7 things I would do differently if I were a probate solicitor again
This is a copy of a post which I wrote for The Law Wizard blog,
dated 22 January 2014.
I was a private client solicitor for 3 years, until early 2010, when I handed in my notice to see the world and start a legal technology business.
Some things I think I did quite well (I like to think I had a nice manner with clients, and explained tricky concepts in plain-ish English). Some things I know, on reflection, I did not do so well.
Here are seven things that, if I were (hypothetically) to be a probate solicitor again, I would like to do better. I hope they provide a little inspiration.
1: Be more proactive
For too much of the time, I would wait for clients to walk through the door. This can only ever be partly successful, and there is more I could have done – much of it, incredibly simple.
On this point, a client of a law firm told me recently that they were amazed they didn’t receive the occasional email or letter from the firm, like they would from their mobile phone provider, bank, car insurance provider, etc. I and my firm missed out on significant opportunities by not having a mechanism in place to tap our greatest resource: our existing clients. If I were a probate solicitor again, I would put a formal plan in place for contacting clients, by email where possible, with helpful advice and suggestions.
Done sparingly, and in the right way, most clients will appreciate the contact – it will be seen as helpful proactivity. Many firms do this very well, and it works for them.
2: Be clearer with costs
I cringe at some early mistakes I made as an NQ, and I soon learned to be clear and upfront with costs – something all solicitors should do, without question. Many still don’t, as we at The Law Wizard discovered a little while back, from the other side of the fence.
Now I’m no longer a solicitor, I appreciate the feeling of helplessness and paranoia that clients can feel if they feel out of control of their legal bill.There is still more I would like to do if I were a solicitor again, specifically – charge every probate matter as a fixed fee, and capped, so the client may even have a lower bill than expected.
This isn’t easy, but it is possible, and inevitable. And the way to do it is not to artificially bump up the fixed fee to cover all manner of unexpected issues (again, something we’ve experienced from the other side of the fence). This is missing the point of fixed fees: they should be equalised to represent a fair price for what is to be expected, based on the data collected by the law firm for these sorts of cases over many years.
3: Use paper sparingly
As a solicitor, I sent soooo many letters. Now, I am put out if I receive a paper invoice (out of however many invoices we receive per month, only two are on paper – we then have to scan them). Not all clients want to converse by email, perhaps ever-so-slight slightly truer of the average wills and probate client, but – if I were a probate solicitor again – I would email by default. It’s far more convenient for the average client, and, in the worst case case scenario, letters are irritating and old-fashioned.
This will be old hat to many lawyers. Maybe the majority already adopt this approach.
4: Be less risk-averse
I went from a solicitor that wouldn’t write a will for a client if I hadn’t received instructions face-to-face, to an entrepreneur that risked it all by quitting my job setting up a business. Quite how I got from one to the other, I still don’t know.
So, the all-time number one thing that I would tell my former self if I could travel back in a time machine: be less risk-averse!
I can only think that there is something chemical in the lawyer’s brain that avoids risks that, frankly, aren’t even risks. Maybe it’s caused by years of reading about cases that swiveled on a dime for some minor discretion, or something.
A nice comment by a STEP member sums it up. When I asked on an online forum what STEP members thought of producing a will for a client I hadn’t seen face-to-face, one member said they wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole. A second said that barge poles went out with the canals. If running my own business has taught me anything, the second one was right.
5: Say less, write less
Sitting on the other side of the fence, if I’m engaging a lawyer or accountant, I don’t particularly care how some paragraph in some statute or other does this or that: all that matters is what needs to be done, by when, by whom and how much it will cost.
It’s much the same for probate solicitors. I improved over the years, with my advice and instructions in letters, on the phone and in person gradually getting more and more concise. I could still have tried harder to say less and write less. I think it’s actually one of the hardest skills for a lawyer to master, and a sign of someone who really knows their stuff.
6: Be more commercially aware
This means two things: (1) thinking of law as a business, not a calling, and (2) trying to see things from the client’s perspective.
If I were a solicitor again, there is more I could do. For example, I would be more astute about cross-selling. In other words, realising that the client may require services that colleagues in my firm could help with, and putting them in touch. Such a simple thing that I didn’t do particularly well, because I lacked a degree of commercial awareness.
It’s not something they teach at law college.
7: Arrange my days better
Emails are distracting, and more gets done if it’s scheduled. If I were a lawyer again, I would only check and respond to emails twice a day at, say 10am and 3pm. I would also put unmovable blocks of time in my calendar each week for tasks that never get done: blogging; tweeting; tidying my desk…
I hope you can take a little inspiration from the things I would do better. If you already do everything right – congratulations, you’re the perfect private client solicitor!