Cheshire firm Rowlinsons Solicitors took home the 2018 Excellence Award for Private Client Practice. Andrew Graves and Donna Eland explain the secrets of their success

What improvements have you made to your services over the last few years?

Andrew Graves (AG): As part of our original business strategy, we wanted to shake the traditional perception that solicitors can sometimes be a little stuffy and unapproachable. We wanted to position ourselves as a friendly and personable firm. We extended our opening hours, because we recognise that people face time pressures in coming to see us during working hours. After a successful trial, we are now open until 7pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and on Saturday morning. We have also opened a second office, which has given us more car parking space and meeting rooms. From a private client perspective, we recognise that not everyone can access our offices easily, so we are happy to go and see them in the comfort of their own home.

What do you look for in your people?

AG: Aside from the requisite legal expertise, all the private client team are qualified with the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners (STEP) or working towards the STEP qualification. We also want them to fit culturally in the team and buy into our ethos. We are keen on business development skills, too – we look for people who aren’t afraid of getting out there and networking, forming relationships with charities and independent financial advisers and engaging with social media. It’s an important part of a solicitor’s job now.

How have you built relationships with clients?

Donna Eland (DE): We have really built up our social media presence. We started off on LinkedIn and Twitter and moved to Facebook about 18 months ago, which has made a big difference in terms of promoting our brand and engaging with clients and the community in general.

AG: We keep in regular contact with clients as much as we can. For example, we offer a free will review service every five years, where we ask clients if they want to come in and see if their will needs updating. We also keep clients informed of private client legal developments that could be important for them – changes to the inheritance tax (IHT) rules, for example. Again, we invite them to call in and have a chat about what it could mean for them and how we can help.

We recognise we have a responsibility to the community. We are in a market town with a population of about 15,000 people. We have a seminar programme and go and speak to local groups, such as the Women’s Institute and the Carers Trust, on topics such as making a will, lasting powers of attorney and IHT planning. We also work closely with a charity called OPAL, which helps isolated elderly people integrate back into the community.

How effective are the free services you offer in terms of generating new business?

DE: Very effective. We are not the sort of law firm that starts the clock the moment the client walks through the door. We believe that if you give a little at the outset, it’ll pay dividends in the long term. Initial client enquiries are approached on an informal, no-cost basis. This helps us gain an understanding of the client and what they want to achieve, while the client gets a feel for our services. It helps build rapport and goodwill for the future.

How did you identify the opportunity for a deputyship service?

DE: We realised that some elderly clients needed a bit more help with practical things. We have clients who appointed us as financial attorneys a few years ago; this has gradually come to fruition as they have started to lose capacity.

This is a growing area, and there are a lot of people who don’t have family, or friends they are willing to trust with their finances. There is a gap in the market for solicitors who are willing to step in and deal with those things.

From our perspective, for financial attorneys and deputies, it is not about sitting in the office and looking at the client’s online bank accounts – it is about addressing what their actual needs are. Our duties can vary from writing Christmas cards and buying underwear, through to delivering them their spending money or buying gifts for relatives. It’s as much a personal service as a legal one. A colleague was at a client’s house one Christmas Eve waiting for the oven to be fixed so they could cook dinner the next day. Everyone is willing to go the extra mile.

What do you think are your unique selling points?

AG: I think it’s a mixture of things. Our main USP is accessibility and how we market ourselves as an approachable firm. But we also offer specialist expertise and place a large emphasis on staff training, from directors through to paralegals and legal assistants. We have clear and transparent pricing but are not as expensive as the bigger law firms in the major city centres. All this is backed up with a good print and online marketing strategy.