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Changing Practices – the future starts now

Posted on 12th March 2018

The legal world is changing – to survive, family lawyers will need to consider new and innovative ways to provide services to their clients.

On a freezing cold afternoon at the tail end of November last year, several dedicated Resolution members met in a basement in central London to discuss the changing face of family law practice and how to continue providing the best service to our clients.

There was an interesting and varied turnout of solicitors, with both legal aid and privately paying practices represented, and colleagues from all over the country in attendance. It was clear from the discussions over coffees at the start of the afternoon that there is a genuine worry amongst family lawyers that change is coming and not all of us can see what that change is going to be, let alone prepare for it.

With this worry weaving through the room, Resolution Chair Nigel Shepherd, took centre stage and eased us in. Yes, he agreed, there is unprecedented change happening in family law practice and it is fast approaching if not already here for many of us:-

  • What clients are willing to pay for has changed.
  • The restrictions on public funding placing many people in positions where they can simply no longer access legal help.
  • Technology is also an important development which will bring great opportunities but accompanying those we will find threats.
  • The deregulation of law, with solicitors practicing outside of regulatory bodies, will create its own challenges.

With these changes in mind, the discussions narrowed to address certain specific issues: unbundling legal services; the technology revolution; and how to combine paying work and legal aid. So much to cover and only three and half hours to do so – Nigel’s advice to not tweet if you were struggling to listen was very on point.

Unbundling – how to avoid the rock and the hard place

In 2012, when the Co-op Legal Services juggernaut was at its peak, there was a real fear that small practices would simply disappear. Thankfully this did not happen, but we are not out of the woods yet – LASPO, online divorce services, professional McKenzie Friends, growing practice overheads, red tape, succession planning – more and more firms are finding themselves between a rock and a hard place. Unbundling legal services could be a solution away from this scenario, either on a pay-as-you-go or fixed-fee basis. Solicitors and their clients would agree specific legal work to be carried out in advance. Either the clients pay up front an agreed amount or they pay as they go to complete a specific task. In any event, the solicitor has a limited remit and the client is fully in control of their costs. In summary, and in theory: more clients with more work bringing more money to your firm.

In June 2017 the SRA indicated it thought this would be a positive step. In October 2017 Jackson LJ declared that it was clear unbundled services helped the judiciary work efficiently with LiPs and could therefore only be a positive step. What other endorsement are we waiting for?

Ursula Rice of Family First Solicitors and Emma Cordock of AFG Law discussed the ins and outs of undertaking unbundled work. Putting this service into practice would require some care and due diligence. Retainer letters and court rules (such as costs) are still required, for example. The advice is to consider the Law Society’s “Unbundling Family Legal Services Toolkit”, attend courses on the matter, and stay on top of SRA/Gazette reports etc if you are proposing to unbundle legal services.

Technology and family law

I’ll be frank with you – I was completely blown away by the discussions held by Alan Larkin of Family Law Partners and Roger Smith of law-tech.a2j.org. I had never thought of technology in the family law world beyond emails and social media. However when you take the time to look at the potential uses of technology there is so much that can be done.

Alan had us consider this – there is simply too much information online and clients often struggle to find what is relevant to them. A free 30-minute interview with a solicitor is barely enough time for a meet and greet, nor is a 2.5 hour initial meeting with an emotional new client cost effective for a solicitor (or the client) if there is too much information given (wood from the trees, anyone?). But…could technology help? Perhaps a detailed online legal triage questionnaire to be completed by the potential client before the meeting, which would provide the solicitor with a clear idea of the history, the issues and the advice to give on that first meeting. That information could then be used to populate forms (D8, form E, etc). Maybe the technology could go as far as evaluating the matter at hand, guiding the solicitor to focus on some issues over others. Could there be a possible future for family law in a virtual office? Okay, that may be going too far.

Roger explained that in 2012 a technological change had started in family law, brought along no doubt by the threat of outside competition (Co-op Legal Services, online divorce companies, etc). Technology became more accepted by the profession as a whole (although not completely embraced). By 2014 he was writing about the digital delivery of family law services, in particular the delivery of fixed fee and unbundled services and the creation of a virtual practice. Websites and platforms addressing family law issues have since sprung up, with varying levels of success. Consider the following programs which, if not actively successful, definitely are a sign of things to come:

  • Families Change – a Canadian program to help children with parents going through divorce.
  • Rechtwijzer – a Dutch online dispute resolution platform. The user was given an interactive experience that led to information specifically tailored to their needs. For a time Relate sought to use the software in the UK for the purposes of mediation but that was abandoned. In fact, Rechtwijzer in its current incarnation was scrapped by the Dutch Legal Aid board (possible to be relaunched).
  • My Law BC – another Canadian initiative, this platform is an innovative online service that expands access to justice. Users will follow a guided pathway, which identifies their needs and enables them to take action to solve their problem.
  • Siaro – an online platform for family lawyers that allows you to gather all relevant client information prior to initial consultation in divorce and separation cases. The program fell between commercial and charitable product. Its future is likely to be that of a case management system.

The question to start asking ourselves now is this: there is an online world out there – should our websites be linked to them? There is no downside to “going digital” but for many of us these technological advancements can seem pretty daunting. So start small, with your website – look around at your competition and compare, make your site outgoing and user friendly. As Nigel emphasised “your website is your shop window and you are your own salesman”.

Combining legal aid and privately paying work – 10 top tips

With legal aid being limited on an ever increasing basis it seems only logical for firms to consider how best to attract privately paying work. We’ve discussed offering unbundled legal service and fixed fees, but can mixing legal aid and privately paying work … work? Emma provided her 10 top tips for doing just that.

  1. Don’t Panic – which is always easier said than done but Emma’s composed presentation reassured us that it could be done.
  2. Be creative – consider how to make unbundling work for you. Be ready to adapt to your client’s needs.
  3. ‘Screen’ clients – have a process in place to identify whether the client is eligible for public funding or privately paying. Offer a free initial appointment to decide who is the best person in the team to undertake the work.
  4. Restructure – streamline the work. Create templates for letters/documents you use frequently. Use your junior staff members effectively.
  5. Know your clients – How much of the work do they want to do themselves? How involved do they want you in the process?
  6. Be transparent about your retainer – agree in writing with the client exactly what you will be doing, who will be doing the work, how long it will take and how much it will cost. Perhaps put your fee structure on your website.
  7. Agree fees up front – agree fees in advance with your client, render an invoice and collect payment at the start of the matter. However, continue to time record as normal – to show he client they are getting value for money!
  8. Advertise/Market – let people know what you do. Update your website, social media. Attend networking events.
  9. Always keep legal aid under review – clients may become eligible for public funding as their case progresses.
  10. Keep going!

In the face of all this uncertainty and difficulty you could be forgiven for thinking that the best advice would be to change jobs (Nigel assured us this was only a joke proposal). However, I’m more of a glass half full sort of person and, along with the speakers on that afternoon, see more opportunity coming out of the changes in the family law practices of the future. And with Resolution committed to assisting its members with change I’d say the future is looking exciting.

This article first was first published in The Review magazine, Issue 192, February 2018.

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