Price transparency: it's about the wiggle room
New price transparency requirements have to be a positive development for law firms, but there is still an issue about unexpected costs, says Russell Conway
Come 6 December 2018, every solicitors’ website was suddenly awash with costs information. There was a plethora of charts, costs schedules, calculators and costs estimates.
The SRA deemed that as of that date all solicitors firms had to publish costs information in relation to conveyancing, probate, debt, employment and immigration. Except, this wasn’t the case.
Publishing price information is quite a big ask, as looking at half a dozen or so solicitors websites on D day, they were all blissfully shy of publishing any costs information at all.
A ghostly silence rang out over all the sites which had not, as of 6 December, published any costs information of any kind. Of course I have received a deluge of emails from consultants offering to help me out and I suspect a mini industry is developing to make solicitors’ firms compliant.
After all, the SRA say that they will be inspecting and, in the event of defaults, that they will taking this up with the firms concerned.
When I first heard about these new regulations I have to confess to feeling a little smug. I published costs information on my very first website some 20 years ago. And I still do.
I have always taken on board the need to let customers know what our costs actually are. What we as solicitors forget is that a great many private clients have no clue whatsoever of what a solicitor is going to charge.
Only today I did a £5 swear in relation to a statutory declaration and the client was completely shocked as he had no idea what sort of fee to expect and he had been expecting to pay at least a hundred pounds.
Ignorance of solicitors’ fees is the reason why we now have to do our best as a profession to explain ourselves to the public. Unlike doctors, dentists and opticians, large numbers of the public rarely – and some times never – visit a rm of solicitors.
In November I had a stall at a landlords’ exhibition at Olympia. Most of the visitors to my stall were landlords or people flirting with the idea of becoming buy-to-let millionaires.
They all took full advantage of free legal advice that was on o er on the day but virtually 90 per cent of them asked the magic question “what fees do you charge?” Oddly even among quite an informed public there was quite a degree of unawareness of what solicitors charge.
I was repeatedly asked what I charged for a will, what I charged for a divorce and how much I charged for a simple leasehold purchase. The reason I was asked these questions is that the people concerned simply did not have a clue.
Once you x your prices the suspicious public will find their way to your door. For example every year we participate in the Will Aid project where, for a fixed fee, customers can make a will and that fee is donated to an extremely worthwhile charity.
This year we were deluged with requests. One exceptional year we did over 40. This year we have done 20 but the reason clients are so keen on the project is that it is advertised with a fixed fee, which they understand and are comfortable with.
Nowadays I have much more sophisticated costs information on my website. In relations to conveyancing we use a bespoke calculator which potential clients can use in the comfort of their own homes without having to speak with us.
Most importantly clients are a little shy to contact a firm without knowing roughly what the job is going to cost. Once they have had a look on our site they are better placed to give us a call and then pop in to see us and realise that solicitors are not that scary after all. I am a little intrigued as to how other firms will deal with costs.
After all there has to be some wiggle room. A straightforward purchase of a leasehold at may only cost £500 but what if half way through you discover that you need to do a lease extension and there are awful problems with a loft that has no planning permission?
It’s the wiggle room issue which is going to be the bellwether as to how successful this project is.
Speaking for myself, I am a supporter of the project. Solicitors need to embrace technology, embrace the power that websites offer and realise that digital marketing needs a degree of honesty and transparency.
Russell Conway is senior partner at Oliver Fisher