There was a very positive mood at the Private Client Section’s annual conference on Friday.
While some sections of the profession are facing a raft of problems at the moment – with legal aid changes hitting criminal lawyers, personal injury solicitors reeling from the Jackson reforms, and conveyancers feeling the pressure of a weak housing market and fierce price competition - private client lawyers are, on the whole, feeling reasonably sanguine about their position.
That is not to say that there are no threats – the chartered accountants’ regulator is looking to become a probate regulator, for example – but the challenges do not seem quite so immediate. On the whole, private client lawyers are simply focused on getting to grips with frequent and complex developments in the actual law – which was reflected in the strong technical content at the conference.
Yes, in the wider profession, there are some slick new entrants using a good web presence to lure business away from traditional law firms. But for private client firms – certainly those that are well-established – the internet is not necessarily a great way of gaining work. As one delegate joked with me, the perfect client for most PC practitioners is very wealthy, and about 94 years old.
A client such as this is unlikely to choose her solicitor by typing the word ‘wills’ into Google. And she will need face-to-face meetings with a lawyer who is willing and able to provide a proper, personal service, who can understand and advise on the myriad of issues that may stem from her circumstances. These clients cannot be served by the conveyor-belt, commoditised approach that has emerged in other areas of practice.
The fact that private client is a good place to be right now has not, of course, escaped the notice of the rest of the profession. During one conference workshop, trainer Gill Steel said she had been running sessions for solicitors in conveyancing and other areas, who are looking to move over to the PC sector. That might be a good move, but to achieve it successfully, it takes more than simply swotting up on the vast bank of relevant caselaw; some lawyers will also need a change of mindset.
Steel recalled one conveyancing lawyer who had shadowed a private client colleague as part of his training to transfer across. He was perplexed by the amount of time spent conversing with the client about things which appeared utterly irrelevant – before being enlightened that this is all part of how a private client lawyer needs to assess their client’s mental capacity and ability to make decisions.
The big news from the conference on Friday was the formal launch of the Law Society’s new Wills and Inheritance Quality Scheme, which will open for applications on 31 October. As the online Gazette reported, the Society’s chief executive Des Hudson directly addressed some of the criticisms he had seen in comments on the Gazette’s website, such as the idea that the accreditation is just a money-making ploy, or that private client lawyers do not need it.
I was interested to find out what delegates at the conference thought of the new accreditation. Purely anecdotally, most of those to whom I spoke were broadly in favour. One solicitor whose practice was relatively new in private client terms (having been established for 12 years) felt it would be a useful marketing tool to bring in business. Another said he supported the concept, but would have liked the scheme to go further and require private client lawyers to pass special exams to obtain the accreditation.
On Friday 12 July, solicitor Gary Rycroft, who is vice-chair of the Private Client Section’s executive committee, will be presenting a webinar on WIQS, and I will be putting some questions to him about the scheme during the webinar.
Judging from the high number of solicitors who have already registered, there is certainly an appetite within the profession to find out more about the scheme.
Rachel Rothwell is editor of Litigation Funding magazine, providing in-depth coverage on costs and the financing of litigation.
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