Elixer of youth: Rejuvenating your private client business by targeting young adults
Instead of chasing older and wealthier customers, private client lawyers should start engaging with younger generations, argues Rachel Rothwell
In the private client sector, the demand for solicitors’ services is as high as it has ever been.
Lasting powers of attorney are being registered at a rate of more than 3,000-a-day; inheritance tax receipts hit a record high of £5.4bn in the 2018/19 tax year; and the number of wills being contested in the High Court is soaring, with 225 claims under the 1975 Inheritance Act in England and Wales in 2017.
Whatever the political or economic backdrop, people still need private client lawyers to help them with their affairs – during their lifetime, and in death.
As family relationships become more complicated, demand only gets stronger. But despite the real need for private client services, for law firms, bringing in work is not as easy as it sounds; and solicitors are in constant danger of losing out to non-lawyer rivals.
As Solicitors Journal columnist Gary Rycroft explains: “Once you get a client through the door, there is a lot you can do for them; you can add value and keep them as clients for the long term. But there is a really important issue in how you actually get them over the doorstep to start with.
“How do you meet them, how do you disabuse them of the fears that they have about solicitors? Our office is a friendly place, and it is easy to forget that people are often intimidated by the thought of going to a solicitor. For many people, going to the solicitor is a big event. We need to be mindful of that.”
Rycroft adds: “I approach it by trying to get out as much as possible. Going to different forums, like the WI, and seeing people on their own territory. If people see you more as a human they think, actually, I could talk to that person - he seems approachable.”
Kate Arnold, partner at Cripps, comments that even with existing clients, one of the big challenges in the private client world is finding reasons to keep in touch.
“If you are an accountant, in that adviser role, you are dealing with the client on an annual basis. But that is not the case for private client solicitors. Our firm tries a number of ways to keep contact with our clients.
“It is mainly from an educational perspective – letting them know if there is a change in the law that might affect them. We also offer a five year will review to clients, and they are often grateful for the prompt, as there may have been a change in relation to the assets or family circumstances.”
The benefits of youth
For Ian Bond, partner at Talbots, too many private clients are targeting the same demographic: the client aged over 50, who has paid off their mortgage and is sitting on a nice pension pot. That is a great client to have – but what about the younger generation?
Get them used to buying their legal services from solicitors, rather than unregulated rivals, and you can reap the rewards later on, he suggests.
“Solicitors need to realise that [their marketing] should not be a one-size-fits-all approach – it should be different for different demographics,” Bond says.
“It is no good simply telling people that they need a will or power of attorney as just one message, without recognising that people are in different life stages. The first life stage might be someone who is a young adult, Bond suggests.
“If you think about a young person who is just out of school, what is the driver for them to get a will? How do you get them interested in putting a will in place?”
For this type of client, getting a will done can be marketed as part of being a responsible adult, getting one’s affairs in order. Young people tend to have few assets, but they often have extensive social media archives.
Do they want their mum to be the one left managing their Facebook and Instagram accounts, if the worst were to happen? Or would they prefer to have the account deleted?
“With young clients, [the reason for getting a will] is about having control and being able to make choices,” says Bond.
But if you want to successfully reach these younger clients, you need to be offering an efficient service, and speak their language, he adds.
Gill Steel, founder of LawSkills, agrees. She says: “If you want to attract young people and perhaps young entrepreneurs, you have to find them in the places where they congregate. They don’t go to clubs and societies like in my day. They are at the gym.
“Research has shown that most young people under 30 think the bank is the place to go to for a will – and that is shocking, but that is who they are dealing with.
“They are setting up their bank account, dealing with their student loan, and they have the banking app on their phone. Solicitors need to engage with the apps young people are using.”
She adds: “Firms also need to be training their young staff in the use of social media, working with the marketing team so that they can be confident in tweeting and posting in a way that the firm is happy will not cause it grief.”
Returning to life stages, the next phase, says Bond, might be the ‘couples’ stage, where people are entering relationships, but perhaps not married.
There, the message might be: what protections do you need if things go wrong? After that, it might be the purchase of a first home. “We have starter homes, and so why not starter wills?” asks Bond.
“When you are buying a starter house, you kit it out with flatpack furniture and you are keeping things cheap,” he adds. In the same way with a will, solicitors should focus on price, and avoid trying to sell expensive wealth planning sessions.
The next trigger for clients to think about wills will be when they have children. “Life changes again as people become parents,” says Bond. “At that point, the driver for buying a will is who will look after my children if something happens to me.”
He adds: “Solicitors need to be recognising each of these stages. You need to show people what is relevant to them – if you can’t do that, they will simply go off to other providers – and private client solicitors could die a death.”
At the other end of the spectrum, acting for much older people has become a hugely significant part of private client practice.
Steel explains: “The elderly client sector is growing and growing – it is now the engine of private client work. Some firms have become very specialised in this, with ‘later life’ departments with a whole raft of junior staff who are paying bills and arranging things for elderly clients, while the partner is the deputy.
“You can be liaising with social services, GPs, the NHS. It’s a field that is only going to grow, but it needs good financial management, because the costs are very tight, with Court of Protection scale fees.”
That said, it is also possible to offer these services to the wealthy – as dementia does not discriminate in whom it attacks, notes Steel.
Litigation is also on the rise, as the growing number of powers of attorney being drawn up inevitably lead to a rise in instances of elderly people being exploited by those they trusted.
Solicitors can also help older clients with issues around care funding, including reminding local authorities of their duties when clients are not receiving the level of care that they are entitled to.
So how can firms market to these elderly clients? Certainly not through the internet or social media, remarks Sophia Tayton, partner at Lodders.
“It is about getting in front of them, for example doing presentations at things like dementia support groups such as those run by the Altzeimer’s Society or Age UK, or in retirement homes. In Stratford, there is a ‘50+’ festival for older people that we like to get involved in; we sponsor it and run presentations.’
Rycroft remarks that once solicitors start working for older clients, they can establish a reputation within the local elderly community.
But for lawyers in this line of work, one of the most important skills is patience. Tayton says: “Lots of time is spent talking to clients, going through things slowly and not rushing. You need to give elderly people time to process things and formulate their responses.
“For some clients you are everything, especially if they have appointed you as attorney. They might expect to have weekly conversations with you – they want to talk about whether the TV is working, or whether they should get a new stair carpet. You can’t just brush all that off.”
Firms should also think about their office environment if they are targeting elderly clients, notes Tayton.
“Your reception chairs might look elegant, but if the client needs help to get out of them, that tends to put them on the back foot”, she says. And then there is the delicate issue of mental capacity.
“This is something that you need to be aware of with all your elderly clients right from the start,” warns Tayton. “You need to ask yourself, can the client give me valid instructions? Are they being coerced? You need a private meeting, seeing the client on their own.
“If the client has been diagnosed with dementia, we try to follow a general rule of getting a report from a medical professional, but you can’t force a client to go along with that – and if they won’t, then the onus is on me as the solicitor to make sure I am satisfied that the client has capacity. I keep a very detailed record of why I did think they did understand what I was talking about.
“If you do have to say, ‘I’m not happy that you really do understand this’, sometimes the client can get upset and angry. But more often it is someone else who gets angry – whoever it is that wants them to make the gift or transfer the property.”
Regardless of the age of clients, most private client lawyers could do more to bring in business. Steel would like to see solicitors seizing opportunities to work collaboratively with non-competing businesses to bring in more work: genealogists, the local estate agents, specialists in probate house sales, or providers of IT for probate, for example.
“There are so many complementary services that others are offering, where solicitors could be collaborating,’ says Steel. ‘Sometimes these organisations have first access to the client, and they often have more of a marketing skill.”
She adds: “I know of one law firm that approached the local undertakers and said, can we come in and explain what happens next to the families of the bereaved? They were able to put their services in front of the client, in a very nice way. It worked very well.”
Steel also has a beef with solicitors failing to recognise potential leads when they are instructed to write a will.
“A lot of firms are already automatically offering to do a power of attorney when they do a will, which gets the fees up from a couple of hundred pounds, to around £500,” says Steel.
“There is nothing wrong with that – a client does need to have a power of attorney, and it’s a very easy sell. But what solicitors do not think about is all the other people that are mentioned [during the process]."
If the will or power of attorney mentions a brother, for example, solicitors should be asking if he has a will – and if not, would he like to come and sort that out? “It is about encouraging the client to bring their family in,” says Steel. “You can even offer a scheme for loyal clients – 10% off if they introduce a family member.”
The private client world may be a gentler place than some other areas of practice, but it can also be a more satisfying one. And if solicitors can succeed in bringing a younger generation of clients into the fold, the benefits will last into the long term.
As Arnold points out: “In private client, you can find yourself acting for different generations of the same family. It is all about the lasting client relationship.”
Tayton adds: “It may not be what some people might think of as the most glamorous work, like acting on multi-million-pound deals.
But whatever happens to the economy, people will be getting older - and they will need our help.”
Rachel Rothwell is a freelance journalist