He also warned that the
only way most small legal practices will be able to afford to
make the changes necessary to survive will be to merge with
Steven Swindle said:
"The joint forces
of increased Government legislation and commercial necessity
mean that those law firms which don't replace the quill pen
with modern IT and communications systems and build for the
future will indeed have no future."
He said that Alsters
merger with RS Bull & Co, which gives Alsters offices in
Leamington, Coventry and Nuneaton and puts it amongst the top
three largest legal practices in Coventry and Warwickshire,
epitomises the changes which he believes will shortly become
commonplace amongst High Street law firms.
businesses, the merger will give us economies of scale, extend
our presence in the marketplace and makes us better able to
face the challenges which lie ahead."
And he warned:
"For far too long
solicitors have been perceived by the public as being rather
dull and dowdy characters, working in dark rooms crowded with
dusty books and cobwebs. The reality is quite different - and
the last five years have seen the biggest changes in
solicitors' practices that most members of the profession have
experienced in their careers.
form an interface between the client on the one side and large
institutions on the other - whether it be a bank, a mortgage
lender, the Legal Services Commission or the Land Registry.
But one thing all these bodies have in common is that they now
seem to prefer to deal with a smaller number of larger firms
where computer systems are the key to efficiency and
economy," Steven Swindle said.
A good example, he said,
was the Government and Land Registry’s drive towards
profession is often criticised for slowing down the house
buying process because the conveyancing takes too long. The
Government is hoping that its new Sellers' Pack - once
finalised - will speed matters along, but until mortgage
lenders are prepared to rely on the seller’s valuation and
survey I fear little will be gained," he said.
However, he added that
the latest review of the Land Registry by the Government should
reduce the period from handshake to completion from eight to
only three weeks.
"By 2005 we will
see on-line lodging of Applications for Registrations,
e-certificates and deeds, and electronic settlement payments.
The next two years we will see an on-line Register which will
provide up-to-date information - indeed, one already exists
and Alsters was among the first legal firms in the country to
be linked to it," he said.
"We will soon see
conveyancing completions executed at the press of a computer
key which will instantaneously update the property's Land
Registry entry. Long gone are the days when the clerk made his
traditional Friday afternoon trek to the seller's solicitor's
offices to examine and collect a pile of fusty old deeds and
hand over a long-awaited Banker’s Draft."
Another example of the
change of speed of things was the Internet. Between a third and
a half of all households in the UK are now estimated to have
access to the Internet, and an increasing number of people are
already taking advantage of it by buying their groceries,
financial services, CD's and other items on-line.
Alsters itself is in the
final stages of developing its own interactive website at www.alsters.com
where existing and potential clients will be able to see the
services the firm offers, contact solicitors by email and
receive selected services via on-line forms and systems.
"However, none of
these improved services to clients will be possible without
substantial investment by legal firms in faster, more powerful
computer systems and the trained staff to operate them - and
it will only through size that the modern legal practice will
be able to afford to introduce them," said Steven
He also questioned
whether the Government had properly thought through some of the
changes it was making to the way businesses operate in the UK.
businesses than ever are now being created and, with red tape
and regulation increasing, one sometimes wonders what the
Government is trying to achieve.
"We see many
nursing homes closing because of increasing regulations; we
see business overheads climbing with employers having to
complete an increasing number of returns and forms; we see new
employment laws which may seem wonderful to the employee but
which cost small employers an increasing amount of money. All
these act as a disincentive to expansion and the creation of
more jobs and prosperity," he said.
is having an increasing effect on all our business lives. The
Legal Services Commission - the new name for the Legal Aid
Board - recently introduced sweeping changes to Legal Aid.
Many of these are for the better but the downside is - at what
Under the new regime,
Legal Aid is not available for Personal Injury Claims and the
legal profession remains unconvinced that this is for the
better because in a 'no win - no fee' situation firms will
only take on cases where they feel a relatively easy success
is achievable. The Government hoped insurance would fill the
gap left by the removal of Legal Aid - but this has not been
the case," he said.
He also cited the
abolition of the popular ‘Green Form Scheme’, which used to
be a valuable source of free initial advice to eligible clients
on a wide variety of subjects.
"This has now
ended and there is a clear gap."
therefore, make it very difficult for small general legal
practices or sole practitioners to carry out publicly-funded
work. The Government may well say this is for the better, but
it does mean that in certain areas, particularly smaller
towns, the public's choice of lawyer is much restricted and
could even lead to a conflict of interest resulting in one
party to a dispute having to go to another town to find legal
"The changes have
improved efficiency and quality, but we know that the
Government is likely to introduce competitive tendering as the
next stage and this clearly will cut the amount of time a
solicitor can spend on a matter - which will obviously reduce
the quality of service he can give.
must realise that buying a legal service is not like buying a
spade where quality is roughly the same wherever it is
purchased. Service depends on time spent, and if corners are
cut clients may need the spade to dig themselves out of a