Internet Newsletter for Lawyers
March/April 2004, by Delia Venables

Selling legal services online
Landlord-Law Online
by Tessa Shepperson

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.

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 year.

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 off.

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 Adobe Acrobat.

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.

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 tessa@tjshepperson.co.uk.

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