After building and then losing a legal practice with a high energy but flawed business model, the author tells how he has found a better and less pressured way, putting service before volume

I subscribe to a wonderful little magazine called The Idler, which as its title suggests, expounds the view that we should all take our foot off the accelerator pedal, cease our obsession with growth, and chill! 

While recognising the fact that the pandemic has undoubtedly brought tragedy to many, there is also a belief that certain positive factors have developed during these unusual times - we have the opportunity to slow down, allow the planet to clean its polluted air and grow our own food. Embrace the pace and spend time learning an instrument, read that book you always planned to get round to, get into the garden, etc etc.

I have to say that I find the idea of scaling down appealing – there are so many of us who have become slaves of that eternal and often unsettling phone “ping”; it tracks us (an adulterer's nightmare), entertains us and, of course, drains from us that most valuable of our commodities, time!

As a 26 year old in 1990, I established M G Sykes & Co, solicitors in Glasgow. I was intent on building an empire – it was a numbers game and I possessed the required energy. Pre inter-web, I committed to expensive newspaper advertisements, leaflet drops and a blanket campaign of endless wine and dine sessions for local estate agents in the hope of securing legal referrals. An evening of boozy entertainment with a slap-up meal would incur a £500 tab, but it would generate many times that in legal business.

And so it continued – at one point the firm had five offices, wonderful staff and an Aston in the garage. But the structure of the business was built on clay, and when key personnel accepted an invitation to join a competitor, the workplace became a challenging place to be. When my cashier (who had been with me from the start) detected that the ship might sink, she (not unreasonably) decided to take up a position with another firm. 

Chaos ensued – the housing market was still going like a train, but the pressure placed on the remaining staff, together with a hole in the cash department, very quickly brought a state of great disorder. I advised the Law Society of Scotland, who appreciated that the disorder was not fraudulent, as a result of which I was afforded the opportunity to write the firm's business to a zero balance. With the assistance of another legal firm's accountant, I began the campaign of reduction, which proved to be an immense challenge (we succeeded two years later!).

Own practice, take 2

I formulated a plan to become an internationally bestselling author and illustrator; in this, I failed. My bank manager at the time suggested that I should return to the legal profession, and when I found myself borrowing from my grandson's piggybank for a train ticket, I decided that the patient and long suffering manager was correct.

In 2013, I established G S Legal. This time, the model would be significantly altered. In line with the The Idler philosophy, I decided on a slower pace and returned to the oldfashioned way of providing a better service, albeit at a higher cost. I settled on a fee which was, on average, twice that of the current average volume conveyancer charge. To my surprise, few objected – I think most reasonable folks understand that a realistic charge should be made for processing a capital purchase in excess of £200,000 with all the potential pitfalls that such a process would involve. Past experience supported the view that pennypinching clients were often the most problematic; this time round, I was comfortable in allowing those who wished a bucket shop price to go to the bucket shop.

My new model would involve doing the job more thoroughly (properly examining title conditions, rather than relying on the insurance professional indemnity policy), and, perhaps most importantly, being accessible by phone and promising to return calls immediately. I provided my mobile telephone number to clients and stated that they could call anytime. It was essential to secure a strong cashroom, and in this regard, I did not hire an internal accountant but engaged an external provider (The Cashroom, a wonderful company based in Livingston); this allowed me to get on with the legal business in the knowledge that the accounting would be attended to correctly. The new practice processed a fraction of the transactions processed by the previous firm, but there was also significantly less pressure.

Many in the profession resent internet supported volume conveyancing firms, who they believe have driven fees down to ludicrous levels, a view that I have some sympathy with. However, we operate in a free market and we must respect the right of such firms to choose whatever structure suits them. Other lawyers do not have to slavishly follow similar patterns, as my revamped model has confirmed.

Incidentally, our colleagues on the continent view UK conveyancing charges with a supernatural sense of bewilderment. I am informed by my brother (who holds joint British/French citizenship) that French lawyers charge 4% of the purchase price of a property and, having conducted some recent commerce with the Spanish, their charges are similarly structured in a way that recognises the responsibility involved and the training committed to justify such charges. Good on our European legal friends, I say – why would the legal profession in any jurisdiction devalue the importance of what is offered? 

From a personal perspective, I suffered the trauma of a year's study of Roman law – why should I draft a will for 25? To those frugal un-appreciates, I say go to your local newsagent for a pre-printed piece of will loo roll to fill in the blanks – and why not save some more by filling your own teeth, and internet-prescribing treatment for the ulcer brought about by your money fretting?

Morale in the Scottish legal profession continues to diminish. Perhaps it is time to adopt the old ways and restructure? I process a fraction of the work I did in the 90s, but there is no bank overdraft and the Aston Martin is back in the garage. And I may yet have the time to investigate the joy that many find in gardening.

Be happy.

The Author

Graham Sykes is principal of G S Legal, Stewarton

Share this article
Add To Favorites