Running a rural practice has complexities resembling an Archers subplot.
The ‘for sale’ sign outside Brookfield Farm, home to the Archers for three generations, may just be a plotline for a radio soap, but it strikes a chord with practitioners who know that getting wrong the sale of a farm, or its transfer from one generation to the next, can break up families.
The storyline is ‘right on the money’, says Julie Robinson, the former chief legal adviser at the National Farmers Union who now heads the agricultural team at Roythornes. ‘When farmland prices outstrip market averages, even quite small farms are worth fighting over.’
And while the law may largely be the same, it comes with ‘knobs on the top’ in rural communities, says Geoff Whittaker, consultant and adviser to the Agricultural Law Association (ALA). It is all about the context. ‘We are seeing firms who think agriculture could be a good business stream to get into without realising how difficult it can be,’ he says. ‘It is not a party you can easily gatecrash.’
A rural practice comes with plenty of complexities. Clients may be landowners, utility companies, rural businesses, diocesan estates, or involve ancient trusts. There is the long chain from land to food production, processing and distribution. There is diversification too – into commercial enterprises, tourism, mining, renewables and the growing interest in fracking. So strength in environmental, company and commercial law is vital.
Advice will be needed on agricultural tenancies; property law; and on the complexities of farmers’ divorces, tax and succession planning, wills, trusts and partnership issues. Then there are EU subsidies – with big changes expected to come into force in January which could cost farmers thousands if they get them wrong – and extensive regulatory issues.
But how can solicitors make the economics work in terms of location, business model and business development when the local population may be sparse, broadband ‘rubbish’ and recruitment difficult?
Roythornes, which grew out of a shooting syndicate, is now a full-service law firm with a national practice in agriculture, food and landed estates. Its head office is in Spalding, Lincolnshire, with offices in Peterborough, Nottingham and Newmarket.
The key is to be strategic about how you use your offices, Robinson advises. ‘We have a hub office in Newmarket, so a client in East Anglia may come up from Suffolk and link up through video conferencing to us in Spalding for advice on a deal.’
For clients further afield, Robinson and seven colleagues recently headed to Kent for two days where they hosted meetings and seminars with clients, prospective clients and professional contacts.
‘We are very strategic where we focus our energy,’ she says, ‘because the risk is spreading yourself too thinly by trying to suggest a presence everywhere.’
Niche rural property firm Loxley was launched seven years ago by three lawyers who had been part of Bristol-based Burges Salmon’s highly regarded agricultural team for 20 years. They have been joined by six fee-earners, all ex-Burges Salmon. This month the firm expects to move to new offices in an old mill building in Gloucestershire, doubling the size of its office space.
Loxley emphasises property and litigation under a rural umbrella. ‘It wasn’t hard to establish our presence,’ recalls founding and managing partner Simon Leach. ‘The split was entirely amicable. Burges Salmon had become very successful but with a more corporate focus.
‘We had read the market pretty well and felt that, offering the same experience at probably £100 an hour less, it would work.’
While long-distance travel to see clients comes with the territory, the firm’s new offices reflect its character. ‘There is nothing wrong with glass palaces,’ says Leach, ‘but I am not sure that is where our clients would expect us to be. It would make them worry about the cost!’
For Susie Murray, commercial property partner with Stephens Scown, which has offices in Exeter in Devon, and St Austell and Truro in Cornwall, location is crucial. With 260 staff and 44 partners, the firm stresses its regional focus, specialising in industries common throughout the south-west, such as food and drink, tourism, mining and green energy.
Murray, who lives on a small holding in east Devon, specialises in non-contentious agricultural, equestrian and rural property matters. ‘Living and working in the south-west gives us a deep empathy with the area and its huge commercial potential,’ she says. ‘You have to prove that you know your stuff and it’s so much easier to do that if you can do it face to face – personal relationships and trust are extremely important in the rural sector.’
The ‘daily and ongoing’ battle for Angharad Woodland, managing partner of the Woodland Davies Partnership, is to try to ‘negate the geography’ of having offices in England and Wales and get clients to view it as one firm.
Clients can be ‘really parochial’, she says. ‘People in Hereford don’t want to think their conveyancing is being done in Brecon, even though that is where the property people are, and people in Brecon don’t want to think their wills are being done in Hereford even though that is where the will people are.’
Woodland was one of the youngest sole practitioners at 29 when she initially set up in Brecon 10 years ago. Eighteen months later, she took on a practice three times the size in Hay, acquiring the Hereford practice in 2010. She has used strong branding across the offices, which are networked by computers and telephones, to build the partnership’s identity.
The firm also has an office in Kington, near the Welsh border. With local populations being sparse, she says, ‘you have to have conduits to bring in new clients’.
Edward Friend opened his niche sole practice Carreg Law, specialising in ecclesiastical and charity law, in July as a paperless firm – title deeds are the only physical documents in the office.
Friend initially planned to run the firm from home, but an acquaintance had a prominent building in the ancient Carmarthenshire town of Llandeilo. ‘I have a large sign on it and that is my marketing,’ he says. ‘I think people like to see a physical location because it gives them confidence.’
In fact, so many people have come in off the street – he has had to turn away 80 wills since he opened – he is planning to expand.
In Derbyshire, Oliver Wilson is a director and leads the dispute resolution department at Nigel Davis Solicitors, specialist legal advisers to agri-business and the rural community.
The firm was set up as a sole practice in 2000 by Nigel Davis, focusing principally on property. It grew rapidly, with solicitors joining to develop new specialist areas in litigation, family law, private client, tax planning and renewables. Davis retired two years ago to run a rural consultancy in Cumbria.
Almost all the fee-earners are either from a farming or a distinctly rural background. ‘The most pleasing thing I get told by my clients is “you talk just like us’,’’ Wilson says.
The firm recently moved to larger offices on the edge of Ashbourne and opened a branch office in Uttoxeter. However, less than half the firm’s work comes from within 30 miles of the Ashbourne office. Wilson observes: ‘Rural people and farmers are far more widely travelled and IT savvy than people realise so they don’t need you to have an office on their doorstep.’
What is important is how rural practices differentiate themselves from their town or city rivals.
For Brian Inkster, it is crofting law. He set up Inksters in Glasgow in 1999 and added offices in Inverness, Wick and Portree to reach clients in the Highlands and Islands, with ‘pop-up law points’ for wills (a Barnardo’s shop in Glasgow) and crofting law (at the Black Isle Show, Royal Highland Show, and in North Uist and Benbecula).
Meeting the demands of rural clients certainly requires firms to be innovative, agrees Viv Williams, managing director of the 360 Legal Group. ‘Several members are rural practices and some reach those clients who don’t want to come into a town or city by providing mobile law shops from the back of a van.’
So, having set up shop, how do you make the economics of a rural practice work?
Woodland employs as many local people as possible as support staff because they also help raise the profile of the firm across their communities. Her husband Darryll, a former army clerk, is the practice manager and compliance officer for finance and administration and does the accounts. ‘We used to outsource our IT to a big company but they didn’t understand the rural challenges,’ she says. ‘I now use an IT company set up by a local wunderkind and it has been phenomenal.’
Wilson, on the other hand, says his firm has embraced outsourcing, using Quill Pinpoint as its legal cashier; DictateNow to supplement in-house support staff; Legal Eye covers compliance; while a degree of telephony is outsourced to Moneypenny.
When it comes to business development, all the firms stress the need to become embedded in the local community, running seminars, attending fairs, sponsoring prizes and cups at shows. Davis even chaired the World Sheepdog Trials in 2011.
Woodland Davies runs a legal clinic at the local army base. It has just sponsored Brecon Rugby Club’s mini and junior teams, ‘so there are now 200 kids running around with our name blazoned across their chests,’ Woodland says.
There is certainly no shortage of interesting work. ‘The diversity is phenomenal,’ she says. ‘You wouldn’t believe what you find out here in a barn.’
Mines and minerals
The key is to be commercial. ‘I am not a country bumpkin,’ Woodland says. ‘But from a litigation view, I am 5ft 3in, blonde and female and I work in Hay, so underestimating me comes with the territory. But you have to use it to your advantage and not take offence. We need that edge and reputation for the people in those barns to come to us.’
Stephens Scown was founded on mines and minerals expertise and recently acted in the acquisition of Drakelands Mine, the UK’s first new metal mine in 45 years.
‘There are still opportunities in terms of wind, solar and hydro energy schemes,’ Murray says. ‘Biomass and anaerobic digestion are key areas, and we have a dedicated parks team which deals with the tourism aspect.’
All the firms report very high levels of repeat business and word-of-mouth recommendations. But social media also plays an important role.
Wilson says his firm has 9,800 Twitter followers. ‘I started a Facebook page which got off the ground quickly but it never became the commercial asset that Twitter is today,’ he notes. ‘People imagine farmers aren’t interested, but farming is often very solitary and mobile communication was born for them, especially young farmers.’
He says some firms make the mistake of using social media to advertise their products rather than who they are. ‘We tweet the weird, wacky and wonderful as well as industry-specific information,’ he explains. ‘We are members of the Country Land and Business Association and the Countryside Alliance. We are pro-hunting and field sports, pro-badger cull and pro-meat. We have clients who think the same way we do, so we realised we could share our thoughts on the world without fear of offending anyone.’
He says the firm can ‘absolutely’ link Twitter back to business development from the enquiries it receives. ‘My pick-up truck has a sign on the side saying Nigel Davis Solicitors and people tweet “just seen you in south Wales” so it also spreads our exposure. People don’t like having to go to lawyers but it is inevitable at times, and what we aspire to be is familiar, so people know us long before they need to use us.’
Others are less confident of its value. Woodland says its Facebook page had been effective and it has just used it to recruit a secretary. But ‘Twitter gives me the shivers,’ she says.
Two ‘massive’ challenges are recruitment and succession planning. ‘Firms have to look harder and provide additional reasons for a lawyer to join their practice,’ Williams says. ‘The incentive has to be geared to a rural lifestyle and many firms develop their own talent from within.’
In Cumbria, Davis now has a partner, barrister Serena Gowling, a former agronomist, who specialises in agricultural and property law and commercial dispute resolution, and a trainee.
‘I would love to find someone to do wills and probate but private client solicitors are a rare breed,’ he says. ‘Luckily, we have someone with vast experience but, as she is approaching her 70th birthday, she doesn’t want to do it on a regular basis.’
He is also looking to fill new roles as he plans for his retirement in a few years, having just turned 65, but says recruitment is difficult. ‘I like to recruit people I have worked with or against… You also need people who can communicate well and have a working knowledge of farming.’
Woodland’s partnership currently has two trainees. ‘Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t,’ she says. ‘The Legal Practice Course is useless so we have to do a lot with them.’ With so few local firms offering training contracts, ‘there is no pool to pick from. We want to grow our own from the age of 15, which is the path I took, so we have a work experience programme with local schools’.
Wilson says the firm has not needed to go out and recruit because the last six fee-earners to join approached it, attracted by the flexibility of working as consultants.
Opportunities to build specialist knowledge are also offered by the ALA which runs a residential ‘Starter for Ten’ basic introduction for trainees and newly qualifieds. Five years ago it launched a fellowship programme for more experienced lawyers and now has approaching 100 fellows.
But it only takes a single line in the Archers to highlight just how important it is to understand what drives these firms’ clients. Brian Aldridge, whose character is 70, is prepared to take out a mortgage and realise assets so he can bid up to £5.5m for neighbouring Brookfield: ‘When land is in your blood, it is not just about business – I can almost taste that land.’
Grania Langdon-Down is a freelance journalist