Regional focus: South-west
Jean-Yves Gilg discovers that life in the South-west can be as fast paced as in London but that business can be tough as a rural community lawyer
Within a few seconds, Joanna Clarke, former president of the Bristol Law Society, brushes aside the stereotypes about working outside London. 'People talk about the quality of life in Bristol compared with London, which is largely true, but you do work just as hard,' she says. 'London lawyers come with misconceptions that they will have a nice
9-to-5 job, but corporate life is pretty much the same, it's just that you don't have to stay in the office until midnight every day.'
Clarke stresses that the area has caught up with London in terms of standard of living; house prices, in particular, come as a shock to those dreaming of an affordable rural escape.
But this is not to say that the South-west as a whole is just like London. Bristol could be regarded as a legal outpost of the capital on the West coast, and there are a few hot spots around Exeter, Plymouth and Taunton, but the geographical market for legal services in the South-west spans tracts of rural Britain in a corner of the country that is not on a natural trade route and where business can be tough if your clients are miles apart. Unless, of course, your aim is to offer regular legal advice to the local community, not become a multimillionaire.
Clarke, an eight years' qualified solicitor specialising in commercial property at Bevan Brittan, admits that she was attracted by the way of life, but mostly it was the opportunity to develop her career and the different attitude to work that were decisive.
Clarke has worked with developers on large projects, but has also focused on certain sectors rather than just property, something that she says would be much more difficult to achieve in London within the same time-span and where 'the work is not so process-driven, but more transactional'.
Being a former president of the Bristol Law Society has helped: 'Being involved with the Law Society and in business circles gives you lots of other skills. Being a good lawyer doesn't make you good at running a business. Working in client-facing roles does.'
But aspirations to a better quality of life remains a strong pull to the South-west; Clarke says that not many firms have cottoned on to this, and so risk losing lawyers' commitment. 'Becoming a partner used to be the main drive, but many lawyers of my generation [Clarke is in her early 30s] are beginning to question whether this is the ultimate goal and whether a better work/life balance isn't a more satisfying objective.' And this, she says, could have serious implications for recruitment and growth.
The issue is not unique to Bristol. Smaller places like Plymouth, Exeter, or Taunton, face the same challenges, made more acute where the type of work is less commercial or more dependent on public funding.
'The local universities at Plymouth and Exeter are good recruitment grounds for us,' says Nigel Lyons, a partner at Foot Anstey. 'Most candidates from the North tend to return to their region after a while, and all your effort into nurturing them to become partners of the future are lost overnight.'
In the past few years, Foot Anstey had 15 trainees a year across its three offices (Exeter, Taunton and Plymouth) '“ an unusually high number for the South-west '“ and Lyons says there has been good retention. Foot Anstey now has 30 partners and the firm has raised its Taunton profile to attract some of the larger clients near Bristol and in North Devon.
Foot Anstey's expansion reflects its move into more commercial work and the acquisition of national clients. 'We have grown through word of mouth and because we are involved in the local community,' says Lyons.
Lawyers in this part of the South-west have generally benefited from the rise in tourism in the past few years and the numerous regeneration projects along the coast. But more work brings greater competition and Foot Anstey is actively working to consolidate its position. Its latest achievement is to be included in the panel of nine law firms that will provide legal advice to 18 local authorities.
'For us, developing our partnership with local authorities is a key strategy. In a competitive environment, we must change and adapt, and be commercially more astute,' says Lyons. 'Our Lexcel certification has helped, it shows that we are able to deliver expertise on a fixed budget.'
Private client work, however, raises greater concern. 'At the moment, practitioners in the South-west are looking closely at Lord Carter's proposal to revamp the legal aid structure. It is going to have a profound impact on the delivery of service in areas like crime and child care. The government is trying to cap the remuneration for certain types of cases and there is huge frustration in the profession because lawyers have little control over the time it takes to deal with these cases. Some can take 12-18 months to conclude. The average billing time in these cases is £9,000, but you would only be paid £4,000,' Lyons explains.
Competition from 'Tesco law' providers has also prompted the firm to develop more innovative solutions. Foot Anstey introduced a computerised conveyancing division where all forms and checks can be done online, accessible to clients 24 hours a day. Clients are also notified of critical steps in the buying process, such as the exchange of contract by text message within half an hour. 'It makes house buying as easy as buying a book online,' says Lyons. 'Older clients may not be as IT-savvy, but younger clients with busy lives are keen.'
Likewise, Lyons believes people will not accept the dumbing-down of important issues such as making a will. 'You can pick up a pack for a fiver at the till while doing your shopping, but making a will involves complex decisions about yourself, your spouse and your children '“ and people will still want to talk to a solicitor about that.'
On the high street
On the high street, firms have to contend with the same issues, but their context is often different. Frank Murray, a partner in Kites, a Taunton-based generalist practice that has now amalgamated with Everys, acknowledges that corporate conglomerates like bulk conveyancers have had an effect on the market, but says his practice has not lost any business. 'The referral fee business between corporate conveyancers and estate agents has eaten into the market, but it has been a complete fiasco and the clients were not better served.'
But the biggest problem is the geography. 'When I left London and arrived in Taunton so many years ago, I thought that I had arrived '“ but that is only half-way to Penzance,' says Murray. 'The main challenge for rural practices is how far apart your clients are, which makes it all the more difficult to get new clients in the locality.' For Murray and others, the advent of electronic communications has made a significant difference, but Murray points out that not all places have broadband connections and that a lot still needs to be done to encourage providers to extend their networks.
Assuming that it survives and thrives, the smaller firm's next biggest issue is succession. Smaller firms in the region
have always had difficulties recruiting and ensuring continuity. This is what 135-year-old Kites was contending with when the five partners decided to join forces with Everys.
'It was unlikely that anyone would have offered a decent price to buy the business, our competitors could just have waited for the firm to fold and pick up our old clients,' says Murray. 'The economics were such that a merger was the best option.'
The other advantage, Murray continues, is that it puts the enlarged firm in a better bargaining position for recruiting. While there are no trainees at the old Kites' office at the moment, there are about five trainees around Everys' nine offices '“ all in the South-west.
Kites has secured its survival through integration, but smaller firms are an endangered species. Rationalising processes and increasingly using IT are essential steps to survival, but these are merely common sense rather than long-term solutions.Tags: