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Local Law Firms Will Reduce By A Third

Increased Government changes to the legal system in England and Wales combined with everyday commercial pressures will see the number of law firms in Coventry and Warwickshire reduce by a third within the next five years, and it will be only the largest, strongest and fittest firms which will survive, a leading local solicitor has warned.

Addressing a group of local business people at the official opening of Alsters new Nuneaton office in Dugdale Street, Alsters managing partner Steven Swindle said that unless local law firms modernise and adopt the latest communications and computer software and systems, many will go to the wall.


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 other firms.

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.

He said:

"Like other 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.

"Solicitors often 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 electronic conveyancing.

"The legal 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 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 Swindle.

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.

"More small 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.

"The Government 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 cost?

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."

He added:

"These changes, 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 representation.

"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.

"The Government 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 problem."

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CWN / Business / Alsters / 15 Sep 01
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