish your negotiation skills: these are likely to be relied upon much more in the future. Consider ways in which your client could resolve disputes without litigation, and factor this into your advice.

This is far from an exclusive list. These are just some of the things that my practice does to maximise the benefits of offering advocacy services. 

Clearly, the legal landscape is changing at a rapid rate, and we must all be prepared to adapt. Our skills as advocates should now be applied to marketing our services to clients.

When a client comes to see me, the one thing I stress to them is that I can look after their case in its entirety; from taking their instructions, through to pursuing their case, wherever it leads. There is not, as far as I’m aware, a great deal of uptake on the direct access service offered by the bar. A client coming to see a solicitor advocate can have the administrative side of their work carried out by the same person, who then gets on their feet and does any advocacy when necessary. This means the client has one lawyer dealing with the entirety of their case, rather than a solicitor dealing with them on a day-to-day basis, and a barrister who they see from time to time in court. This is also a more cost-effective arrangement for the client.

It is precisely this continuity of legal service that presents solicitor advocates an advantage which they should seize with both hands.

Should the nettle be grasped, solicitor advocates are likely to weather the storm, and we will still be here waiting to advise our clients and fight their cases for many years to come.

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