Council member and convener of the Society's Professional Practice Committee, Austin Lafferty writes about the recent introduction of Price Transparency Guidance for the profession - and how he has found it a useful management tool for his business.
Price transparency. Eh? How can you say what a divorce is going to cost, or an executry? I don’t know how complicated or expensive your will is going to be until I find out what your assets and family life are. I don’t know how long your court action will be. What if I undercharge or get stuck with a low fee and the work grows arms and legs?
These and more have been the objections to bringing in a scheme of advertising fees to the public and potential clients. And they all make sense. So why are we being forced down a price transparency road? Firstly, the consumer lobby and the governments in the UK are determined to make the legal system more available, to empower ordinary citizens with knowledge of the cost of going to law before either turning round and receiving a huge bill they didn’t expect, and/or enduring a lengthy legal process all the time not knowing if the meter is going sky high. Those interests are also completely legitimate.
I am long enough in this business (40+ years) to remember the scale fee for conveyancing. I saw that being swept away on a tide of consumer protection only to be replaced by something going at least partly in the opposite opaque direction. We could quote over the phone, and in terms of business letters set out our charges, but the general public carried on not much the wiser about what lawyers cost. No wonder the fat cat lawyer jokes have not abated, and whenever hard-pressed legal aid practitioners beg to get paid nearly as much as a plumber there is no public sympathy.
Where we are is this: under the need to require firms to expose their charging philosophy and some actual examples of pricing, we have Guidance. In England and Wales they have Regulation. So in Scotland we are already better off. The idea is to advertise on your website how you might charge for the work you do. It is not cast in stone, you can still quote individually and put a tailored fee for work in your terms of engagement, you can give a client the caveat that if the work exceeds what is expected you can ask for more. It is not handcuffs, it is a help.
I was like most initially – another Law Society bit of bureaucracy on top of the rest, surely they know how tough it is for us? But I am also a realist, and once the decision was made, I put on my management geek hat and got to it. I drafted a scheme and various worked examples – power of attorney, purchase, guardianship, divorce and the rest. As I wrote and calculated, it dawned on me that not only might I finish this to allow myself to avoid an ignominious exit from the profession for failing to do my duty, but that I was creating a marketing tool. Eventually when I sat back and admired my handiwork, it was already clear to me that this was a shop window to the firm, not creating barriers but breaking them down.
We posted the relevant page on our website – months ahead even of the original date proposed for the Guidance to come into force, such was my enthusiasm. Since then not only have we had no complaints (even with a small c) about the subject, we have actively been instructed by clients who saw the guide and followed through to contact us.
I appreciate it may seem like I am ending with “and they all lived happily ever after”, and nothing in legal practice is quite that. I need to keep the page under my eye – increases in Registers of Scotland or court fees need to be edited in. Market forces are always there. And I assume the information will not please everyone.
But we needed to put this price transparency material into place. And do you know, if I go into John Lewis or online to Amazon to buy a telly, I want to know the price and not be left guessing or having to do a sum. We as lawyers serve the public just as much as retailers do – different skill set but same need for integrity, expertise and value for money.
Nothing to hide.