Accountancy Survey. Accounting for the accountants

A survey has revealed that accountants are not delivering the services law firms want. The fourth annual survey by The Lawyer and chartered accountancy firm Baker Tilly makes depressing reading for accountants.

Despite accountants' marketing, brochures and stated commitment to client service, many solicitors remain dissatisfied.

Quotes such as “they could show basic interest in the development of the firm” or “I would welcome more practical involvement” and “should be more proactive” highlight this disappointing trend.

Accountants must improve if they want to maintain and develop their role as strategic and business advisers to this sector.

Although the percentage of lawyers who have not changed their accountants this year has risen from 67 per cent to 82 per cent, this conceals the fact that 50 per cent of smaller firms have felt obliged to change.

Additionally, most law firms questioned criticise accountants for one or more of the following reasons:

failing to address their need for more or better advice than they were getting;

an inability to generate constructive or cost-effective ideas; and

poor service and response times.

This survey and its predecessors show that, logically, law firms seek accountancy firms which understand their requirements and give value for money, although fee levels are not the most important reason given for changing accountancy advisers.

More importantly, however, the survey shows that law firms want proactivity, problem solving skills and speedy response times, and these are the reasons they cited for changing their advisers.

But there are other key factors that can be cited when pinpointing the cause of solicitors' dissatisfaction.

Clive Parritt, chairman of Baker Tilly and a member of the firm's professional practices sector group, feels that insufficient flair and creativity is being offered to legal practices.

He said: “Accountancy firms must get closer to their clients. We must all try and think of ways to help them achieve their strategic goals.

“If the relationship is working well, I would expect to see the accounting firm involved regularly in the law firm's strategic planning sessions including sessions such as partner conferences, partner induction programmes and remuneration review processes.”

Parritt says that there can be no excuse for poor service it shows a lack of commitment. But the findings of this year's survey show latent dissatisfaction. He says lawyers with a grievance should raise it sooner, rather than later, thus preventing the grievance from festering.

Communication is a two-way process and if they seek improvement then lawyers need to be proactive, says Parritt.

“Often accountants could and would like to do more but feel constrained by the terms of their engagement,” he adds.

Lawyers, then, as clients, should make clear their requirements and see if their existing advisers can deliver before going to the expense and disruption of change.

Tim Luddington, who leads the professional practices group at Baker Tilly, says that as business professionals themselves, accountants have direct experience of running businesses and partnerships. This knowledge could be shared with their solicitor clients.

Luddington says: “The survey details the services which law firms regard as important and compares these with the level of performance achieved by accountants in delivering those services.

“The results show clearly why law firms continue to change advisers. They must surely feel that it is possible to achieve their delivery expectations in key areas such as problem solving, proactivity and value for money. Law firms do not change advisers just for financial reasons but because of poor service, lack of advice and failure to generate ideas.”

He adds: “The message for accountants is clear deliver what the client wants or lose your law firm clients.”

The survey highlights the fact that some law firms are getting very good advice while others are finding it hard to get even basic help.

Luddington suggests that unhappy law firms should review the position now by setting and agreeing with their accountancy advisers, service standards and methods of delivery in respect of key service aspects.