Selling legal services online
About 4 years ago I decided to discontinue legal aid work and develop a
specialist niche practice, my specialist area being private residential landlord
and tenant work, particularly evictions. As a sole practitioner I feel happier
working within a narrow area of law I know well and this also allows me to
become a specialist which in turn opens up opportunities for writing and
lecturing. However I needed to reach a wider market in order to make a
reasonable living from my legal practice.
by Tessa Shepperson
I therefore launched a web-site to advertise my work for landlords. However
through running a Q&A page on this site I became aware that many people were
wholly ignorant of their legal rights and obligations, and feedback showed that
they would be prepared to pay for a site with enhanced content. I therefore
launched a subscription site called Landlord-Law Online
(www.landlordlaw.co.uk) in December 2001 to meet this need.
What's On the Site
The site consists of two areas - an open area which is free to view and a
members-only area. The fee for members is £20 for four months or £50 for a
The main purpose of the open area is to tell people about the site and show
them what I can do so hopefully they will decide to subscribe. An important part
of this is the Q&A section. For some years I have answered 10 questions from
the public every two weeks, which serves as a "shop window" for my work.
Anyone can see the current Q&A but only members can access past ones. This
is one of the most popular parts of the site and many people regularly log in to
see what is new. I would go so far as to say that the Q&A is a major factor in the
success of the site. I have also deliberately tried to make the site as a whole feel
friendly, and to write in a chatty informal style which will hopefully not put people
Other free content consists of a Law Reform section with government and other
papers on housing law reform (which I find is now often used as an online
resource, particularly by students), an extensive links and contacts section, and
a book review section. Members-only content includes a large database of tips,
FAQs, articles, and forms, and members can instruct me online to do fixed fee
legal work at special rates. There is also a regular newsletter.
The site is definitely a success. Over 1,000 members have joined and we are
now getting over 17,000 visitors per month. Most of my work now comes via the
site, and the subscriptions are generating a healthy income. Members include
not only landlords and tenants but also letting agents, housing advisors and
lawyers, and a growing number are choosing to subscribe by standing order.
Advantages of the Site
Fees. All fees are paid in advance. Legal services consist of standard
possession proceedings, drafting tenancy agreements, and a "catch all" £50
advice service which can be used for unusual problems and where I can assess
and give a quotation for non standard work. These services are only available
if payment is received in advance which does away entirely with chasing unpaid
bills and bad debts.
Terms and conditions. All members and clients have to accept my terms and
conditions via the subscription and instruction process. These are permanently
available on the site to view, as is my complaints procedure, plus full details of
costs and expenses for possession claims with details of the work done. The
online forms also provide for compliance with the distance selling regulations.
I now refuse to act for clients (other than longstanding clients) unless they have
followed my online procedure.
The work. I can now deal with this much quicker as, for example, all the
possession proceedings I do are standard. Because the information I need is
provided via the online forms and the paperwork which clients send to me, I am
generally able to deal with the work easily and promptly. Drafting work takes a
little longer, but even then, it is quicker to receive instructions in a written form
than it is to see the client in the office.
Client base. I can now reach a much wider market. It is not important where
people are geographically, and indeed, I often act for ex-pat landlords who find
it easier to instruct a solicitor via the internet.
Cash flow. This has been greatly improved. Having a larger number of small
fees has made my income more regular and of course I now have a completely
new income stream from the subscription payments.
Job satisfaction. I enjoy writing and working via the site, and I find it very exciting
to be developing a new type of service. I used to run a traditional litigation
practice but I now find this work stressful. I still do my possession proceedings
but I limit these to straightforward cases where it is appropriate for me to act at
a distance (I am developing a database of solicitors to whom I can in future refer
the more complex work). Also, it is extremely convenient for me as a mother
with family responsibilities to be able to control the hours I work.
Clients. From the client's point of view there are also major advantages. The site
is always available for them to use, 24 hours a day, and for many members this
is all they want. If they wish to instruct me this can be done easily via the web,
and they know exactly how much it is going to cost them.
Factors to be Considered
Cost. The initial setup cost (although very reasonable for what it was) was a lot
of money to find at that time. This is quite a complex site. My web designer not
only had to set up a secure area for online payment, but also deal with
passwords and create several different types of page (Q&A, online instruction
forms etc). I also have to pay for hosting and maintenance and further
development. There have been two complete overhauls since it was launched,
and there will be further new features this year. However, this is essential; you
must continually develop, innovate, and improve the service.
Maintenance. This includes reviewing existing and uploading fresh material, and
dealing with problems that arise. Also, there are a constant stream of emails
from members which must be dealt with promptly. Even on holiday I have to log
in to my email every day.
Skills. As my own "webmaster" I have had to learn quite a few technical skills,
for example I can write straightforward html and create online forms using
Marketing. As my service is different and new I have to go out and tell people
about it. This means doing talks and writing articles. I also have to market the
site via the internet and I now use a specialist firm to improve my sites rating in
the search engines. Marketing is vital.
Legal Online Services In General
Overall, I am delighted with Landlord-Law Online and the advantages it has
brought me. So why are there not more solicitors firms offering online services?
I suspect that some of the reasons are as follows.
The winds of change are blowing at the start of this new century and not least
in the legal profession where traditional practice is becoming increasingly
bureaucratic and stressful. Many lawyers are despondent about the profession
and its future. However the internet, which is developing at a remarkable rate (I
understand that a significant proportion of the population already now have
broadband) will undoubtedly bring many changes in the years to come, not least
in the delivery of legal services. We need to see this as an opportunity and not
a threat, and use the advantages it can bring to ourselves and to our clients. If
we do not, others will undoubtedly do so and the legal profession may lose out
in what could eventually develop into a lucrative area of work.
- Most of the partners now running high street practices were at university in the
1960's to the 1980's. At that time computers were large mainframe machines
using stripy green paper and cards punched with holes, whose operators
needed to learn new "computer languages". They were generally avoided by
arts and law students (including myself) who found them incomprehensible.
Computers and their use are therefore often wholly unfamiliar territory to most
- Also solicitors tend to be traditional creatures and slow to embrace newfangled
technology. (I understand that 100 years ago many firms similarly regarded the
telephone with deep disquiet.) As a result, I suspect that many firms have not
even considered developing an internet presence apart from a basic "brochure"
web-site. If they do, the project will probably be handed over to a member of
staff or junior partner (as the more senior partners want nothing to do with it)
and then ignored, other than when requests are made for funding at which time
its failure to produce instant results will often be used as a justification for
- Even when an internet service is set up, it will often feel rather impersonal
(because writing for the ordinary person and the web is not a skill most lawyers
have) and information may be presented in a way which is difficult for the
ordinary person to read and understand. Even if the site is an excellent one,
there will often be a failure to market it properly, for example through the search
engines. For all these reasons existing online services tend not to be very
successful which then discourages people from expanding them further or from
developing new services.
- The delivery of legal services via the internet is a relatively new concept and on
the whole it takes a long time for any new service to become known and
accepted by potential clients. During its first year my online service barely
covered its costs. Although I consider this to be an excellent result (bearing in
mind that many Internet big success stories still haven't made a proper profit),
many traditional firms might consider this to be unacceptable. Also unless there
is at least one person in the firm who is prepared (and allowed) to lavish a lot of
time and care on the site, monitor its progress, and move it forward, it will just
stagnate. This person really needs to be a partner or the sole principal, i.e.
someone with the clout to see that things get done and someone who is not
going to leave the firm just as the service is getting going. Firms though, in these
stringent times, will be reluctant to allow a fee earning member to spend so
much time on something which may not benefit the firm in the immediate future.
With a little imagination I believe that a strong internet presence can enhance
all areas of legal practice and help practitioners face the future with confidence.
However it is not a "quick fix" and those looking to develop an online presence
should take a long term view.
Tessa Shepperson is a sole practitioner whose practice TJ Shepperson is based
in Norwich. Her online service can be viewed at
www.landlordlaw.co.uk and her
email is email@example.com.
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