Solicitors From Hell?

I received the following email from an individual named Rick Kordowski today. He is the former proprietor of the lawyer-baiting website solicitorsfromhell.co.uk, the premise of which was to extort money from solicitors in return for not publishing tirades of questionable provenance. As far as I was aware, he had been put out of business and the “phoenix” business that has arisen has, according to its home page at www.solicitorsfromhell.net been created to fulfill his “legacy”. However, as you’ll see from this email that Mr Kordowski does still appear to be very much involved.

(By the way, I believe that English is Mr Kordowski’s first language, despite indications to the contrary.)

Hey there at satan’s business,

This is the current editor of the online portal called SolicitorsFromHell.net .

This site principally caters for the disenfranchised legal consumer; in other words, those members of the public who are convinced the official route has not served or will not serve their needs or the justice of their grievance. There are times when the establishment’s complaints handler gets it wrong – for whatever reason: occasionally there are cover-ups with the retort “insufficient evidence” being used to protect the wrongdoer.
We are contacting you with a formal and “needs to be sent heads up” regarding a soon to be published article.

In the last few days we have been in contact with a former client of your law firm. He claims, and in our opinion, it clearly shows that you lack the respect and dedication you claim to show all your clients.

The communication he sent is attached to this message. You can see exactly what we will publish; we did, however, covered all private data, i.e. contact details and transaction details.

As we do not operate as a usual daily newspaper your point of view regarding these accusations is not mandatory.

The article will be showed on our website starting with tomorrow morning.

Rick Kordowski
SolicitorsFromHell.net , former SolicitorsFromHell.co.uk

Well, obviously I couldn’t let an opportunity like this pass unexploited. I dispatched the following email in reply:

Dear Mr Kordowski

Thank you for your email. Unfortunately, the attachment containing the promised information was full of gobbledy-gook. I suspect that this is because you assume that as a solicitor, I must be a Microsoft user. I am not.

I see that you allege we claim to show “respect and dedication” to all of our clients. I must record that I don’t ever recall writing such meaningless rubbish, that being the sort of dribble that conventional commercial law firms use in their boardroom brochures. We are not a conventional commercial law firm and never will be.

I should also mention that you refer to “a former client” of my firm. We have no former clients. All of our clients, whether we are currently engaged on their behalf or not, remain precious and valued. I know that the professional conduct rules diluted the rules on conflicts of interest a few years ago to refer to “current clients” but I don’t hold with that. As far as I’m concerned, every business that becomes a client of *particular remains a client for life.

I find it hard to believe that in a practice as small as ours, we could have had, in the three years since our founding, a client so disgruntled as to wish to record his or her dissatisfaction on your site, though I suppose it’s always possible. I write this with some confidence, however, given that most of our work is done in the commercial creative and tech sectors and, I mean no offence by this, I can’t imagine any of them would wish to be associated with your site. This kind of activity would hardly endear them to their investors and customers.

In addition, we like to think we offer market-leading levels of transparency. All of our clients have access to all documentation relating to their files at all times, even after they have been closed. This includes invoices, time sheets, correspondence, documents and everything else. This also includes a complaints policy, which they find in the Records section of the file at opening, and a document that spells out our mission, values and behaviours, to which we ask them to hold us to account.

You can see, therefore, that discouraging you from publishing the dissatisfaction of an irritated client would be totally against the grain for us. Indeed, it would entirely undermine our values. I am sure that you will have taken the trouble to conduct reasonable enquiries to satisfy yourself that the information you intend to publish is accurate and that the facts contained therein are true and not misleading. That being the case, please do proceed. We have, as a firm, yet to receive anything close to a complaint from our clients since we opened our virtual doors but I have, during my long and varied career, always tried to receive every grumble, whether justified or (in my opinion) not, as an opportunity to impress upon those concerned my commitment to client service. I’m sorry that the client concerned didn’t feel that the views s/he has shared with you couldn’t be disclosed to me directly – or maybe they were hinted at but I was too obtuse or focussed upon what I was doing to notice.

So, though it pains me as an atheist to write this, please do “publish and be damned” as the saying goes. I guess that given the name of your website, you will have no shortage of company. I look forward to reading the article tomorrow.

Kind regards and thanks for your interest in our firm,

Matthew Rippon

PS. I see that you remain very much involved with the ‘Solicitors From Hell’ movement but on the homepage of the website, much store is placed upon the new domain as being a part of your “legacy”. You are referred to in the past tense. I wonder whether that has something to do with the various court proceedings to which you were subjected?

Matthew James Rippon
Director
Particular C&L Limited

Sadly, my email appears to have bounced so I have resent it this time to the info@solicitorsfromhell.net address I found on the “Contact Us” page of the website. I can’t wait to see what appears tomorrow. I guess that if nothing else, at least that means somebody considers as serious enough contendors to warrant this kind of attack. If only he knew just how tightly Mrs Mc grips the purse-strings…

*** UPDATE ***
09:45, Tuesday 13 February 2014

Just checked the “latest entries” page on the solicitorsfromhell.net website and was disappointed to find that we are not yet listed. What is the world coming to when you can’t rely on a character like Rick Kordowski to follow through on his declared intention to publish this kind of material? Well, he did say he wasn’t a newspaper. Maybe he’s not an early riser either.

Knuckle Down, Fit In.

About 13 years ago, I had my first appraisal at what was then my new firm: Prettys in Ipswich.  Colourful shirts, floppy hair and a passion for doing things differently, I think it’s fair to say that I was already rubbing my supervising partner up the wrong way.

“You need to knuckle down”, he said.  “You have to fit in.”  I still have the notes I made at the appraisal, which was something of a character assassination.  Those notes contain just four words:

KNUCKLE DOWN

FIT IN

And for a long time I had them pinned to the wall above my desk, as a badge of pride.

I have never “fitted in” to any law firm that I have worked at.  Which is probably why within a year of meeting the right person to partner up with, I had set up my own practice.  We work hard, we love what we do.  But we will never knuckle down.  We will never fit in.

As a result, we will never again get that magical unexpected call from the huge client of which every lawyer dreams.  (It did happen to me once, when I was at Watson Burton, and I ended up handling all the grey trading litigation for Canon UK.)  But that’s OK.  Because what I’ve realised is that even as a lawyer, it’s OK not to fit in, not to knuckle down.  There are enough people out there who like the way we do things that differentiating ourselves on this basis is a good thing.  A great thing.

Two things happened today that made me decide it was time to write this post.  One, we had some wonderful recommendations (one from a client, one about our iTunes podcast, and finally one being a podcast listener coming to our defence when somebody suggested that my post about it wasn’t suitable for a Facebook group about start-ups in London).  All this in the space of an hour and a half.

And two, I read this post by Seth Godin.  Of course, Seth is all about differentiation.  And you’d know that already if you had read Purple Cow.  But what I love about this very short post is that it summarises in just a few words not only why it’s important to be different, but why the reason for that difference is important.  You’ll see when you read it.  And don’t say you haven’t got time.  It’s less than half the length of this one…

Do You Find Lawyers Frustrating? You’re Not Alone.

I just read an interesting assessment of forthcoming changes in European trade mark law.  Rather enthusiastically, it was called “Trademarks: a Hot New Issue“.  I imagine only an IP lawyer could describe changes to trade mark legislation as “hot”, but it was worth a read.

The piece, published on the website of the Law Society Gazette last week, focussed on the proposal to cut the fees for Community Trade Mark applications.  OHIM, the body responsible for administering the system, has been making a sizeable profit despite having  cut its fees substantially a few years ago.  The European Commission, it seems, is not happy about this.

It is generally agreed that Community Trade Mark application fees are too high.  One of the reasons for this is that the basic price for an application gives you the right to cite goods and services in three classes.  If you want to know more about how the classification system works, see my explanation here.  I’m guessing from Mr Goldsmith’s piece above referenced that there are a number of European countries in which this is the standard practice – not being a trade mark attorney this is not something that I have ever needed to know.  However, in the UK it has only ever (so far as I’m aware) been necessary to pay for your application in one class.

The result of this is that although it costs a base price of €900 to file an application for a Community Trade Mark (otherwise referred to as a “CTM”), in the UK it costs just £170.  (By the way, there’s no VAT on either.)  On the other hand, for your €900, you get not just an extra two classes of goods or services in your specification, but you get trade mark protection across the whole of the European Union, which I believe now extends to 30 countries, following the accession of Croatia, and about 300 million people.

This creates a number of problems.  First, the CTM application is unnecessarily complicated and expensive for SMEs who wish to file applications in just one or two classes (which is most of my clients).  Secondly, it makes the comparison between a UK and a CTM application difficult to explain to a client who is open to the latter but a little short of funds (again, most of my clients).  Third, those clients that do opt for a CTM but who are only really interested in one or two classes feel the need to cite all the three that they have been forced to pay for, filling the surplus classes with an unwanted clutter of goods and services that really they have little intention of using.

Excessive specification clutter (yes, that’s the phrase they use) then causes a problem for businesses who bother to check the trade mark registers before selecting a new brand.  If you’ve never heard of a trade mark or its proprietor and the mark itself is yet to be used in public, how do you know that really the owner intends to apply it only to clothing in class 25 and not for industrial oils and greases in class 4 or non-metallic building materials in class 19?

As you can see, this debate, whilst superficially dull, is actually quite relevant to brand owners and would-be brand owners around the world.  Especially those, like you, who are on a restricted budget.

So why is this an example of the frustration that lawyers create?

If you scroll to the bottom of Mr Goldsmith’s well-written article, you will see that he asks for comments from his colleagues.  However, of the four comments posted, only one partially contributes to the debate.  The other three and a half comment upon or castigate the author for his apparent use of the American spelling “trademark” as opposed to the English version “trade mark”. (In truth, I suspect that the spelling was changed in the sub-editing process.)

One of those comments includes the line:

“If we can’t get these things right, what hope is there for the clients?”

Really?

All around us, the profession is crumbling.  We face hitherto unknown financial pressures and competitive threats.  Lawyers have never been less valued by their clients or more disrespected by the public at large.  But of course what prospective clients are really interested in is whether we can spell the word “trade marks”.

If you’ve ever thought the lawyer you regretted consulting sat in an ivory tower unable actually to give you any useful advice, here’s your proof.  Were I not an aetheist, I think I would be seeking divine intervention by now…

The #CafeClinic

First published as a guest post by Vicki Stone Marketing, it was writing this that led me to write “Six Myths…“.

In Seth Godin’s ‘StartUp School’, the great man is asked about his experience of using lawyers whilst starting a business.  He tells how, in his last year at Stanford, he started a business with a couple of friends and they managed to scrape together $5000 to invest in it.  The university pushed them into taking legal advice – this was long before the days of Eric Ries and the ‘lean’ theory that dominates start-up culture these days.

Seth describes how the lawyer charged him $3000 of the $5000 he had in order to incorporate the company and put everything in order.  Remember, this was in the mid-80s, when $3000 was a lot of money.  Unsurprisingly, the business folded a year or two later and the only person really to benefit was the lawyer.

If you have been through the process of starting your own business, you’ll be aware of just how precious cash is.  It is difficult to justify setting a lot of money aside for professional fees when you’re worried about paying the electricity bill and the rent.  But when you can no longer resist that nagging voice you hear in the middle of the night and do pluck up the courage to make an appointment with Big Law LLP, it doesn’t help when the lawyer you see gives you a list as long as your arm of tasks you need him (or her) to carry out RIGHT NOW!  You know the sort of thing:

  • incorporation
  • shareholders’ agreement
  • director’s service contracts
  • employment terms
  • freelancer agreements
  • privacy policy
  • terms of use for your website
  • terms and conditions of sale
  • review of bank documents
  • procurement terms
  • trade mark registration
  • data protection notification
  • distribution agreements
  • blah blah blah

And before you know it, all your money has been spent on the legals.  In the event that the business is a sustainable success immediately with little further need of cash, you’re sorted.  For everyone else though, the £1000s you’ve just spent is likely to be a significant overspend at best, or a complete waste of money at worst.  But at least you’re keeping the law firm’s equity partners in cushy new Mercedes leather seats, so that’s something at least.

Because we specialise in the commercialisation process, we deal with a lot of start-ups.  I mean A LOT of start-ups.  That’s because most innovation is done by early stage companies, so it’s not surprising.  We try to put time into those start-ups because most of them will become clients eventually, if not right away.  Not having much in the way of spare cash ourselves, you could say that this time is our marketing spend.  But the key with start-ups is to work out what they really definitely absolutely have to do with a lawyer right now.  And the honest answer for most of them is… well, not a whole lot.

So you’re average growth-oriented start-up will already have incorporated. It won’t want a shareholders’ agreement because it will be looking for equity investment and the investment agreement will stand as the shareholders’ agreement going forward. Yes, it’ll need some help with the employment terms for directors and workers, but this probably doesn’t have to be bespoke at this stage.  It’s likely to be some way off being market ready, so terms and conditions etc are not a big issue.  And brand protection is something that you need to worry about in the immediate run up to your launch, but it’s probably a risk you can afford to run until then.  And if you don’t want to risk it, you can do it yourself, with a bit of guidance.

The question is, how do you access that kind of advice.  How do we find you?  Back in the money-laden days of ONE Northeast, programmes were plentiful, allowing us to earn a modest living delivering workshops and clinics with rooms, projectors, tea and coffee all supplied.  Nine times out of ten, these programmes were entirely free to attend, which meant that on average, about 20% of those who registered didn’t attend and about another 20% failed to make it through to the end.

But nobody is paying us to deliver workshops these days.  In fact, one well-known local QUANGO recently asked us to pay them for the privilege of delivering further workshops for them.  We politely refused.

We still need to find you.  You still need to find us.

Fortunately for us all, most people who are starting a business don’t stand on ceremony.  The marble halls of Dickinson Dees are one of our best marketing tools.  If you want the biggest law firm in the region, use them not us.  If you don’t, why pay their rates?  And if you don’t want to pay their rates, you probably aren’t fussed about their conference suites and cocktails on tap.  Well, they don’t have cocktails on tap. I made that bit up.

Being officeless (and paperless and secretaryless), we spend a lot of time meeting clients and colleagues in the cafés of the north of England.  And we spend a lot of time engaged in social media.  So I thought, why not have a crack at staging a clinic ourselves.  In a café that everyone knows, marketing it via Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and Google+.  I asked people to get in touch and make free half hour appointments, even last minute if necessary.  But I knew that even if nobody did, I’d still have to go and sit in the café for the day.  That’s not such a chore, really, is it?

But they did come.  Six of them.  All start-ups or early stage businesses.  None of them existing clients and only one of them properly known to me (a certain Vicki Stone Marketing).  They came.  They bought cake, They talked.  And we started the process of building a relationship.

I called it The #CafeClinic.  And I’m going to do more of them, with the next being on Wednesday 13th March at Whites at Boho One in Middlesbrough.  So if you see a tweet mentioning a future #CafeClinic or a LinkedIn status confirming where and when, could you do us and the nation’s start-up community a favour and just pass it on?  We might even buy you a coffee…

A Bad Smell in the Legal Sector

I felt there was a really nasty niff about the way big commercial firm DWF (who acquired Crutes on Tyneside) pulled out of acquiring Cobbetts, a big Manchester/Leeds practice, preferring to let that firm go under so as to purchase the rump from the administrators than to bail it out. Cobbetts’ creditors will recover tuppence in the pound. It turns out that I wasn’t alone.

Now there was nothing unlawful in what DWF did.  ‘Pre-pack’ deals suck as far as unsecured creditors are concerned, they are intended to keep businesses going and prevent redundancies (although how sustainable such business models might be and how safe those employees feel is open to question).  And you might like the idea of using a firm that operates like this.  I mean, they’re sly, sharp, ruthless, perhaps everything you want out of your solicitor.  Unless, of course, you are one of the creditors of the Cobbetts insolvency.

If you think that the way DWF behaved is exactly what you want from a law firm acting on your behalf, relax.  It’s OK.  That’s your choice.  DWF may not be Wolfram & Hart.  Not yet, anyway.  But you will never be happy as a client of *particular.  We believe that there is something more to being a lawyer than just short term calculations in pounds and pence.  DWF’s actions have secured it a significant turnover boost at a bargain price, but the long term cost is the effect of their purchase on their values.

We believe that law is a business yes, but it’s still a profession.  Thank goodness that after all, we are not the only ones thinking this way.

The Power of the Apology

It’s amazing how reluctant people are to apologise.  I just don’t understand it.

I arrived for my physio appointment today.  I’ve been having some difficulties with my lower back since a spasm on holiday last year.  I’ve been referred for physio and in 6 visits to the physiotherapy, I’ve had 4 appointments.  This is because I showed up for an appointment in December to be told that my appointment was earlier in the day (at a time that would have seen me in the playground, dropping my youngest at school).  I had the appointment time in my diary.  Let’s just say that I was encouraged to conclude that something had gone wrong with said diary.

This morning it happened again.  Only this time, I was told that my appointment, which had been scheduled at 3 weeks since the previous appointment, didn’t exist at all.  In fact, they had no record of any appointment for me since the one that I “missed” (their word) in early December.  So the appointments since then must have been my imagination, presumably.  In any case, apparently the system is entirely reliable.

I was offered a further appointment a week hence and this time I asked the receptionist to write it down.  She did.  There was a pregnant pause.  Not even the vaguest hint of a nuance of apology.  Not even a sympathetic smile.  Nothing.  “So I suppose I’ll be seeing you next week then”, I said, turning to leave.  Still nothing.

An apology is not an admission of fault or of wrongdoing.  It is an expression of sympathy for the difficulties that somebody has suffered as a result of something that you have been involved in.  Yes, apologies are often, usually perhaps, accompanied by admissions of guilt, but the two are NOT the same thing.  You can apologise for the problems somebody faces without accepting the blame for those problems.

Now, it may well be that the cause of the first “missed” appointment was my diary management.  But the second phantom appointment?  Seems a bit of a co-incidence.  It may well be a co-incidence.  The point is that I had wasted an hour of a day in which I have client work stacking up out the door AND I will have to come back next week as well.

“I’m sorry you’ve had a wasted journey.  It looks like between us, we’ve managed to have a problem somewhere.  We’re fully booked now but here’s a card with your appointment next week.  Bring it with you next time and at least that will help us trace the problem if it happens again”.

That would have been fine.  I would have left feeling very positive.  Oh, it could have been my fault, unlikely as it seems.  They are going to try to make sure it doesn’t happen again.  They feel my metaphorical pain.  Warm glow.

Every law firm that I have ever worked at would fight tooth and nail against any semblance of an admission of guillt, meaning that complaints would be refuted, sometimes quite aggressively, without any apology.  And in these connected times, the sour taste left in the mouth of the client can be shared instantly with 100s, perhaps 1000s of others.

When we wrote the *particular complaints policy, we started with an apology.  Not saying we immediately accept the blame.  Any suggestion that we accept blame for all complaints in something as general as a complaints policy is, of course, ridiculous.  But since the main reason that somebody felt it necessary to read our complaints policy would be because they feel they have something to complain about, it seemed to me that the appropriate thing to do for my firm is to express sympathy immediately by saying that we’re sorry the individual concerned felt s/he had cause to feel as s/he did.  When we started working with that person, doubtless the mood was relentlessly positive.  Something has happened that has reversed that trend.  We’re sorry about that.

It’s when things go wrong that your service ethic has a real chance to shine.  The stone wall defence is kryptonite to the goodwill you have tried so hard to build.  But expressing your humanity in the form of some simple kindness costs you very little.  An apology may often not be enough in itself, but failing to offer it will only accelerate the downward spiral your customer has commenced.

The Lawyer Vs. The Law Firm – a response

I read a post published recently by Canadian legal sector consultant Jordan Furlong.  To say that it resonated was something of an understatement.  But I didn’t agree with all of his conclusions.  You can read his post here and this was my response.

Jordan, your article is a clarion call that strategists in commercial law firms around the world should heed or face extinction.  And of course, for that reason I expect little change in 2013, meaning by 2014, the traditional law firm is no more than a plump turkey waiting to be pulled apart by more astute commercial players.

Why is this?  Because traditionally law firms reward big billers and rain makers with promotion to management status, whereas those actually skilled in longer term business development and strategy are overlooked.  Lawyers are inherently self-interested and are forced to work together out of need and those at the top of the trees all to often are arrogant and unwilling to consider that there may be any other path.

But here’s the thing.  Whilst it may be that big enterprise likes to align itself with one firm or another, ultimately law is a relationship business.  When you look across the UK legal scene (which is where I work), you see a vast array of firms and to the business owner or manager, almost every single one of them is seen as a substitute for another.  Which firms could be excepted from that analysis. Pannone perhaps, or maybe Slaughter & May.  I can’t think of any others that have their own distinct personality.

In my father’s day, the lawyer was at the heart of the client relationship.  Networks were personal.  Not because they were jealously guarded, but because professionals in market towns naturally grouped themselves into non-competitive alignments with fellows who thought like they did.  But this changed in the 80s when English firms were allowed to start marketing themselves.  As a result, the idea of a central law firm identity, a brand, started to take priority over the individual lawyers.  But of course lawyers didn’t know what a brand was – and many, most perhaps, still don’t.

The attitude of the individual lawyer towards cross-selling is guarded not merely because of his or her doubts over the quality of service that might be provided by a colleague of which s/he knows little.  The lawyer protects his or her contacts because of the very pressure s/he faces to cross-sell.  I can’t count the number of times at the larger provincial practices for whom I worked when, faced with a client need out of the ordinary, I would approach a dept head or team leader for permission to refer said client out to a specialist I had found at another firm only to be told “Jenkins does that sort of thing, or something similar or he’ll work it out”.  Why? Because equity partners are not motivated by long term gain through first class customer service.  They are motivated by the scale of their drawings, which themselves depend upon the revenue generated within the tax year.

When I decided to set my firm up in 2011, I decided to do everything, EVERYTHING, different.  Why fight our client’s desire to bond with their adviser?  Why not to sell ourselves through our support of that relationship?  For our consultants, why try to restrict what they do with their contacts and clients? Why impose covenants on them? Why force them to cross-sell.  Instead, new would-be consultants are told that should they wish to leave, not only will they not be restricted, they are positively encouraged and will leave us with our blessing.  If they wish to refer their clients to advisers outside the firm, that is absolutely their decision.

We do this because when we set the firm up, we decided first to build a brand (not an identity, an actual brand) and then see where we went from there.  So we created a values document that all of our advisers must not only sign up to, but must make sing out through their work.  And that values document is provided to all of our clients so that they can hold us to account.  So we can be confident in the absence of controls over our people, because they wouldn’t be with us in the first place if they weren’t the RIGHT KIND of people.  And so we don’t push our brand on the clients of our lawyers.  And it’s by operating this way that our clients love us so much.

Which brings us back to where you started, and the idea of the growth-by-merger fallacy.  When two large firms combine, what analysis is made as to the qualities of the lawyers at the coalface?  Practically none.  Or if there is, it’s merely about their ability to bill as opposed to their ability to build a long term relationship with their clients through which those clients might place total trust in the fidelity of their lawyer.  Because a merger between two firms is not about the building of economies of scale, it’s about the building of megaliths that massage the egos and satisfy the avarice of their equity partners.

Thus far, the focus in England post-Legal Services Act has been on the destruction that is to be reaped upon the High Street sector by the likes of the supermarkets and other large consumer brands.  But there is a tsunami that is going to overwhelm the commercial side also before long.  Insurers, business consultants, accountants, unions even, are all bigger than us and better resourced and much more astute in a commercial sense.

The future for quality legal resource is, as you mention, niche.

Sometimes It’s the Little Things…

My wife and I were on holiday in San Francisco. It was a Saturday night and we decided upon dinner in the world famous Chinatown district. Whilst in the bar, waiting for our table, I caught sight of something moving on a beam in the ceiling. It was just a shadow at first, but soon, the “thing” revealed itself to be a rat. We left quickly, along with about a dozen other would-be diners, most of whom spoke no English but got the message from my hand gestures and my wife’s look of surprised disgust. Let’s just say it wasn’t one of those almost-cute rats they sell at Pets-R-Us.

When you’re about to eat in an unknown city in a district known not to have the world’s highest hygiene standards, you do have to give careful thought about whether to eat at the restaurant where you can see the rat in the bar, or the restaurant where the rat is unseen. Nevertheless, on the whole, we felt it better to go for the latter and take our chances. As you see, we lived to tell the tale.

Seth Godin, whose blog I follow daily, wrote a very successful management book called ‘Purple Cow’, all about the power of the huge marketing idea. He’s clearly right and after all, who am I to detract from that. However, in these days of 24/7 mobile connectivity, the little things can be just as important. And even when they are not communicated on a global, national or even regional scale, they can still lose you custom immediately.

After 4 years at law firm BHP, my colleague Deb McGargle and I decided to strike out on our own, launching a digital business (www.particular.pro) and a low-overheads law firm. These businesses required bank accounts, of course, and after false starts with Yorkshire Bank (who, frankly, could scarcely have sounded less enthusiastic) and then Handelsbanken (whose famous ‘church spire’ policy was revealed to be targeted only at businesses with turnovers above £5 million), we turned to Barclays, where we were greeted energetically. It was at this time that I noticed that every person I met from Barclays wrote their email address (and occasionally their mobile phone number too) on the back of their business card before handing it over. I have quite a collection. Now, were I a little less sophisticated in the black arts of marketing, I might not realise that this is in fact a deliberate ploy to create a personal bond via the biro and instead suspect that the business card itself, which provided no useful information other than the name of the individual and the branch at which they are based, is intended to limit the personal contact between executive and customer and to channel those communications to call centres where the relationship can be homogenised and economised. Or… perhaps not.

And then I noticed that the address on the card of our account executive (whom we love dearly, naturally) was the subject of a typo: “120 Grainers Street” as opposed to the actual 120 Grainger Street. It turns out that according to Mr Google, there’s no Grainers Street in the country, which was a bit of a surprise to me. So really, his card was entirely useless save as a reminder as to the name of the individual we just met.

Now, when I’m choosing a bank, pardon me for saying that I think the occasional typographical slip, perhaps less important in other professions, might have drastic consequences for our businesses. Still, time was running out and we decided to risk it. I haven’t told him yet. I’m sure he’ll be mortified when he notices.

It’s not just banks that do it, obviously. I wasted hours in marketing meetings at BHP during which all but nothing was decided. I remember one meeting where we spent half an hour debating whether the decrepit flagpole on the front of the Newcastle office should be replaced or simply removed. In the end, the decision was taken to invest in a new flagpole standing out from the first storey of the building at a fine 30 degree angle and with it, a new flag bearing the new brand identity, the first raising of which would have been quite a moving occasion, I would imagine. But I was walking along the Quayside a couple of weeks ago and noticed that the flag was flying upside down. It left me wondering what business owner would choose to trust his enterprise to a law firm that was so slapdash it couldn’t fly its own flag the right way up.

Of course, I don’t mean that BHP is slapdash.  Far from it.  Some of the most able lawyers that I have ever worked with are there.  But that’s the impression that the firm was giving.

Look around you. There are so many things that you barely notice but which influence your buying decisions almost sub-consciously, especially when those purchases are at premium prices or where they are really important. One of the things I like about staying at Claridges (which I do all too rarely) is not so much the glorious art deco design or the depth of the carpet weave, but the discreet but instant sensitive service that is always on hand. Just little tiny things. Nothing is too much trouble. You never need to look for somebody to help. There is always someone at hand. It’s not something you can put in a strategy document. It’s an approach that is honed over decades of service and adherence to brand values that permeate everything at the hotel from the training of staff to the serving of afternoon tea. I have decided that when we are internet millionaires, Claridges will be our pied-a-terre in town.

The big marketing ideas can help you win big. But it’s the little touches that will make or break you in the long term, especially if you are a service business. You must operate on the basis that everything you do is always on show. Only then can you achieve an aspirational status.

Sometimes, it really *is* the fault of the lawyers…

Justice secretary Ken Clarke has announced that there are to be changes to the rules on ‘no win no fee’ arrangements between lawyers and their clients. In case you’re not aware, these are the arrangements that allow “lawyers” (for which, by and large, read the call centres of companies whose revenue comes from the referral of potential claimants to solicitors) to advertise their services as offered at no cost to the prospective client. These arrangements, properly known as “conditional fee agreements”, mean that should a claimant be unsuccessful in his or her claim, they are not required to pay anything to their lawyers for the services rendered. In return, lawyers receive a nice bonus should the case be won.

Shamelessly, Clarke appeared on the Today Programme (@r4today) this week, decrying the fleecing of the NHS and poor innocent insurance companies who have had to pay multi-millions on an annual basis to crafty lawyers. ‘This is not how it was supposed to work’, he shouts, ‘and we’re all paying’. But let’s be clear, it’s not just the lawyers that benefit from these arrangements. There are the Mercedes dealers, the country clubs, the Rolex retailers. And those corporate palaces in the centre of England’s fair cities don’t just build themselves, you know. Honestly, Clarke is supposed to be a business specialist. Isn’t he aware of the multiplier effect? We’re keeping these people in business. And if it wasn’t for no win no fee, daytime TV would be deprived of the majority of its revenue. And what would Trisha do then?

You’d think, given the explosion in litigation over the last decade, that the no win no fee agreements were invented by a Conservative government. Actually they were, but they only really took off in the late 90s when the Labour government decided to do away with Legal Aid for most forms of litigation. By way of compromise for those complaining that access to justice would be denied for those most in the need, who are usually those who are least able to afford a lawyer to advise and represent them, the administration decided that “success fees” earned by lawyers would be recoverable from the losing party. In addition, because of the principle in English Courts that the loser pays the winners legal costs, it was also proposed that insurance premiums charged for covering the risk that a case might be lost should also be recoverable.

Quite possibly, back when these reforms were first contemplated, not even the most optimistic lawyer could have expected the litigation revolution that was to follow. This was because of the innovations that followed.

First, “claims farmers” were allowed to enter the market with glossy TV advertising. Anybody contacting one of these companies claiming to have what looked like a dead cert case was then sold on to the highest bidding firm of solicitors with all the grace of a sheepskin clad football agent approaching the gates of Old Trafford with his arm around the latest wunderkind. This was the reality of access to justice in the post-Thatcher age.

Second, and I still sometimes have to pinch myself about this, the legal expenses insurers came up with a tremendous wheeze. The premiums that clients had been expected to pay for the insurance cover that would eliminate their risk altogether were themselves insured. And the payment terms were that the premium would be paid at the end of the case. If the case is lost, the insurance policy pays the premium. If the case is won, the losing party pays the premium. And then the same companies would provide finance to pay the fees of barristers and expert witnesses and insure those costs too. Lost cases are rare, but you can imagine that the hit an insurer takes when such a case arises is such that the premiums charged are massive. And the losing party, or, more usually, the losing party’s insurer, foots the bill. Oh those poor insurance companies, being fleeced by, er, those other insurance companies.

Given the availability of “legally trained experts” (honestly, this is what one of the present crop of claims farmers purports to offer in its current TV campaign), able to assist anyone with the semblance of a claim with no risk whatsoever AND the guarantee that all damages awarded will be safeguarded for the claimant (this being de rigeur after the scandal of the miners required to pay the referral fees to their claims farmers out of their damages), who can possibly be surprised that the litigation culture spread through England and Wales like swine ‘flu?

So, was this access to justice? Well, not if you were wanting to pursue a commercial litigation or intellectual property claim, where costs remained high but because of the greater number of variables, very few lawyers were brave enough to offer no win no fee agreements. I tried twice and both times had my fingers burned by clients that, how shall I put it, strategically withheld information that, when uncovered at the crucial time, utterly undermined their cases. I never did it again.

And not for the Defendants. Not any Defendants. Not that conditional fee agreements are forbidden for Defendants. It’s just that, if you were to represent a Defendant, how would you go about describing just what constitutes success? Litigation is not a black and white issue but is pursued in shades of grey. And not for two of the key areas of justice for private individuals: family, where legal aid remains, and criminal proceedings, where that legal aid is universal, regardless of means. And in employment matters, lawyers have always been allowed to act in return for a share of the winnings, something that is strictly forbidden in normal court proceedings.

And obviously, if your case is tricky; if you have clearly suffered but the evidence pinning the blame on someone else is suspect; if you have been injured but that has merely aggravated a pre-existing condition, you’re going to find your choice of lawyer radically reduced. That is, if you ever had a choice, because the lawyer that you get to use will probably be dictated by your insurance company or by the claims farmer you called.

Access to justice? Not really.

Does it have to be this way? No. I’m not saying that lawyers don’t do a good job. Of course they do. And anybody thinking that running a law firm is a licence to print money should wake up and smell the freshly ground. Times is tough, folks. In personal injury and most other areas as well. There are loads of conscientious lawyers whose primary aim is to find a way to help their clients to secure their objectives and only then try to make it pay. Dozens, literally.

In the dying days of the last Labour government, then Justice Secretary Jack Straw commissioned a report on the chaos that is the field of legal costs from Lord Justice Jackson. The resulting Jackson Report recommended that success fees and insurance premiums cease to be recoverable from the opponent and that to make the system work, levels of damages be lifted by 25% across the board. So the insurers still pay, but at least the claimants have something at stake and therefore have an incentive to look around for the best deal. And the lawyers that will lose out are only those that have made a living out of litigating over the levels of costs recoverable.

Somehow, I still don’t find this satisfactory. It still doesn’t address the imbalance between claimants and uninsured defendants, nor does do much to enable those engaged in commercial disputes find competent yet affordable representation. For some reason, we have chosen to make it so much more complicated than the way it works in the USA, where a lawyer can take a percentage of his or her client’s damages and businesses know that they have to budget a certain amount for defending litigation, and then keep skilled lawyers on retainer for that very purpose. The USA is where the phrase “ambulance chaser” was invented. It’s also the home of community justice, public law centres and the like. You don’t find many over there complaining about the absence of access to justice. They just get on with it. And if a party does behave really badly, an American court can still order that party to pay the other’s legal costs, but that is very much the exception.

The problem is that we are building not on virgin ground but with the conviction that we must imitate what existed before. And what existed before was an unsustainable legal aid system that protected the legally aided party to the extent that in 99% of cases, the losing legally aided litigant could not be required to pay the winning party’s costs. And yet were the result to be reversed, the losing party would have to repay the Legal Aid Board for the subsidies it had paid to the opponent’s lawyer. Compared with that, the current conditional fee system seems sensible, even though allowing a Claimant to pursue litigation without having to put anything on the table him or herself is to pursue a system that has no real foundation in reality. And in the realm of unreality, the bizarre is merely ordinary. Conclusion: lawyers are afraid of the new system not because there is any real jeopardy to access to justice – at least no more than there is already – but because they don’t want the job of having to explain to their – our – clients that they will have to invest in the process themselves. And what of the claims farmers? Let them find another market to leach on, say I. Something tells me they won’t go hungry.

You Will Be Assimilated

KPMG has launched a funded programme that will support talented school leavers through a degree at Durham University and then into qualification as a baby chartered accountants.  These undergraduates are to divide their time between university and KPMG’s practice.  KPMG says it wants these school leaver schemes to provide the majority of its annual trainee recruitment.  Catrin Griffiths, editor of The Lawyer magazine, argues this week that law firms should be doing the same.  I think she’s bonkers.  Here’s why.

Who the hell knows what they want to do at 18?  All I was interested in was beer, Van Halen (it was 1987, I’m much cooler now, 20 years too late) and Norwich City Football Club.  In fact, when I left university, the only thing I knew for certain was that I didn’t want to be a lawyer.  Indeed, my university career constituted a record of galactic underachievement.  At the end of the first term of the second year, Prof Phil Williams, who was in many ways my mentor, left the university to take up the Chair of Politics at Chicago University.  Before he departed, he told me that he would be looking for my name on the list of those achieving first class honours.  “Right,” thought I, “I can spend the next 18 months living it up, in the process generally avoiding work wherever possible and still come out with a 2(1).”  Which I did, and ended up with a 2(ii).  Cue stock market crash, general global recession and no job.  Welcome to the real world, 1991

Of course, my indecision might also have had something to do with the fact that I came from a family of lawyers.  My father was a partner in a mid-sized law firm and went on to be a barrister.  My maternal grandfather was a High Court judge and was the Chief Justice of The Bahamas (where I was born).  My baby brother became a barrister.  I even married a barrister.  In fact, when I’m presenting, I sometimes introduce myself, being the only solicitor in the family, as – get this – the white sheep of the family.  Oh, I crack myself up.

Of course, everyone knows somebody that is the exception to the rule.  My wife watched an episode of Crown Court when she was 10 and from that moment she only ever wanted to be a barrister.  In fact, sometimes I think she’s only really happy when destroying witnesses in cross-examination or waxing lyrical to a jury.  She’s now one of the pre-eminent practitioners in her field in the region and was appointed two years ago as a Recorder.  To you non-lawyers, that’s a part-time Crown Court judge, not a beginner’s woodwind instrument, which would, of course, be ridiculous.

But as a rule of thumb, when an A-level studying work experience person (a “WEP”, as we like to call them) tells me that they want to be a solicitor more than anything else in the world, I give them the bent eye.  “Really?” I quip.  “When I was your age, I still wanted to be an astronaut”.  In fact, I never wanted to be an astronaut.  I’m terrified of heights.

I have found, in delivering seminars and such like at universities across the north of England, that by and large, trying to do anything useful with undergraduates is a waste of time and valuable one-liners.  The lecture hall is divided between dozing largely British undergraduates playing hangman on their iBerrys, and attentive largely Asian students sat across the front rows respectfully tapping every word I utter into their laptops.  Neither group interjects with anything useful.  The odd snore or snigger from the back is especially unhelpful.  I’m not sure whether either group comes out of the session particularly advantaged.

But would I want to change their attitudes?  No.  Because life is about a gradual dawning of opportunity and motivation.  And when you’re 18, you need to give that process time.  Being forced, whether by ambitious parents, short sighted careers advisers or pressure from an international financial megalith into a lifetime vocational commitment is a short cut to a mid-life crisis.

When making choices about recruitment, I will take the candidate with real world diverse experience over the tunnel vision squint of the person that went straight from school to university to work.   Subsidising school leavers through university, post-graduate qualification and training may work for KPMG, but accountancy is about numbers.  Law is about people.